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Published on January 22, 2020

Learning Effectively with the Feynman Technique (The Complete Guide)

Learning Effectively with the Feynman Technique (The Complete Guide)

Effective learning is a subject that we cover extensively on Lifehack. And for that, we discuss a number of complicated theories that often take thousands of words to explain.

However, the Feynman Technique is one that’s so simple; even a kid would understand how to use it.

In this article, you will learn what exactly is the Feynman Technique and how you can use it to learn effectively.

What is the Feynman Technique?

The Feynman Technique is used to learn theories. Essentially, it’s used to memorize written material. This technique was developed by Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel prize winner who’s widely recognized as one of the most influential and iconic figures of his time.[1]

Although he was a brilliant scientist (hence the Nobel prize), he’s also known for his learning technique that makes the process extremely simple yet effective.

If you’re here, you’re probably wondering about how to learn with the Feynman Technique.

Well, it’s simple:

Explain what you’re trying to learn in the simplest of words and notice the gaps in your explanation.

Once those gaps are exposed, it’s easier for you to fill them up.

The power and effectiveness of this learning method reside in the ability to simply explain things. Although Feynman studied complex processes, he had the ability to explain them simply enough that even 12-year-olds could understand him.

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That’s why he was known as “The Great Explainer”.

The Trap of Sounding Smart

Let’s just agree to it:

We all love sounding smart.

There’s no better feeling for educated people than to sound like they know their stuff. But that leads to further complications at the time of learning.

When we’re so accustomed to using technical vocabulary, that’s how we explain a theory to ourselves while we learn it. This technical vocabulary gives us the false impression of understanding what we’re talking about.

Most of the time, our explanations have huge gaps that are covered with our carefully-chosen words. And the worst part, even we don’t realize the parts we’re missing. But if we were to sit down and dissect every line of our explanation, we’d notice that we’re missing a few pieces of the puzzle.

The basis of the Feynman Technique lies in simple explanation; meaning that we’re getting rid of all the useless jargon and trying to explain our concepts in a way that a 12-year-old child would be able to comprehend them.

When you try that, you notice that some of what you say probably doesn’t make sense, or that you’re jumping from one major point to another without having a clear idea of how the transition takes place.

Explaining simply and effectively is an art that takes time to master.

So while you’re at it, try to simplify your already-simplified explanation so you’re only exposing the concept underneath.

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How to Learn With the Feynman Technique

There are 4 parts to learning with the Feynman technique:

  1. Initial reading/studying
  2. Writing and explaining
  3. Noticing gaps and improper explanations
  4. Revisiting educational material

Let’s take a deeper look at it now.

1. Initial Reading/Studying

To start, you need to read the learning material extensively. I’m not talking about skimming through the words; you need to really get into it and read with this in mind that you’re trying to eventually memorize.

I find that reading for the sake of reading leads to lesser retention. So try to learn and retain while you read.

A lot of people think that explaining what you’re trying to learn comes after you’re done reading. But that often leads to poor understanding of the concept which forces you to reread the information.

Research suggests that rereading is an ineffective method of learning.[2] A good tip for learning with the Feynman technique is to explain each line as you read. This explanation allows you to clarify your concept along the way and afterward, focus on retention alone.

When you read the whole thing in one go and then try to clear concepts later, most of the information is lost in trying to explain and retain at the same time.

2. Writing and Explaining

Once you’ve read the text and explained it to yourself sentence-by-sentence, close the book (or tab) and take out a pen and paper.

Now, write down everything you know about the topic.

No matter what it is or how much sense it makes, just vomit all your information out and try to explain it in basic terminology.

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Remember: it’s extremely important to be clear in your explanation and use simple enough words that a 6th grader could understand you.

By convention, if a 6th grader won’t understand your explanation, it’s probably a bad one and you should work on further simplifying it.

You could also explain it to a real 6th grader… if they’d let you.

The major benefit of doing that is that you’ll see real-time reactions of what makes sense to an average person and what doesn’t.

3. Noticing Gaps and Improper Explanations

Now that you’ve written your explanation, take a second look at it and notice if everything makes sense.

Do the ideas flow right from one aspect to another? Are all aspects of the topic sounding crisp and thorough?

4. Revisiting Educational Material

If you’re like the rest of the human race, you probably messed up a few parts while you wrote. And so now, you should shine a light on those problematic parts.

Go back to your learning material and study again. This time, lay special emphasis on parts that you missed or messed up previously. This will allow you to use focused learning methods that can improve the retention of information.

The Biggest Benefit of the Feynman Technique

We’ve discussed the benefits of exposing your weak portions using the Feynman Technique. But one thing we haven’t focused on is what happens after those weak portions are exposed.

The biggest benefit of the Feynman Technique is that after the exposure of your weak points, you know what needs your immediate attention and what parts you can ignore while you re-study.

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This selective focus is what helps you retain the tricky parts that you always seem to forget.

Extended Applications in Decision-Making

Although the Feynman Technique is used for learning theory, I find its principles to be quite universal. And I have personally been using these principles in decision making.

I’ve stopped trying to over-complicate decisions or avoiding their explanations.

Whenever I face a problem, I take out a pen and paper and write down the explanation of my decision. I try keeping it as simple and blunt as I can such that a 12-year-old would understand the reason behind my choice.

A lot of times, I see that my explanations don’t make much sense or that they’re incomplete. I’m assuming that I know what I’m doing when in reality, I don’t.

