You might not know it, but it’s possible that you’re already using the Feynman learning technique. And this is because there has long been a saying that goes “the best way to learn is to teach”. In fact, this saying goes all the way back to the Roman philosopher Seneca and researchers and scientists call it the “protégé effect”.
Simply put, in the words of Seneca, “we learn while we teach” and this is the foundation that the Feynman technique is built on. Pundits across the web claim it is the best way to learn, the fastest way to understand, and can be used on any topic. So does the Feynman technique stack up to these big claims, and is it something to introduce to your study routine? Let’s find out.
What is the Feynman technique?
This study technique was developed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. A quick snapshot of this remarkable New Yorker born in 1918 is that he attended prestigious universities MIT, and Prinston studying Physics. As he rose through his career as a Ph.D. candidate, Research Assistant, Professor, and Visiting Professor, teaching was at the heart of his day-to-day life.
What set Feynman apart as an educator was his ability to explain complex subjects to others in simple terms. In fact, one of his nicknames was “The Great Explainer”. He recognized that jargon, vague concepts, and complexity were barriers to understanding and actively sought to find ways to overcome them.
Feynman deliberately teased apart two aspects of learning: facts and understanding. We might know the terms for things and their associated facts, but it doesn’t mean that we understand what they are or how they work, for example. When you have an understanding of a concept, it can also be used much more broadly and makes the learning of other things easier because there might be an existing connection.
It’s easy to read through a textbook, and it’s possible to remember all the facts within it through rote memorization, but when it comes down to explaining the concepts and principles at play, things quickly fall apart. And this is because understanding has not been achieved.
This begs the next question…
How to apply the Feynman technique
The Feynman technique is pretty straightforward and contains only four steps, making it really easy to implement in your study routine. These are:
- Fill in the gaps
Think that’s easy? Take the game of chess. Now, explain it to a 12-year-old who doesn’t know how to play chess or what its rules are. Suddenly, things aren’t so easy, right. So let’s break down each step in more detail.
You’re already doing this no doubt and probably using a range of techniques to absorb and retain information. Do whatever is working for you. Then, grab a piece of paper and write down a lesson plan of sorts in which you outline your objectives. On the other side, write down everything you know about that topic.
Here’s the game-changer. Find a willing student, whether that’s a friend, a parent, or a classmate. The less knowledgeable they are on the topic, all the better. You’re going to teach them about what you’ve learned and you’re going to rely on them for questions and feedback. The more you’re able to break down a topic to make it understandable, the more challenged your understanding and ability to explain simply is going to be.
If you don’t have someone you can subject to being your student, that’s ok, there are ways around that. These include talking to an imaginary student, the mirror, or even recording yourself as though you’re creating a video for YouTube. Whatever you choose, the point is to pretend you’re explaining it to someone who has enough vocabulary to understand what you’re talking about but has no other knowledge of your topic.
It’s not unheard of with the Feynman learning technique to use a rubber duck as your student – this is more common with software engineers who need to debug code and explain their code line by line to the rubber duck staring at them innocently from their desk.
No matter what you’re learning, you’ll still benefit greatly if you don’t have a pupil in front of you because, by speaking out loud, your brain will still be at work organizing and articulating thoughts and finding ways to explain the concepts.
Third: Fill in any gaps
No doubt in the teaching stage, you will have identified areas that you’re not 100% clear on yourself and you default to jargon or vague explanations. Or there are areas that you weren’t able to break concepts down simply enough for your pupil (or ducky) to grasp without relying on jargon or because you weren’t able to make necessary connections to more simple concepts.
You can leave the technique at the “fill in the gaps” stage and study further without any more guinea pigs to teach. But we believe that it’s best to take the next step, which is to simplify further and teach again. In this process, you’ll once again write down everything you know and you’ll be able to read it to your duck or student like you’re presenting a lecture. Each time this occurs, your language becomes more accessible, your ability to answer questions is honed, and there are fewer and fewer gaps that lead to a lack of understanding.
If you find yourself getting stuck on how to simplify things, a resource we love is a book titled Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Monroe. It uses the 1,000 most common words in English to explain how things work. For example, an illustration of the International Space Station is labeled a “shared space house”. Explanations of things are equally as simple and result in the reader being able to understand how things work. It’s full of inspiration to help you simplify your teachings, or just a fun nerd binge.
We also love this explanation of the Feynman Technique by Thomas Frank, who provides a concise yet precise explanation of how to get the most from this technique.
Getting the most out of the Feynman Technique
Unlike the SQ3R method for learning, which has limited subject applications – for example, it’s not ideal for math or English studies – the Feynman learning technique can be used with absolutely anything you’re trying to learn.
The keys to making this technique work are firstly laying the groundwork and applying enough time and effort to studying the material, and secondly to make the effort to simplify and teach the topic in a way that’s understandable to a child. When done right, not only will you have a greater understanding of your content, but you’ll also have taught someone something in the process.
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