Learn Faster with the Feynman Technique

Learn Faster with the Feynman Technique

Table of Contents

There’s this pretty well known quote that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s often attributed to Albert Einstein. And it goes

“If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

Now, whether or not Einstein was the person who actually said this, let’s be real, he probably wasn’t. It’s still really insightful. And reversing it reveals a pretty powerful piece of study advice.

If you want to understand something, well, explain it. 

Now, this idea is something I touched on briefly back in my summary of the Study Less, Study Smart lecture by Doctor Marty Lobdell, because in that lecture he talked about one of the most effective study techniques being to teach what you’re learning to someone else. 

So in this article I want to dig deeper into that idea and share with you a step by step process for doing this which has been called the Feynman technique. Now this technique is named after the physicist Richard Feynman, who was in his own right a great scientist. In fact, back in 1965 he won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics, And he contributed to science in a number of different ways, including in the development of what are called Feynman diagrams, which are basically, Graphical representations of the math behind how subatomic particles work.

But in addition to being a great scientist, he was also a great teacher and a great explainer. And in fact, one of his nicknames was The Great Explainer, because he was able to boil down incredibly complex concepts and put them in simple language that other people could understand. And that’s why he’s one of those great scientists who is also known as a very good teacher.

And in fact, even in his own learning, Feynman was famous for tirelessly working through equations until the concept he was wrangling with, was intuitively easy to understand in his mind, so that’s why this technique is named after him. But you don’t have to be a physicist or you don’t have to be working on math or science problems to use this technique, because explaining a concept works to improve your understanding of that concept in basically any area. Be it history or be it math or be it web development doesn’t matter, and it also works for multiple different purposes.

If you’re shaky on a concept and you want to quickly improve your understanding, you can use it, but if you already have a pretty confident grasp of the subject and say you’ve got a test coming up soon. You can also use it to test your understanding and challenge your assumptions. 

As Feynman himself said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” The ultimate way to ensure that you actually understand all the little nitty gritty details of a concept in your head is to explain it to someone else, or to at least pretend you’re doing so. And that is the crux of the Feynman technique.

So let’s get into it. It’s a process of four steps and the first step is to simply get out a piece of paper and write the name of the topic down at the top.

And in the example here, we’re going to use the Pythagorean theorem because it is simple and it won’t get in the way of the actual steps we’re going to go through.

2. Explain The Concept Using Simple Language:

Step 2 is to explain the concept and to do it in simple plain English or really whatever language you happen to speak. But the idea here is to do it in a way that’s easy to understand, as if you were teaching someone else. And don’t just settle with defining the concept, either. Also work through examples and make sure that you’re able to use the concept and practice as well.

3. Identify Problem Areas, Then Go Back To Sources To Review

For step three, identify any of the areas that you’re shaky on after your explanation or identify areas that you got stuck on which halted your explanation and go back to the source material or go back to your notes or work through examples until your understanding of these sub areas is just as solid as all the other areas.

4. Pinpoint Any Complicated Terms and Challenge Yourself to Simplify Them

 And finally, step four is to look at your explanation and try to identify any areas where you’ve resorted to using technical terms or convoluted language and then challenge yourself to break down those terms and explain them in simplified, easy to understand words.

Remember, the key here is simplicity, the act of explaining a topic as if you were teaching it to somebody who didn’t have the same base assumptions and base knowledge that you have is the ultimate test of your own knowledge in that subject.

And that’s pretty much it. That’s all there is to the Feynman technique. Now, using this technique is incredibly helpful because it

#1 helps you to quickly overview the concept and see where your knowledge is solid. But 

#2, it helps you to instantly pinpoint the areas where you’re shaky and where you need to do extra work. And that makes this technique a great first step in reviewing a concept, because it’s very efficient and it helps you waste less time. 

Think Like a Child

I did want to give you guys one extra suggestion though, and it relates to how you frame your mind going into Step 4. Instead of just thinking, how can I make this simple? How can I put it in plain English? Also, think how would I explain this to a kid? Why? Well, besides asking questions like can I have another Oreo or can I go watch Dragon Ball Z? Kid’s gonna ask why? Why does that work? And that’s going to help to challenge your assumptions. For instance, going back to our Pythagorean theorem example, maybe you know the formula, but a kid would ask you, Why does that formula work? Why does the Pythagorean theorem hold as a rule for all right triangles? And yeah, maybe you understand that intuitively. Maybe you can bust out the proof by rearrangement, but maybe you can’t. Maybe you’ve always just looked at the formula and taken it at face value, in which case you have some more learning to do.

Hope this helps, let me know in the comments below.

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