Understanding and Misunderstanding

Course Description: 

We can achieve understanding at many different levels – from sensing that someone sitting next to us is cold to knowing that we agree or disagree with someone on, say, a certain environmental policy. This course will explore the individual level processes that can lead to understanding in human interaction and discuss how the nature of these processes influences the way in which misunderstandings arise. The course will cover 1) shared perceptual, motor, and emotional processes that are largely operating at the sub-personal level, 2) processes that generate alignment and shared meaning in symbolic communication, and 3) and processes that recruit knowledge about object functions, social norms, and conventions.  

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, students will:

  have an overview of Cognitive Science views on (Mis)Understanding

  be able to articulate how individual level processes of understanding differ

  be able to apply psychological theories of understanding to real-world scenarios

  be able to communicate effectively their opinion about implications and limitations of particular theories and findings on mis(understanding)


1)      Written reflections on readings, to be submitted on Mondays (50% of the final grade). For each lecture a summary of the main arguments presented in the general readings and minimally 2 discussion questions (200-300 words total for summary and questions). In particular, course participants will be asked to think about implications of approaches to understanding for potential and actual misunderstanding. Grading criteria will be: Ability to provide a competent and concise summary of readings and the ability to ask meaningful questions that relate the readings to the general topic of understanding and misunderstanding.

2)      Oral presentation (50% of the final grade). This will be up to two presentations (20 minutes). Grading criteria will be: Clear and concise communication of theory and findings, clear structure, time management, exposition.

3)      Leading and participating in group discussions (not graded). Attendees will lead up to two group discussions on particular approaches to understanding. Attendees are expected to be present during all sessions and to contribute with questions and comments to the discussions.

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