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The Richard Feynman Technique
Learn Difficult Topics Faster
The Richard Feynman Technique is a learning technique that helps you to understand complex matters more efficently.
As a student, you are constantly faced with new and intricate subjects. The problem? Learning complex topics takes time. Often, you have to engage with a subject for a longer period before you truly grasp it. Time you don’t have at university.
Rote Memorization vs. Understanding
This is the reason why a lot of people turn to mnemonic techniques such as the Loci system or the Major system, as well as apps like Anki that utilize the spacing effect,
Those are all great techniques for memorization, but from my own experiments, I know that the facts I don’t understand leave my memory the fastest. However, once I understand a concept, memorizing and learning the terminology becomes very easy.
Therefore, in my opinion, it’s pointless to memorize things that one hasn’t understood yet.
Understanding comes with many benefits: When you truly understand a concept you can apply it in new contexts, link it with other ideas, and develop new ideas based on this understanding.
However, not everything speaks against rote memorization:
A significant advantage of memorization is that one can quickly retrieve information. This is very useful in exam situations or for specialized knowledge such as foreign languages or mathematical formulas, but otherwise has limited practical value in most fields.
But, there’s an interplay between learning facts and understanding:
Sure, you could understand concepts without knowing the associated terms. But this would limit your ability to discuss these concepts with others. Additionally, facts help structure knowledge and enable you to access further information relevant to a topic.
Thus, your goal should be to memorize basic facts and concepts while simultaneously striving to develop a deeper understanding, A great aid for better understanding complex concepts is the so-called Feynman technique.
What is the Feynman Technique?
Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist, mainly known for his contributions to quantum mechanics. In 1965, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Shinichiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger.
After he died in 1989, his teaching philosophy evolved into what is now known as the Feynman technique.
This technique suggests that learners explain complex ideas in simple language, ensuring they genuinely understand these ideas. After all, anyone who struggles to describe a concept in simple terms probably hasn’t fully grasped it.
Basic Principles of the Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique states that you should first summarize your existing knowledge on a subject in your own words. Try to imagine you’re explaining the topic to a child or someone without prior knowledge.
Next, identify your knowledge gaps — the areas you couldn’t explain or only explained incompletely.
As we’ll read later, I recommend asking Socratic questions at this stage. Meaning, continuously ask deeper questions of yourself.
In the third step, return to your study material to fill these gaps. Then, revise your explanation and repeat the mentioned steps until you can articulate the subject clearly and simply.
Benefits of the Feynman Technique
The Roman Stoic Seneca once said:
“While we teach, we learn.”
By using the Feynman technique, you play the role of a fictional teacher explaining a concept to someone with limited knowledge.
You might also be familiar with the concept of the 5Rs:
Record – Take notes during the lecture.
Reduce – Summarize your notes after the lecture.
Recite – Recall the content from memory the next day.
Reflect – Integrate the notes into your prior knowledge and make connections.
Review – Briefly go over the notes just before the next lecture.
The Feynman technique inherently incorporates “Reduce, Recite, and Reflect”.
Practical Application of the Feynman Technique
Let’s say you’re learning about plant photosynthesis. After attending a lecture, you try to explain your existing knowledge to a child:
“Imagine plants have a superpower! They can take sunlight and turn it into their food. They do this with something green in their leaves called chlorophyll. Sunlight helps plants turn water and carbon dioxide from the air into sugar, which they use for energy.”
Now, you need to identify and fill knowledge gaps. In this example, you might realize you don’t precisely know how chlorophyll works or why plants need carbon dioxide. Or perhaps you’re unsure how sugar is stored in plant cells.
You research your learning resources, fill in the gaps, and then explain the concept again:
“Plants have a remarkable ability to harness energy directly from the sun. They do this through a process called ‘photosynthesis’.
At the center of this process is a molecule called chlorophyll, which is found in plant cells and gives plants their green color. Chlorophyll can capture sunlight and, with the help of water and carbon dioxide from the air, convert this energy into glucose – a type of sugar.
Plants then use glucose as a source of energy to grow and function.”
This technique forces you to simplify and use your own words. If you can do this, you’ve truly understood the concept.
Critique of the Feynman Technique
A brief internet search shows that the Feynman technique is popular, but there are also critical voices:
For instance, Danny Hatcher criticized in his YouTube video that the technique is not evidence-based and doesn’t delve deep enough because deep understanding isn’t achieved by explaining a concept to individuals who have a much lower level of comprehension.
Instead, Danny recommends dialogical learning – learning through dialogue – because exchanging ideas with others at a similar understanding level is much more likely to expose knowledge gaps and prompt the right questions.
I believe Danny’s criticism has its merits. The Feynman Technique isn’t the holy grail of learning. However, it does assist in acquiring a solid basic understanding of a subject. I also think that simplifying complex topics into easy analogies is an excellent way to expand one’s comprehension.
Those with children know that kids love to question things until they grasp the essence of a matter or until the adults, out of frustration, throw in the towel. Therefore, I think explaining concepts to children is a good idea, as long as one scrutinizes their explanation with the same childlike naivety.
I wouldn’t, however, limit my explanations to those fit for children, as the Feynman Technique generally advises, but would aim to continuously enhance the complexity of my explanations.
Ideally, you’d combine the method with other learning techniques, such as dialogical learning or Socratic questioning.
Since we tend to not recognize our blind spots, it’s undoubtedly beneficial to not only learn in isolation but also engage in dialogue with other learners.
Richard Feynman Technique as a Notion Template
If you, like me, use Notion to store notes and learn concepts, I have the perfect template for you.
My Feynman Technique Template will assist you in implementing this technique in Notion. Moreover, the template can easily be combined with the Zettelkasten Template I created, giving you a powerful knowledge hub.