I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
– Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist
I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “energy.” But can you explain how energy causes a car to move or what happens to energy when ice melts?
Many students confuse knowing jargon with true understanding.
We might know the name of a concept, formula, or idea. But this doesn’t mean we know how it works or how to apply it to solve problems.
Richard Feynman developed the Feynman technique for this exact reason – to test and refine our understanding of a topic.
The Feynman technique helps you learn through the act of teaching. The technique involves explaining a topic using your own words, as if you were teaching it to a child.
This study strategy encourages you to break down complex ideas using simple language. This enables real learning to take place.
In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of using the Feynman learning technique. I’ll also explain the 4-step process you can use to apply this study method.
(If you want to be more focused, make sure to download the free quick action guide below.)
Advantages and disadvantages of the Feynman technique
The Feynman technique is an excellent study method that almost anyone can use to learn a new concept. It’s best suited for complex topics that involve more than memorizing a list of facts.
Some of the biggest benefits of using the Feynman technique to study are:
- It helps you distill a difficult subject into ideas that are simpler to understand. This allows you to engage with the new information in a meaningful way. It also helps to make you aware of possible knowledge gaps.
- It improves your critical thinking skills. You’re less likely to take everything at face value. This study technique encourages you to dig deeper. The goal is for you to learn to form your own conclusions and analyses.
- It encourages you to continually review new concepts. This will allow you to retain new information longer. As a result, you’ll get good grades on your exams.
- Your study sessions will be more interesting and engaging. You and your friends can take turns explaining new concepts to each other. These group study sessions are a great way to switch things up and make studying fun.
Like any learning method, the Feynman technique has its disadvantages. These include the following:
- This technique might not be suitable for certain subjects and topics. The Feynman technique isn’t effective for learning already-simple concepts. It’s also not ideal for topics that rely heavily on memorization.
- It’s time-consuming. Learning a new concept, understanding it at a deeper level, then explaining it in your own words can take significant time and effort.
It may take some experimentation to find out if the Feynman technique is effective for you.
Let’s explore the 4-step process you can implement to apply the Feynman technique.
Step 1: Understand the concept
Select a topic you would like to learn. Start small, and be specific with the scope of the topic.
For instance, it’s obviously impossible to learn everything about “biology” or “chemistry.”
Instead, narrow the subject down to something that might appear on your exams. For example, “structure of an animal cell” or “digestion of protein in the body.”
Once you have your topic, you can brush up on your knowledge by reading about it thoroughly. Then, jot down what you know on a blank piece of paper.
When writing out these notes, keep the following pointers in mind:
- Explain the concept using simple terms you understand.
- Break down larger topics into smaller sub-topics with their own headers and bullet points.
- Use mind maps to represent the relationship between different concepts. Mind maps have been proven to help learners understand and remember new concepts.
- Use real-life examples to simplify the concept. For instance, using the lock-and-key model to explain how enzymes interact with substrates. Studies show that using analogies improves learning and retention of difficult concepts.
- Explore how you can apply the concept. For example, applying a formula to solve a physics-related question or explaining how to make soap using a chemical equation.
Step 2: Explain the concept
This step is the heart of the Feynman technique.
You’ll need to talk about the concept using terms that are simple enough for a 12-year-old to understand.
For example, you might explain how an animal cell produces energy or how the greenhouse effect contributes to global warming. All your explanations must be concise.
To prepare for this step, use the Feynman notebook method. This is where you write down your explanation of a topic in your own words.
You can approach it like you’re organizing your thoughts or explaining it to someone else. You then discuss the concept out loud to see if it makes sense or if you trip up in certain areas.
Another option is to teach someone, preferably a friend studying the same topic as you. You can take turns teaching unfamiliar concepts to each other.
This creates a feedback loop.
Questions and comments from the other person can help you spot gaps in your understanding and increase your knowledge.
As you’re teaching your friend, watch for body language cues.
Nodding suggests that you’re on the right track. In contrast, blank stares and confused looks signal a lack of clarity in your explanation.
In addition, you can ask your friend to repeat what you taught them back to you, using their own words. If they’re unable to, you might need to simplify your explanation further.
Step 3: Identify and fill knowledge gaps
After completing Step 2, you’ll probably notice some gaps in your understanding.
Maybe you couldn’t come up with a simplified definition for cellular respiration. Or maybe you couldn’t contrast energy production in animal cells versus plant cells.
Identify these areas for improvement.
Were there any sections you couldn’t explain using simple language? Did your friends raise any questions or spot any inconsistencies?
At this point, you should go back to your learning materials to fill those knowledge gaps.
Here are some other things you can do to solidify your mastery of the topic:
- Create study notes for the topic. Write these notes using your own words and keep them concise. Research has shown that taking notes improves focus. It also enhances the retention and recall of information.
- Take advantage of technology. Search online for additional learning materials. These resources may come in different forms, such as a video presentation or an interactive website.
- Test yourself on the concepts you’ve learned. Apply what you’ve learned by doing some practice questions.
Step 4: Review and simplify
Learning isn’t a one-and-done process.
Repeat the four steps as needed to deepen your understanding. By doing this, you’ll also commit what you’re learning to your long-term memory.
Fine-tune your explanation through repeated self-testing or teaching it to your friends to get feedback. Repeat the process until you’re satisfied with your level of mastery of the topic.
Using the Feynman technique properly can be time-consuming, so be sure to set aside enough time for each topic that you want to cover.
One of the best ways to test and improve your knowledge of a topic is to break down complex ideas using simple terms you already know.
The Feynman technique trains you to do this, allowing you to pinpoint the gaps in your knowledge.
I encourage you to give the technique a try as soon as you can! I’m sure you’ll find it useful. 🙂
(And don’t forget to download the free quick action guide below.)