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Steve Robson

Marine Industry

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Do You Understand?


I've just been searching through Training Provider websites for a course I want to attend and the word "understand" appears on almost every course outline...

i.e...after this course/session you will understand etc...

The dictionary definition indicates that it is ok to use the word "understand" but I would never use it as a course or session outcome...

I have about 50 words I would use as an alternative...

Would you and do you use this word?

Dictionary definitions...

"Perceive the intended meaning of (words, a language, or speaker)"

"Perceive the significance, explanation, or cause of (something)"

"Be sympathetically or knowledgeably aware of the character or nature of"

21 Responses

  1. Action verbs

    I was always taught that objectives and aims should use action words that can be measured. So I never use understand in the way you state above. I have used ‘you will be able to demonstrate your understanding …’ but very rarely.

    It’s almost as bad as saying to a delegate ‘Do you understand?’ and taking their answer as a measure of the effectiveness of the training.

  2. What will the person be able to do or do differently?

    Hi Steve

    I agree with you both. When designing any learning intervention I always ask myself what the learner will be able to do, or do differently, as a result of the learning. So, instead of stating they will understand the off-side rule (and I do, incidentally!!) I would write that, by the end of the programme, you will be able to explain the off-side rule, outline the main elements of the off-side rule etc etc.

    Understand is too nebulous and internal. How will I know if they understand? By getting them to explain/describe/outline etc, so I use that.

    Happy New Year.


  3. Thanks

    Thanks Sue and Jenny

    All the big name Training Providers use it and these are the ones with accredited Training Skills courses so should they know better? Is this good practice?

    Completely agree that "Do you understand" can never be a question, therefore "You will understand" can never be an outcome or objective…

    Or can it?

  4. Websites

    "Here’s a couple of great web based resources for this subject"

    Thanks Garry, these were the 50 or so words I would use rather than understand…

    What I am really after is whether using the word "understand" is good practice. Some very big name Training Providers (not mentioning any names!) use it on almost every course outline…are they wrong?

    I happen to think they are but would really like to know if there is a golden rule?


  5. The understanding dilemma


    I tend not to use ‘understand’, but there is a case for it. The heritage behind objectives in a training context is behavioural. Consequently long-standing best practice in most of the L&D world is to use active verbs that describe a testable behaviour eg explain. Whether this is just a demonstrable version of understanding, and actually what you are seeking to achieve is a cognitive result – an understanding of the topic – rather than just being able to (potentially) parrot what you have been taught, is debatable. 
    The case for ‘understand’, however, rests on a different premise. When designing a learning event I will use as many objectives as are necessary to cover the requirement and I try to conform to the healthy discipline of expressing performance (in behavioural terms), conditions and outcomes. This gives a crucial foundation upon which to then consider the design. However, these objectives are often rather long, clumsy and of a particular style not always suitable for a non training audience. 
    So, with my marketing hat on, I will usually seek to make the objectives more accessible and attractive to the likely reader. In publicity material I do sometimes use ‘understand’ as that is often one of the outcomes potential delegates hope to achieve. Shame on me as an L&D professional! But I happen to be a marketing professional too, and I have that world’s best practice to consider too. I guess the trick is to get the two versions to be entirely congruent, even if they are expressed differently, and to use each version for the purpose for which they are best suited. 
    Now for the added degree of difficulty – designing and advertising trainer training programmes. They will soon pick you up if you use the marketing version and then teach them the full behavioural learning objective rules.  Life is never straightforward. 
  6. My personal view is this:

    Advertising material which is what we often immediately encounter can I think use the word ‘understand’, as the promotional material is only introducing and indicating the areas where knowledge and understanding will be acquired. Personally I’m not much bothered at this stage as I am simply scanning for the broad content of the programme. As a follow up however and as part of a request for further information I would then be interested in the finer detail.

    My own approach is to use R F Mager’s approach to Instructional Objectives and supply these to ‘in company’ clients when I give them a detailed outline of the programme.
    So in brief: In promotional material I am OK to see the word ‘understand’ appear. When I want details of the programme I then want to see the specifics of what the programme will achieve. I did try to create promotional material which used nothing but the Mager format. I didn’t think it was attractive and I suspected for many readers it would have been a barrier to their grasping the broad intent of the programme.

