The Feynman Technique

I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
— Richard Feynman

Who Was Richard Feynman?

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Richard Feynman was an American physicist and academic who contributed greatly to the scientific community. His contributions spanned physics, computing, and nanotechnology. He received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics.

Feynman was unique not only for his intelligence and wit but for his ability to simplify complex subjects. This earned him the affectionate nickname, "The Great Explainer."

It should be noted that this technique was inspired by Richard Feynman, not necessarily used directly by him. However, he did use many studying techniques that overlap with the principles laid out in this process.

What is the Feynman Technique?

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The Feynman Technique helps deepen and solidify your knowledge of a concept by forcing you to recall information and explain it in the simplest terms possible.

The Feynman Technique, in it's most basic form, is four steps:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Child
  3. Identify Gaps in Your Explanation
  4. Organize and Review

1. Choose a Concept

The Feynman Technique can be used to study nearly any topic, but before you can explain a concept, you must have that concept properly defined.

Start small. Learning is a hierarchy.

It's hard to understand a larger concept if you don't have a deep understanding of its components. It would be difficult to explain calculus if you didn't understand algebra, and it would be difficult to explain algebra if you didn't understand addition or multiplication.

In this way, don't necessarily make your first topic "Math" or "Geometry." Start with a specific proof or "The Pythagorean Theorem," for example.

Smaller concepts will be easier to break down and understand. As you develop your competencies with specific topics, use the Feynman Technique on the larger "parent concepts."

To make the most of this practice, it's best if you write everything by hand. Take out a blank piece of paper and write your concept at the top of the page.

2. Teach it to a Child

On your blank piece of paper, start writing an explanation of the idea. Or, if you're studying from a book, write everything you remember from the chapter you just finished. The latter example is how I write my book summaries

As you recall information, imagine that you're trying to explain the concept to a person unfamiliar with this subject or, ideally, a young child.

Explaining something ensures you have a deep understanding of the material. Explaining it to a child, in particular, forces you think about your word choice because you can't use complex words.

Many people, when talking about things outside of their competencies, will use complicated vocabulary and jargon to mask their understanding and to protect their ego.

Explaining an idea in simple language, using only common words, forces you to understand the concepts at a deeper level. You truly have to know what you're talking about.

If you're having trouble with the simplification try to use an analogy or a metaphor.

3. Identify Gaps in Explanation

At some point you'll likely hit speed bumps in your explanation. If you realize you can't explain something or if you can't find the words to describe it in layman terms you just identified a gap in your understanding. This is where the learning starts.

The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.
— Mortimer Alder

Now that you know what you do and don't comfortably understand, go back to the source material and re-read. This is the act of deliberate practice. Identify the limits of your competencies and focus your effort on that. 

After re-reading the material, test yourself by recalling again. Focus on filling the gaps in your last explanation.

4. Organize and Review

As you recall each time, try and simplify your paper.

Maybe the first time it took you four or five sentences to explain something. This time, see if you can do it in two or three sentences.

If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.
— Dennis Roth

Read your paper out loud. See if there are any ways you can organize the paper into a simple story that flows. Pretend you're going to give a lecture on the material. 

If your explanation is complicated or confusing that's an indication that you may need to deepen or improve your understanding by returning to an earlier step.

How I use the Feynman Technique

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When applicable, I use the Feynman Technique at the end of every chapter I read in a book. I ensure I understand the main arguments posed in each chapter before moving on. Similarly, I use this technique at the end of the book.

I also use the technique when reading important or thought-provoking articles online. I try to ask myself, how would I explain this article in just a few sentences. This technique improves my memory of the key take-aways and also helps me connect the article to something else I may have read.

Why Use the Feynman Technique?

Although reading and re-reading is a very common study technique, reading and recalling is much more effective. 

Students practicing recall learn more and understand material at a deeper level than with any other study method. The retrieval process enhances deep learning, and helps us to begin forming chunks.

The Feynman Technique, by focusing on simplicity, makes things easier to remember.

Additional Sources

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