Feynman Technique: A more effective way to learn

The way we are taught to learn in schools is ineffective. Teachers tell us to read material, listen to their hour-long classes, and do homework to reinforce our knowledge. But most of the work students do is around inputs — reading and listening — and not enough outputs. Indeed, even when young people are told to do work that will engage them in the material, they are still hesitant — it takes more work and independent thinking.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist believed in the idea that we remember information better when are fully engaged with it and teach it to someone else. This idea is called the Feynman Technique. Feynman done detailed work in quantum computing, particle physics, and various other disciplines. Feynman was also a prolific teacher, and spent a lot of time explaining hard-to-grasp ideas to students. Ever since Feynman came up with the idea that active learning boosted retention, there have been many studies which back up the effectiveness of Feynman’s observance.

Feynman created a framework which would allow him to better retain the information he had learned. The technique was designed to be simple, so anyone could use it. The three main steps of the technique are as follows:

1. Teach your knowledge to a child

2. Revise

3. Collate and Simplify

The three steps of the Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique has three main steps which can be easily applied to your learning. There is also an optional fourth step — transmission — where you will test your grasp over an idea by running it past someone else.

1. Teach your knowledge to a child

After you have read what you are trying to learn, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down the topic you want to learn about. Then write out everything you can remember about that topic. But, you have to write it in a way that a child would find easy to understand.

Learning sentence structures? Write about it so a thirteen-year-old could understand. Learning about the U.S. Government? Write about it so a ten-year-old could understand. When you are writing, you have to take into account the different demographics for which you are writing. If you are writing for a ten-year-old, you need to use basic vocabulary — no complex terminology; writing for a six-year-old requires different writing rules to be used.

There are a couple of reasons why this is important. Firstly, writing everything in a simplistic way encourages you to think deeper into the material. You will be asking yourself: How can I explain this topic to a seven-year-old? And in so doing you will gain new insights over the topic. You will also have to consider how you can simplify some of the technical terminology you have learned, because a child would not be able to understand it.

When you encounter a point where you cannot simplify something, it is most likely an indicator that you do not know very much about that idea.

2. Revise

After you each a point where there is a gap in your knowledge — you cannot remember something, or explain it effectively to a child — then you know exactly what you need to learn next.

You should go back to the knowledge you did not understand, take a note of it, then go back to the source of the knowledge and revise the concept. Take a few notes of what you have learned and stay engaged with the material. When you feel as if you can explain that concept effectively to a child, then you can go back to writing it down for a child. This will keep you fully engaged in the learning process, which will help boost retention. And going over what you already know will make it less likely that you make common errors.

3. Collate and Simplify

Following steps one and two will give you a detailed set of notes targeted at a child. After revising, you should then review your notes. Take some time to ensure you have not used any technical terminology — inadvertently — in your work. If you find something that does not make sense, or would not make sense to a child, then go back to the revision stage to ensure you have a firm grasp over the knowledge.

As you collate information, you will build up a larger repository of facts which will be easy to read. And if you forget something weeks or months after learning about it, you can go back to your paper and easily revise what you wanted to learn.

4. Transmission (optional)

After you have followed the previous steps, you can (optimally) teach what you have learned to someone else. This will give you practice in communicating what you have learned orally, instead of through only writing, in turn helping you improve your grasp over a particular concept.

The Feynman Technique is a great way to get you thinking about something from a different perspective. This technique forces you to think about how you can articulate your knowledge as if you were teaching a child. You have to think about how you can simplify what you are doing. You need to review your work to identify any flaws in your explanation or logic. The Feynman Technique will also prepare you to actually teach other people who want to know what you have learned — you have already thought about how that knowledge can be simplified.