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Know the content but not getting the grades you want? – Discovering the power of context

In school, I didn’t understand why one student got 90% and another student got 50% even though I knew that they both knew the content very well (and were reciting it to me from first to fifth period).

These differences in scores can be blamed largely on understanding context. Context refers to why, where and when a process happens. Most students will only ever understand how it happens. For example, if you have to learn about photosynthesis, make sure you understand how it happens, but also where, when and why. But here comes the big question…

How do I understand context?

Well it all starts with really understanding the topic- finding out about it and understanding it in a way that your peers don’t. How to do that? Here you go….

Read more than the textbook

If you’re going to know more than your peers (and get higher marks), you need to be getting information from places that they’re not looking. Look for other textbooks, online articles and study guides. This will help you to really understand the topic and all the subtopics that it has. If you find that you still do not understand the topic, make sure that you are making quality notes– otherwise you’ll just forget what you learn and won’t be able to build on it!

Do practice exam papers

If you do practice exams, you’ll get a feel for how much the examiners want you to know. Every question that you get wrong will teach you something new- so don’t get discouraged! Studies show that students who do practice exams get two times more answers correct when compared to their non-practicing peers.

If you do practice exams, be sure to have the answers handy- otherwise they will not help at all! From the answers you will learn where you went wrong and what to do next time. If you do not get feedback on your work, how will you know where you went wrong? Here are some statistics if you need even more convincing:

  1. Certain studies show that test scores increased 20% when feedback was given on practice exams.

  2. Practice testing with feedback consistently outperforms practice testing alone

  3. More than 100 years of research has yielded several hundred experiments showing that practice testing enhances learning and retention

  4. One study showed that recall was considerably better among students that had taken a practice test than among students that had restudied (56% versus 42%).

Make sure that you can explain it to someone

Grab your mum/dad/sister/dog and try to explain the topic to them. By “teaching” them, you’ll understand the topic better and start to really get a grasp on understanding context. If you find you find it difficult to explain a topic to someone, then you have found your weak spot and should revise that area again! This is a great technique to use when you think you know the content but are not entirely sure!

Make sure you can answer questions about it

After explaining the topic to your mum/dad/sister/dog, urge them to ask questions (if you explained it to your dog, just pretend he/she asked a question). Make sure that you can answer their questions, and if you can’t, revise revise revise!!

Watch videos

YouTube is beautiful when it comes to understanding context. Get good ol’ Mr Anderson or Hank and John to explain difficult topics to you! (no I’m not getting paid to say this – if you’re Hank/John/Mr Anderson though, feel free to do so). I spent a good chunk of my study time focussing on watching YouTube videos! This is a great technique for when you don’t feel like staring at a page for an hour and would prefer something a bit more engaging.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M. and Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), pp.4-58.

Brame, C. and Biel, R. (2015). Test-Enhanced Learning: The Potential for Testing to Promote Greater Learning in Undergraduate Science Courses. Cell Biology Education, 14(2), pp.es4-es4.

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