Anatomy of the A-ha Moment

The brightly lit bulb in comics depicts a flash of insight, when something incomprehensible suddenly makes sense, the moment you go ‘A-ha, I got it!’ The mental exhilaration you get when you make
a connection between something new and something you already know is called the a-ha moment.

True comprehension is also what makes knowledge actionable.

But why is it that your formal education journey doesn’t have too many of these a-ha moments? And what can you do such that all the panels in the comic strip of your formal education journey are full of brightly lit bulbs? Well, if you deconstruct the a-ha moment, according to educational psychologists, you can follow a path towards deeper comprehension, whatever be the topic of study:

  1. First step in the path to deeper comprehension is ‘Building Your Curiosity’ about the topic.
  2. Second step is ‘Formulating Probing Questions’ that pique your interest and activate whatever ‘prior knowledge’ you have about the topic.
  3. Third step involves looking at the topic of study from ‘Multiple Perspectives’.
  4. Fourth step is formulation of ‘Instructive Analogies’ and ‘Synthesis of Knowledge’ that helps update your mental model.
  5. Fifth step is ‘Multiple Representations’ to depict your updated mental model.
  6. Sixth step is ‘Multiple Performances of Understanding’ to assess comprehension.

Let’s look at these steps a little more closely –

1. Building Your Curiosity

The a-ha odyssey begins with curiosity. Once your curiosity gets fired up, it secures the cognitive commitment needed to undertake a learning adventure. Curiosity arouses your interest. The deeper your interest, the more likely you are to stick with it, despite the frustrations and setbacks that accompany all learning journeys.

2. Formulating Probing Questions

When you formulate compelling questions that you are curious to find answers to, it not only builds your curiosity – thus strengthening your resolve to learn – but also activates whatever ‘prior knowledge’ you have about the topic of study. This is essential because comprehension is nothing but the bridge between what you already know and the new thing you want to learn.

Here, you must be aware of one thing – problems in understanding can happen because your current mental model or the prior knowledge that you have about the topic is flawed. You must be conscious of this and remain mentally flexible to address this issue, if needed.

3. Multiple Perspectives

After you have formulated insightful questions, look at the topic from multiple perspectives. For example, look at a book from both the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s perspective, or consider the life situation of a mathematician when he postulated a new theory instead of just mugging up the final formula he gave. This will give you a deeper appreciation of the larger context and the nuances of the topic of study, which will help in conceptual comprehension.

4. Instructive Analogies & Knowledge Synthesis

Analogies help you go from the known to the unknown. They invoke your prior knowledge about the topic and help build connections from something you know to the new topic. For example, while studying the circulatory system, you can draw an analogy with a cops & bad guys movie, assigning character roles to red and white blood cells, platelets and organs involved. Once you have formulated instructive analogies, you should then synthesise your knowledge by making connections across disciplines. Say, you learn about Venn diagrams in math but instead of making another Venn diagram in the math exam (which you will anyway and all it indicates is your ability to regurgitate), you should create a Venn diagram in English to compare and contrast two books or two authors – how they are similar and how they are different.

5. Multiple Representations

The next step in the journey to deep comprehension involves representing the new knowledge in multiple ways. For example, you could make flowcharts, concept diagrams, or mind maps to represent what you have learnt and understood.

6. Multiple Performances of Understanding

Finally, look for opportunities to demonstrate your understanding, preferably in a real-world context. You could ask yourself how something you have learnt in science can be practically useful in the local environment where you live. If real-world application is not possible, demonstrate your understanding in other ways like participating in discussions and debates, writing a blog, creating podcasts or making animation, videos or apps. Creating an e-portfolio based on what you have learnt not only deepens your understanding of the topic, it also serves as evidence of your comprehension. It can become another form of assessment.

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner was of the view that nobody in science, especially students, read anymore. They only Xerox things. He once quipped to a student, “Have you tried neuroxing papers? It’s a very easy and cheap process. You hold the page in front of your eyes and you let it go through there into the brain. It’s much better than Xeroxing.”

Once you understand the anatomy of the a-ha moment you can neurox any form of knowledge!