Deep understanding requires detailed knowledge of fundamentals

In response to People seem to forget most of what they read, and they mostly don’t notice, many suggest that they don’t want detailed recall. They do most of their reading “to get a general picture,” or “just to get a conceptual understanding.” That might sometimes be possible, but in many cases it’s not possible to really understand a concept without a firm grasp of the details on which it’s built.

The intuitive argument:

Bluntly, it seems likely that such people are fooling themselves, confusing a sense of enjoyment with any sort of durable understanding. Imagine meeting a person who told you they “had a broad conceptual understanding” of how to speak French, but it turned out they didn’t know the meaning of “bonjour”, “au revoir”, or “tres bien”. You’d think their claim to have a broad conceptual understanding of French was hilarious.”

How can we develop transformative tools for thought? - How important is memory, anyway?

A more concrete argument is that conceptual understanding is mostly about connections—understanding how elements relate to each other, causes, effects, implications, constraints, tendencies, etc. You can’t understand these high-order relationships without familiarity with their constituents.

Another argument draws on our understanding of human information processing: Expertise requires building sophisticated chunk recoding schemes.

A related, simpler claim: Memory augmentation may make it easier to learn complex topics by decreasing working memory load

Q. Reductio ad absurdum argument against someone who only wants a “broad conceptual understanding,” not detailed recall?
A. That’s like wanting to have a “broad conceptual understanding” of French without knowing the meaning of “bonjour.”

Q. Connectivist argument that deep understanding requires detailed knowledge of fundamentals?
A. Conceptual understanding is largely about relationships; can’t learn the edges without knowing the nodes.


Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (1st ed). Jossey-Bass.
“understanding is remembering in disguise”

Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019). How can we develop transformative tools for thought? Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Agarwal, P. (2019). Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need Fact Knowledge Before Higher Order Learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111, 189–209

  • Weak evidence against this thesis: students practicing with factual quizzes did no better than re-studiers on delayed higher-order quizzes.