What if someone came up to you and said, “do you want to know of a method where you can learn any concept that seems impossibly difficult, learn it quickly and efficiently, AND retain it for a long time”? I bet those of us with upcoming exams and standardized tests, especially National Board Examinations in our future, would jump up in a heartbeat. The Feynman technique, created by Nobel-Prize winning Physicist Richard Feynman, created just that.
Something I’ve heard many of my professors say throughout my undergraduate career is that, “if you can’t teach it to someone else, you really don’t know it yourself”. A few days ago, while sitting in my metabolism (biochemistry) course, my professor said, in order to study for this class, grab a big piece of paper, and draw out concepts. He then mentioned “the Feynman technique” as a method to study; few people picked up on this tidbit, but since I knew exactly what he was talking about (due to already having written this post), my ears perked up quick.
In a nutshell, the Feynman Technique is the idea that you learn by teaching someone else a concept in simple terms, so you can quickly pinpoint the holes in your own knowledge. After four steps, you’re able to understand concepts more deeply and better retain the information.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it, usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler
The Brains Behind the Method
The Feynman Technique is a mental model that was coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Known as the “Great Explainer,” Feynman was revered for his ability to clearly illustrate dense topics like quantum physics for virtually anybody. During his lifetime, Richard Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time. I won’t use this post to explain how much of a bada** physicist Feynman was, but I encourage you to read up on him! He has made contributions to science that are nothing short of incredible.
“I was an ordinary person who studied hard.” – Richard Feynman
The Feynman Technique
There are 4 steps to this technique:
- Step 1: identify the Concept. Write the name of the topic at the top of a piece of paper.
- Step 2: explain to teach. Explain this concept using simple language, as if you are teaching a class full of people who don’t understand it, or even a child. Draw out simple flowcharts, diagrams, and models. The key here is simple language. Be careful of paraphrasing textbook definitions. Use plain english instead of heavy vocabulary. This should highlight what you understand well, as well as pinpoint what you don’t know. Identifying the boundaries of your understanding also limits the mistakes you’re liable to make and increases your chance of success when applying knowledge. At the end of this step, you will also have a great set of notes!
- Step 3: identify weaknesses. The gaps in your knowledge at this point should be obvious. Go back to your textbook and lecture notes to revisit the source material for what you don’t know. Then, go back to your simplified notes and re-explain the problem area in simple terms. Do this for every single point of knowledge where you got stuck until you can explain every single thing in a simplified manner.
- Step 4: simplify further to solidify. Draw new examples to explain things in a different way, create analogies and mnemonics. You can even find someone who doesn’t know the topic, and explain it to them! You will be forced to further simplify or explain an idea through a new example, and thus, you will know it even better. The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.
When and When NOT to use the Feynman Technique:
The Feynman technique works best for understanding difficult concepts, which require applicative thought processes. It is most commonly used to master physics and mathematics, but it can be used with any type of material. I used it for all of my classes in my neuroscience major, processes and pathways in microbiology, general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, human physiology and body systems, and more. Concepts with multiple interactions are also learned well with this technique. For example, my neurophysiology course had elements of neurobiology, math, and physics. I learned and retained each concept in the course extremely well with Feynman.
Right now, in the midst of my biochemistry course in dental school, this technique has been my savior.
Do NOT use the Feynman technique for topics that require strict memorization (i.e. anatomy, definitions and knowing straight facts, etc.). Another time to avoid Feynman is when a topic is already very simple. For example, when studying calculus, you do not need use Feynman for explaining how to solve simple trigonometry equations that you already can do in your sleep (SOHCAHTOA), but rather explaining a more difficult concept, such as limits and derivatives involving trigonometric functions/identities.
For more information, check out this video below!
Have you tried the Feynman technique? Let me know about your experience and thoughts in the comments below!