    I be interested in seeing how others have actually addressed this challenge and how the material is presented and is reacted to by clients.

    Mager, R.F. (1984). Preparing instructional objectives. (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: David S. Lake.

  7. Bitesize

    Just been looking through some more websites and almost impossible to find course descriptions without the word "understand"

    As some of you mentioned above this may not be such bad practice (although I would try to avoid the word wherever possible)


    Thought I would have one last try with my favourite computer training company and I don’t think understand appears so well done Bitesizre!


  8. Not a lot of people know this …

    but I think it’s a common feature to see the word ‘understand’ as part of a course objective.  I’m reminded of an L&D lecture during my CIPD studies days where the lecturer completely pulled me apart when I used this infamous word within an exercise.  So I well learnt the lesson not to use it!  Plus I also mentioned this during an interview where a training provider used said word.  I think I inadvertently trod on a few toes …  Seriously though I support the views already offered where understand is to be avoided, how on earth can understanding be measured any way???

  9. …..but just to play Devil’s Advocate……

    ….aren’t we verging on the attititude of "banning" a word for the sake of it……eg the "blackboard/chalkboard", "white coffee/coffee-with-milk" situation….or even "fun" (clappy hands etc!)

    I am fully in agreement that "understanding" can’t necessarily be measured, but do we really need to get really hot under the collar about the word?…..if a delegate on a course said, "Yes, I understand that….." or even "Ah, now I understand" would we immediately and automatically debate the word or insist on a clear and measurable demonstration of that understanding (whoops, sorry, "understand" is a banned word, must use an acceptably alternative) and the behavioural changes it wrought?

    Just a thought!



  10. Fun Fun Fun

    "fun" (clappy hands etc!)"

    Let’s keep "fun" out of this…2011 will be the year of no fun whatsoever and clappy hands and fluffy toys will be banned from training rooms.

    There was a documentary last night on BBC 3  about intelligence where understand was mentioned quite a bit. Sometimes appropriately and sometimes not…

    When it is used as "a better understanding of" I think it is more acceptable than "you will understand"…I really don’t see how anyone who does this for a living could write course description, marketing or otherwise that said "after this course you will understand"…

    I just don’t understand it…

  11. Less of a stand, more of an under(stand)

    If I see some good practice, I want to be able to do it. If I come across an interesting theory, I want to understand it. If I encounter a painting, I want to appreciate it. Ultimately, organisations, who pay the training bill, are most interested in the changed behaviour and are less interested in what goes on in people’s heads. And, especially in tough times, are rarely interested in the humanistic benefits for individuals.  

    But, for the most part, I am reluctant to reduce training to just a behavioural pursuit. A stimulus:response approach which disregards the intellectual domain, and the whole human dimension. I believe most people want to understand the practices they are being asked to apply. And are more likely to do it well if those practices resonate with their values or personal style.
    We encounter this everyday with the ‘have a nice day’ practices in many fast food outlets, or from those who are reading from a script in some distant call centre . You can tell when someone is merely following the behaviours they have been trained to do. Just notice the difference when you buy your sandwich from Pret or ring up Direct Line; it speaks volumes for their training.
    The problem with purely behavioural objectives, if we are not careful – and I’ll say that again, if we are not careful – is that they can lead to rather two dimensional training that delivers on its promises. The objectives get met. But all the colour and life is squeezed out of it. Some of the best training – in terms of the learning experience and the ultimate outcomes – is often rich with practical tips, meaningful skills practice, feedback, new knowledge and insights, fresh understanding, a degree of stimulus and spark that motivates, a real connection with what people feel is right, and a greater connection between the sorts of discretionary behaviours that people give freely and the routes to increased performance and business results. Nirvana!
    The upshot of all of this is that maybe we should give more voice to the non-behavioural aspects, not as a separate species of learning but as a complementary force. If I am training nuclear scientists I’m pretty sure it is a good idea that they understand what they are doing. Having ‘a better understanding’ maybe OK sometimes, but it can sound a bit weak. Setting the bar higher needed not be a bad thing, nor unrealistic. As well as understanding, I’d be happier is those scientists also had some pretty solid behavioural routines, especially around safety. It would be good if they had some behavioural skills and competencies too. And, while we are at it, there may be benefit from them being aligned with the ethics of their research field. All these are legitimate learning outcomes that can be expressed in some form of learning goal, aim and/or objective.
    We can debate the semantic aspects of a word like ‘understand’ but I’m more interested in underlying factors that run through excellent L&D and how they can be adequately represented in a few words that we call objectives but are actually an expression of what the training is their to do and what individuals can expect to learn as a result. I’m starting to persuade myself that ‘understanding’ may not be such a bad idea after all.
    I’m just left with a not insignificant little challenge. How to you know if someone understands? A behaviour can usually be tested or measured, though testing a behaviour as a proxy for true understanding is not without problems. Asking people to explain, demonstrate or describe can at least give a small window into likely understanding. Or is that just a convenient illusion that we have learnt to hang on to?
  12. How do you know?

