Do you struggle to understand a topic? To make that worse, you can’t remember what you read either.
If you face such problems, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I had similar issues earlier before I learned about the Feynman Technique. In this article, I will cover the 4 steps of the technique which will help you learn any topic faster and understand better.
You might be wondering, “this sounds too good to be true.” But here’s the deal. The method was not invented by any common man.
The method was devised by Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist, known as one of the best scientists in the world. The man was a genius. He even won a Nobel prize in 1965 for his contribution to quantum electrodynamics.
Not only did he have the ability to grasp and understand complex information, but he also had the rare talent of breaking down sophisticated concepts into a simple explanation. For this innate ability of his, Feynman earned the nickname of “The Great Explainer.”
He has contributed to various topics in physics such as quantum mechanics, quantum aerodynamics, superfluidity, particle physics, and more.
When scientists were unable to explain particle physics with ease due to the complexity of the concept. Feynman came up with diagrams which for the first time that conveyed the information in an understandable fashion.
His diagrams helped many other scientists grasp the underlying theory. Other scientists learned to track particle movements instead of remaining stuck at the theory. Scientists consider those diagrams as one of the best explanations of particle physics even today.
- What is the Feynman Technique?
- How to apply the Feynman technique
- Example of the Feynman Technique
- The two types of knowledge:
What is the Feynman Technique?
Feynman technique is a way of learning better which helps anyone facing a situation similar to those mentioned below:
- a student who has to study for an exam or certification
- a business professional who has to understand a topic
- a baker who has to remember the recipe for a cheesecake
- a mechanic who needs to remember how an automobile functions
In short, the Feynman technique serves as one of the useful self learning techniques for every single person.
The process helps you solve any of the three common problems faced during learning:
- Not able to understand the concept well enough
- Forgetting what you learned
- Failing to learn effectively
How to apply the Feynman technique
You can apply the Feynman technique in 4 steps. Not only are these steps simple to understand but also easy to follow. This integration works for any field or expertise of study.
Step 1: Write down the topic to study
As the first step, write down the topic you want to learn on the top of a sheet of paper.
If you are yet to learn the topic, proceed to study in your style. The technique does not provide any special tactics to learn information when you are reading it for the first time.
If you have already studied the topic, write down everything you know about the subject. You do not have to write down the detail. Bullet points on the topic will suffice.
Step 2: Teach the topic
Imagine teaching a student the topic you learned. Assume an invisible student sitting in front of you waiting for your lessons with a notepad and a pen. Play the role of a good teacher and teach your virtual student.
As an alternative, you can use a mirror to teach yourself too. Watching you teach yourself will help you gain confidence and even make you a better presenter.
Choose the teaching style which suits you best. Any approach works as long as you teach.
While you teach the topic, you will realize the gaps in your knowledge. When you read through the information, your mind tricks you into believing that you understood every inch of the subject. When teaching, you face some hiccups on some parts of the topic. When that happens, note it down because you stumble on what you do not know well enough.
For your brain, you are the easiest person to fool.
Step 3: Review what you do not know
Look at all the gaps in your understanding of the topic identified in the previous step. Go back to the study material, re-read the parts you are unclear about and brush up your knowledge.
Do not try to rush through the material. You will only fill the gaps halfway leaving a smaller hole still pending to cover. When you teach the next time, you will realize you do not know in-depth yet.
Put an effort to understand as much as possible. You might still need a second or third revision, but at least the loop of returning to revise will reduce.
Knowing the gap helps you fit the missing pieces together into one jigsaw puzzle. After reviewing what you missed while teaching, your knowledge on the subject will no longer remain shaky as earlier.
Step 4: Explain the topic to a kid
As the final step, you must be capable of explaining the subject in the most simple fashion. The best way to achieve simplicity is assuming that you are teaching a kid. Since the little one does not have enough knowledge in all areas, you are forced to break down the information using simple language.
Use simple words, real-life examples, easy to understand pictures or relatable analogies.
Feynman used to say, “If I cannot explain in a simple way, the problem lies in my understanding of the topic, not my teaching abilities.”
Besides, children love asking the question “Why?” You cannot state facts to a kid and expect him to accept it. Most kids will ask you why. You need to know your subject well enough to answer why. If you tell a child the sky is blue, prepare yourself to answer the question, “Why is the sky blue after all?” No, it is not because the sky reflects the color of the ocean.
If you want to understand a subject well, explain it in a plain vanilla flavor. If you can, you have a good handle on the topic. If you cannot, grab your book again.
