How to simplify a complex concept for students

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Have you ever come across a concept that you understand fully, but don’t know how to break it down for your students? You’re not alone. So many teachers have been down this road so many times than they can care to explain. But before we dive into the solutions, let’s look at the possible reasons why students usually fail to grasp some concepts;

  • Language problems.
  • When the concept seems huge/ hasn’t been broken down.
  • Nothing relevant to them that they can relate the concept with.
  • Learning difficulties, necessitating the same concept explained in different domains.

If you’re a teacher, worry not, because this article contains a couple of tested and proven strategies that will help your students out.

Step 1; UNPACK IT.

Remember what we said about certain concepts seeming huge and impossible to explain? This is where you have to turn your students’ entire perspective around;

  1. Explain or describe it simply

This starts with you perfectly understanding the concept before you even present it in the classroom. To paraphrase Einstein, the inability to simplify a concept means you probably didn’t understand it well either.

  • Label its major and minor parts

This will give your students a broader view of the concept, and they probably won’t be as scared as they are before you start to unpack it. This includes separating it into categories, sub-categories, etcetera.

  • Give examples and non-examples

Once you start to give examples of the concept and its applicability, you also have to draw lines that this concept can’t cross, or your students will tend to “over-understand” the concept.


Now that you have made the topic more approachable by showing the different ways it can be attacked, it’s time you tactfully dive into it, following these steps.

  1. Explain it in micro-detail

One seemingly simple problem that teachers usually encounter is some teachers who aren’t that good at digging into details, either because they aren’t adept with the concepts they’re teaching, or because they aren’t that attentive to details.

Micro-detail means you won’t leave a single stone unturned, and you’ll make sure you dig into those few details that seem quite irrelevant.

  • Go visual

Of all animals, humans are mainly visual creatures. This is why YouTube is more popular than blogs. These are the few ways you can do that.

  • Use diagrams
  • Photos
  • Models
  • Videos.

These will achieve, in five minutes, what words would probably achieve in a week or so. Also, all students will be hooked onto the concept.

  • Play with it casually

Just in case you didn’t know, your approach to these concepts will likely be their approach as well. The more you act like the concept is easy to understand, the more they’ll challenge themselves to understand it better.

It also eliminates almost all fear.


Connections are almost the most central part of every topic. Once a student knows how to connect a concept to a bunch of others that they already understand quite well, you’re quite sure they understand it pretty well. Here’s how you can help them identify connections.

  1. Explain how it relates to similar and non-similar ideas

Once you discuss a topic in relation to many other topics, odds that your students will be able to understand this concept will be in your favor.

  • Explain it from different angles/ perspectives

Students understand differently depending on their level of exposure, their background and where they live.

By telling stories and trying to relate a concept to many others, is one way you can perfectly elevate them from a point of ignorance and confusion.

  • Explain exactly how and where others might misunderstand it

This includes identifying analogous but distinct concepts. The purpose of this is to make sure you avoid confusion by guiding the way students think.


Part of thinking critically about something, is looking at all sides of it. This also helps students think more about it, hence understand it more.

  1. Criticize it in  terms of what it might miss or where its dishonest or incomplete

Every theory and concept has its own loopholes and where it can be criticized. This helps students understand how to explain the concept to others with full insight.

  • Debate its truths as a supporter or devil’s advocate

When it comes to the strengths of the theory/ concept, you also have to support them, and make them outweigh the negatives, because that’s why it even exists on your syllabus.

Step 5: EXAMINE:

Now, it’s time to get to know how your students have digested the concept. Students are usually averse to questions and tests, but they’re usually in their best interest. Here’s how to do it;

  1. Ask specific, insightful questions about it.

Students tend to study what they deem relevant, and that can turn out a little too dangerous, because it can leave them in the dark on certain things. Therefore;

  • Ask questions on topics they seemingly aren’t focused on.
  • Phrase and rephrase the questions in different ways.
  • Identify what they still don’t understand about it

Students tend to think they know all they need to know about the topic at hand, but they’re wrong, like 9 times out of 10.

By questioning them, you’ve gotten to find out what they know and what they don’t. What they don’t know is what you should focus on next, so they have full insight on the topic.


Learning is not a straight curve that only ascends upwards; and effort is usually not enough without a little guidance. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of the students that they get your help as their teacher, in order to properly understand the complicated concepts well enough.

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