    "How to you know if someone understands?"

    Excellent post btw Graham…

    I think it’s a question of how do you know "how" someone understands which is why the word "understand" cannot be used

    as it is meaningless.

    You could have the most amazing training session ever and ask the delegates if they understand…of course they would all say yes

    but every yes would mean something different and is therefore a meaningless word that should never be used in a training room?

    I think…???




  13. A long time ago in a land far, far away…..

    …I was in the Army and I was responsible for the design, delivery and management of technical and leadership training.

    We used to use the term "understand" as well as the term "demonstrate ability in/of".

    For example, we might have an objective to ensure that trainees understood the international law regarding the Geneva Convention and the Rules of Engagement in different theatres of operations.  In order to ensure that the objective was fulfilled we would make trianees sit a "test"; a written examination (probably now administered by computer).  We might also have an objective to ensure that trainees had the ability to arm and defuse an explosive device in realistic conditions.  In order to ensure that this objective was fulfilled we would carry out a "practical exercise" where a trainee would be expected to demonstrate the arming and disarming of an explosive device in a ditch, in the rain, in the dark and under (simulated or controlled) fire.

    The former area was referred to as knowledge whilst the latter was referred to as skill.  One of the fundamental tenets of the design of our training evaluation was "never test a skill".

    In circumstances such as this I remain convinced that understanding is entirely legitimate, and I think this translates into the civilian world just as well; you want people to have understanding as well as ability……


  14. Understanding

    "you want people to have understanding as well as ability……"

    So when you ask them if they understand and they say yes…does that mean they understand?

    Understand is a completely meaningless word in the world of training because it has no measureability other than yes I do or no I don’t.

    However…"How has your understanding improved"? or "this course will increase your understanding" is perfectly acceptable…in my opinion of course!

    PS: I know its Friday afternoon but I’m not sure "measureability" is a real word?


  15. Results – Results – Results

    Not to sound negative, but i would be very careful not to invest in a training provider that uses an activity word instead of a results word.

    Tell me what the participants would be able to produce for themselves and for the company after training.

    That’s the evidence I would look for in a reliable training provider.

    — JR

  16. What kind of results


    I have considerable sympathy with focusing on results. I would certainly hope to express the benefits of any training as well as the objectives (the main benefits usually being the business results or impact). These two – benefits and objectives – should be closely aligned and often overlap. But the ultimate business results are usually a product of people applying their learning; they are a consequential outcome. They may be reflected in individuals’ personal objectives, in definitions of success and in level 4 type evaluation. The ‘learning objectives’ for a course or other learning activity, however, are more usually focused on an expression of the expected learning outcomes.