Assuming you are teaching a kid is the best way to self teach, even if the kid does not exist in reality. Here are some alternatives to teaching a kid:
- Teaching the topic to yourself in front of a mirror
- Finding a friend or your spouse who is willing to listen
- Going on a video chat with a buddy who has the time and the patience to listen
- Teaching just about anywhere assuming there is a student
Example of the Feynman Technique
Here is an example of learning why we make bad decisions when angry due to the Amygdala Hijack. The guide below provides step by step guidelines along with screenshots on how to self teach.
Step 1: Write down the topic
The human brain makes a decision using the sensory cortex. When you receive any information, your thalamus sends it to the cortex for processing followed by your brain taking the action. Such a flow takes time to complete due to the processing involved.
But during danger, the brain has to act quickly. Such a state of the body is called the flight or fight response, which requires quick action. Therefore, the thalamus short cuts the decision to act fast. For increased speed, the brain compromises on the quality of the action.
Step 2: Teach the topic
Next, I stood in front of a mirror to teach the topic to myself. I decided to go through each element little by little. The depth of the context was not necessary, but I decided to go deep to test my understanding.
While I was teaching the topic, I fumbled in a few places. I realized I was unaware of why and how the neocortex decides to take the shortcut. I did not know what the amygdala does as a part of its normal routine either.
What was the trigger for the shortcut? Why couldn’t the neocortex take the usual slow path? Why did the amygdala have to interfere only in this situation but not always?
At that moment, I was at a point of knowing but not understanding.
Step 3: Review what you do not know
I read through again and understood amygdala plays a key role in the processing of emotions. The neocortex is responsible for processing logic. It executes all the smart decisions but due to the processing involved, it needs more time.
In life or death situations, the brain does not have enough time to dwell on emotions because it chooses survival first.
Also, human beings went through an evolution from reptiles, followed by mammals. As a result, some parts of these brains remained as is to perform basic body functions and keep us alive. During a flight or fight response, the amygdala, a part of our primitive brain takes over to avert the danger as soon as possible.
Step 4: Explain the topic in simple terms
I managed to explain the topic in a diagram that shows how the brain reacts during anger or danger.
If I have to teach a kid I am a far better position to answer the “why’s” that will pop up. Even if they don’t I can simplify the topic enough for a little child to understand without knowing anything about the biology of the brain.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enoughAlbert Einstein
The two types of knowledge:
Knowledge falls under two buckets – knowing something and understanding something.
Feynman’s technique helps you understand the reason behind the facts you know. For example, you know that a stone dropped from the top of the building will hit the floor. Understanding involves why does the stone move downwards instead of going towards the sky.
You might laugh at the thought of a stone moving upwards. But can you explain why the stone falls to the ground with an answer other than just gravity? In space, the stone will float around. Why? Because space has no gravity you say.
Yes, gravity is the reason behind the stone falling towards the earth or floating in space, but do you know why? Saying that gravity causes the stone to fall from the top of the building to the ground is knowing something. Knowing how and why gravity causes the effect is understanding the topic.
Many a time, you and I assume knowing a topic as understanding. The Feynman technique helps you learn a topic to great depths and retain it for a long time. By teaching a concept in simple terms, you will realize your own grasp of the topic and the problem areas you need to work on.
If you want to learn how to be good at studying, you must understand the subtle difference between knowing and understanding.
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.Richard P. Feynman
How the Feynman Technique came into existence
Richard Feynman had cultivated a habit of deliberate learning, where he used to connect what he knew with what he did not know. The scientist decided to notch it up and improve the effectiveness of the process. So, Feynman started writing down every topic that was important for him to know which he had no knowledge about. He kept a notebook for the purpose. He called it ‘the notebook of things I do not know’.
Next, he started gaining expertise on the topics from the notebook and started teaching them. During his teaching, he realized he understood the topic better and learned more about what he did not know clearly.
From there, Feynman went on to frame a series of steps to increase his understanding of the subject and the Feynman technique of learning was born.
Learning involves using your brain. What we know about the brain, for now, is fairly limited. Reading a book for hours is not the best method to help your brain understand. Our brain does not think linearly because it contains billions of neurons.
Every action, decision, and thought involves multiple neurons firing into action to make it possible. Therefore, teaching, reviewing and explaining in simple terms brings a larger part of your brain into the act of learning. The more creative you are with your learning, the better you will understand and recall.
If you have always wondered how to learn something complex with ease, the Feynman technique is your answer.
Keep learning, keep teaching and keep simplifying.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.