Learning Techniques

An Efficient Approach to Learning – The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is all about understanding the concept of a topic. In fact, understanding it well enough to be able to explain it to someone without any expertise in your respective domain.

Or to reverse it: In order to understand something, explain it as simple as possible!

Learning is one of the most basic principles in the life of a student. Nevertheless it’s surprising how little people tend to know about different learning methods. This is what the famous American physicist Richard Feynman had to say about them:

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

His alternative approach to learning – the Feynman Technique – is all about understanding the concept of a topic. In fact, understanding it well enough to be able to explain it to someone without any expertise in your respective domain.

Or to reverse it: In order to understand something, explain it as simple as possible!

So what idea hides behind this method, how do you use it?

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a world-renowned theoretical physicist who even won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

He was also known as “The Great Explainer” which is already hinting at his capabilities as a great teacher.

These qualities didn’t emerge out of nowhere and are based on the use of his concept that became known as the Feynman Technique.

How to apply the Feynman Technique

Sadly, you won’t always have someone at hand to explain them your topic of choice. And if you do, chances are high that after a few times they quickly get bored with all the nerdy content of your next computer science exam.

However, don’t worry as the original approach to this technique doesn’t even include active listeners. All you need is pen, paper and your notes on the subject that you must have studied before:

Flowchart of how to apply the Feynman Technique

This is basically it – don’t forget that simplicity is key!

If you need a more detailed description to get working though, then just look at this:

  • Step 1: This is basically the easiest step of them all. Just grab your piece of paper and write the name of the concept you are trying to understand at the top of the page.
  • Step 2: Now try to explain the concept as if you were teaching it to someone else. Don’t forget to work through examples at the end of your explanation. That way you can apply your knowledge in practice as well!
    Concentrate on using as plain and simple English as possible. Try to include graphical representations like sketches. You can also use formulas but you shouldn’t make them the focus of your explanation as you want to keep it simple.
  • Step 3: Reexamine your explanation and identify any problem areas you got stuck on or where your description still seems a little shaky. Grab your notes or textbook and work on those areas until your understanding feels just as sound as on the other areas.
  • Step 4: Challenge yourself to simplify all your convoluted terms as much as possible. You should aim for being able to correctly explain it to a child that doesn’t have your foundation of knowledge!
    Why, you ask? – Because children also often get hung up on exactly that question! So maybe you took some crucial information for granted?

The Feynman Technique in Practice:

In order to give you a basic idea how it could look like to apply the Feynman Technique, I came up with a simple example myself – the basic defintion of the sine function.

Of course you probably wouldn’t be able to explain this concept to a young child. However, when it comes to this, rather aim for explaining it to someone without any major prior knowledge about the subject. See, how I added explanations behind any possibly troublesome expressions – definitely do that!

Feynman Technique applied to the sine function
An application of the Feynman Technique to the sine function

Advantages and Beneficial Side Effects:

Until now you have only heard about the obvious effect of the Feynman Technique – a better understanding of the subject. But what makes this technique so effective and powerful in comparison to other learning methods? Here is why it works:

  1. Because of its versatility you can apply it to almost every concept.
  2. The repeated engagement and contemplation of a concept leads to long-term memory retention.
  3. You can quickly improve your understanding of a new concept or test you understanding and challenge your assumptions about a familiar one.

But there’s a lot more to it than you would initially think. There are a bunch of soft skills that also improve on the way:

  1. Improved ability for critical thinking
  2. Improved teaching capabilities
  3. Increased ability for informative and effective deduction
  4. Understanding of the bigger image
  5. Ability to share your knowledge in every day life

Those are a lot of benefits you don’t want to miss out on, right? So better get started right away! But definitely pay attention to the following points when wanting to use this method:

What to watch out for:

Of course with every learning method there are downsides or specific aspects to pay attention if you want it to be a success. Here are some things you might want to keep in mind:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”

Richard Feynman

The Feynman Technique is rather subjective in it’s assessment of your learning progress. Therefore, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have grasped every single detail of a concept. As Feynman put it so fittingly you should therefore pay attention to such delusions!

As this method is an understanding-based learning technique it allows you to internalize concepts. However, you might find it very difficult to memorize long lists of items as there usually is no underlying concept. Check out methods like Mnemonics to tackle these problems!

If you previously relied on bulk learning a few days before your exams you might want to switch up your strategy for the Feynman Technique. You might have already noticed that it can be quite work intensive, so you could find yourself struggling with your time management. Therefore, better start out a little earlier for the benefit of remembering your topic until long after your exam is over!

A group-based Approach

If you are in the lucky position of having someone to explain your subject to, this group-based approach to the Feynman Technique could be the right thing for you. If not, then just try to grab one or two fellow students of yours that feel up for it. Here’s how it works:

  • Step 1: One of you begins by presenting the concept you’ve previously learned about in class. Feel free to use a blackboard or sheet of paper for sketches like with the original approach.
  • Step 2: Whenever the talker struggles with conveying part of the message (even if it just feels like it for the you, the listener) jump in and try to correct the problem. If none of you can figure it out, go back to your notes to find a solution.
  • Step 3: The next group member takes its turn with presenting the topic. This time, however, they try to simplify the concept and try to get rid of any convoluted explanations. Repeat until the last group member has spoken.

This approach is not only forging your understanding of the concept. You additionally get insight into your group members view on the idea, improve your public presenting skills and also have an awesome time socializing together.

Just pay attention that your group size doesn’t get too large, as it that could quickly lead to boredom with the same talk repeated over and over again!

A few final Thoughts on the Matter:

That’s it – you’ve understood the basic concept behind the Feynman Technique! Before you continue conquering the internet though, here are some ideas on how to make its application of it easier:

If you’re a quick thinker it is also possible to explain the topic to yourself in your mind. That definitely saved me lot of time. Though as we learned – don’t fool yourself! You still have to go through every single detail!

Before a presentation my teachers always used to advice us to grab a plushie or our dog in order to train for the upcoming talk. It might feel unnatural to you to explain a topic to yourself. So if you don’t feel up for it, just sit down your pet and give them an awesome talk instead!

On the Search for more Study Tips?

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Be sure to notify me when something seemed unclear or there are any additional questions or suggestions!


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One reply on “An Efficient Approach to Learning – The Feynman Technique”

If you’re interested in study methods be sure to check out Spaced Repetition! This scientifically proven learning method is able to improve your long-term retention by up to 200%!
How is it doing that? Just by adding spacing between your study sessions and letting your brain actively retrieve information. Check it out in the respective article!


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