    Clearly best practice in the construction of objectives is that they should be measurable, and that tends to drive us down the route of behaviours. However, if one of the outcomes is deemed to be a form of understanding (and lets assume that is a legitimate and desirable product of the learning) then surely that is what we should aspire to achieve. We then have to wrestle with the challenge of how do we measure that deliverable. Neither difficulty in measurement, nor an absence obvious business results, should  be a sufficient to stop us giving people the requisite understanding. It makes it harder for us to write the objectives. But we just need to work out the best form of words that reflects what people can expect and, if onlt for accountability reasons, that can be tested, at least to some degree. Whether you make that test and immediate indicative test eg ‘can explain’ or a later practical test eg ‘applies in their work’ is partly a practical choice and partly is a product of the what was driving the need in the first place.

    Lets say that professional standards require researchers to understand the ethics of research. To focus some of their training on understanding ethics would seem to be appropriate. There would need to be other objectives too, probably focused on research practice. Understanding ethics alone won’t make you a good researcher. But not understanding them may make you a less than competent researcher. We could express the objective as something like: "…will demonstrate their understanding by explaining how they would tackle a particular test case scenario". It might not test all their understanding but it may be sufficient – fit for purpose – bearing in mind the relative importance of that objective and the costs and difficulties of a more rigourous test. The business benefit might be something like: "…be able to operate as a researcher to the required professional standard…reducing the risk of claims and complaints and delivering better research results upon which management can act." In this example ‘understanding’ is necessary but not sufficient. And it can be tested to an appropriate degree.

    One final thought from me. The potential longer term value from learning that can be transfered to new situations is likely to be greater than just giving people a short term behavioural fix. Part of the difference between these two is the level of understanding people have around that skill or issue. Give someone a fish and you feed they for a day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for life. 

    It depends what sort of result you are looking to achieve.


  17. Why do we do this?

    Interesting discussion.  The use of the word understand in an open course, externally provided training intervention concerns me. The reason for this is that I’ve always thought of the learning aims and objectives as being designed around the need that has been identified.  As such I tend to base my objectives around the triumvirate of skills, knowledge and understanding.


    My objectives are, therefore, likely to reflect the skills the individual may learn (or be made aware of), the knowledge that they need to process and retain, and the understanding of why the task or behaviour is actioned that way.  Without knowing the reason for the nomination of the participant on an open course, it’s difficult to meet an objective that promises to help people ‘understand’ since the provider will have a lack of awareness of the learner’s context when the training was designed.


  18. Needs must


    I guess there is a more than subtle difference between open courses and internal/tailored courses. For tailored provision the identified need drives the objectives (though even then there can be some variance between the individuals’ needs and the collective need). In the case of open courses the needs relationship shifts. The provider bases the objectives on a more generic requirement of likely needs across an identifiable market. It then up to individuals to match their needs with the objectives to select the right product from the right supplier. If the need for understanding doesn’t match that described in the published materials then the individual should not choose that course. If it does match (or, looking at all the objectives there is sufficient match overall), there there should be no beef.

    Most suppliers do their best to express objectives that match the varying types of needs people typically need to be effective in the relevant role the training relates to. If they didn’t, they’d go out of business. Whilst as we have seen above, understanding is a tricky issue, I think we might be unduly hard on open course suppliers if we derided them or avoided them on such a semantic issue. I’d be looking at what they deliver in practice rather than their chosen style of wording.


  19. I wouldn’t disagree Graham

    I wouldn’t deride a supplier for the use of the word, but would want to ask how they were planning on obtaining understanding and how they would evaluate it.

  20. Who evaluates


    Ah, that opens up a further debate: who is responsible for evaluating the results of open programmes? Arguably, the supplier has a certain duty to ensure they deliver what they have promised but equally much of the responsibility for evaluating the outcomes is the person who chose the course, paid for it, did the learning (or otherwise) and can apply that learning back in the workplace.

    As to ‘understanding’, it would make sense that the supplier is responsible for providing the right information, structures and opportunities for an individual to be able to understand. Ultimately it is down to the individual’s openness, comprehensional abilities and commitment as to whether they understand. I’m reminded of the old training adage: how many trainers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

    Maybe the best answer a supplier can give to someone who asks how they will evaluate the understanding is turn the question back to the learner and, having given some basic info on any tests etc., ask ‘how will you evaluate that understanding too?’


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Steve Robson

Learning and Development Consultant

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