Most of us aren’t willing to think too much about hard decisions since we’re afraid to face them. When they come, we think we understand them and their complexity and that we understand our actions and their consequences.

But if we focus on those decisions, dissect them and explain to ourselves why we’re taking them, we might end up taking better ones.

The Bottom Line

The Feynman Technique is an excellent method of understanding your decisions and fine-tuning stuff that doesn’t quite add up.

If you want to learn effectively, particularly complicated or difficult theories, the Feynman Technique is a very useful tool for you.

More about Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Joel Muniz via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

One of the most crucial aspects of our lives is the ability to learn. We often take this skill for granted since not many of us pause and think about our learning process. In fact, if we did, we would probably uncover that we engage in ineffective learning mechanisms.

Think about it. Has your learning helped you recall things you learned last month? Go back a year and ponder.

A lot of how we learn was tucked away in school. Our exposure to school learning is the basis of how we learn moving forward. However, over the past few decades, learning has evolved into different stages of learning, and that becomes the main issue.

No longer are we looking at examinations of people’s characteristics about understanding and learning. Instead, scholars have created learning processes that use materials that support our interactions with others and our goals.

As a result, we can learn new things more smartly and effectively – which will be covered as we proceed further in understanding the learning process.

The Essential Steps of the Learning Process

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that the key to success is for us to practice 10,000 hours on a specific skill. It’s also worth noting that the skill needs the correct learning direction. If you’re learning how to do something the wrong way, you’ll continue to use it the wrong way.

But before understanding the learning process, we must understand the stages of learning. Written in the 1970s, Noel Burch created a model called the Four Stages of Learning. [1]

From there, we can use the stages of learning as a basis for how to learn effectively.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

Think of a skill that you are good at and that you use every single day.

Now think back to when you first developed that skill. Were you good at it? Probably not.

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You never heard of the skill or had a desire to learn of it until that point. This is the first stage: You know nothing about it.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Once you have heard of the skill, you begin to delve into it.

Driving a car is a perfect example. Before this stage, you never felt the need to learn how to drive. Nevertheless, once you became of legal age, you had to study to get your license. You likely made several mistakes on the driving test as well as during the written test.

This is the stage where you feel learning is slow, and you’re also aware of your mistakes.

3. Conscious Competence

By this stage, you know pretty much everything you need to know. At the same time, though, you are also aware that you need to focus and concentrate on what you are doing.

This stage can be that you know the rules of the road and can drive well. However, you feel you can’t talk to anyone, play any music, or look away from the road. You feel like you need total silence to focus and concentrate on driving.

At this stage, learning can be even slower than the previous stages. The learning isn’t consistent, nor is it a habit yet.

4. Unconscious Competence

By this stage, you’ve made it. You know everything in and out about the skill. It’s become a habit, and you don’t need to concentrate. You can relax and let your unconscious mind take over.

Exceeding the 4 Stages: Flow/Mastery

While Burch only covered four stages, there is another stage that exceeds it. This is the flow or mastery stage.

You may have heard of something called a flow state. [2] It’s the mental state where someone is performing an activity and is fully immersed in it. They feel energized, focused, and get a sense of joy from doing this activity.

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Flow or mastery can stem from all kinds of activities like Writing, reading, jogging, biking, figure skating, and more. It’s also characterized as complete absorption in what you’re doing, making you unaware of space and time.

Different Types of Learning Process

Another aspect of the learning process is the types of learning. While every person goes through those stages of learning, how we learn is different.

Having covered four learning styles in 4 Learning Styles to Help You Learn Faster and Smarter, I’m recapping the different types of learning in psychology.

Psychiatrists have narrowed how we learn down to seven learning styles as below:

  • Visual (spatial): Learning through pictures, graphs, charts, etc.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): Learning through sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): Learning through spoken or written words.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): Learning through the body, hands, and a sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): Learning through logic, systems, and reasons.
  • Social (interpersonal): Learning through groups or talking to people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): Learning individually through self-study or individual assignments.

You may be asking why all of this matters and actually how we learn plays a significant role. How we internally represent experiences stems from how we learn. What we learn not only establishes how we recall information but also impacts our own word choice.

It also influences which part of our brain we use for learning. Researchers uncovered this through various experiments.[3]

For example, say you’re driving to a place you’ve never gone before. How you learn will determine which method of learning you’ll use. Some will ask people for directions, while others will pull up Google maps. Some will write the directions out, while some won’t and merely follow street signs.

Knowing how to learn to this depth is vital because once you know what style you use, you can then develop a learning process to be a more effective learner.

How To Become an Effective Learner?

The learning process varies from person to person. Generally speaking, though, consider the following steps and considerations:

1. Improve Your Memory

Learning doesn’t only require that we learn information, but to retain it. If we are to learn something, we will have to learn and relearn. This means recalling and having a sharp memory to keep that information.

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Improving our memory can range from a variety of things. From memory palaces to practicing other memory improvement tactics.

2. Keep Learning and Practicing New Things

Learning a new skill takes time, but there is nothing wrong with learning a few other things. International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training[4] reported that those who juggled between learning different topics increase their gray matter which is associated with visual memory

3. Learn in Many Ways

While we have our own go-to style, delving into other types and stages of learning can be useful. If you learn by listening to podcasts, why not try rehearsing information verbally or visually?

It will not start great, but by improving your skill to describe what you learned orally, you are further cementing the knowledge in your mind.

Judy Willis MD, M.Ed in her publication on Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success[5] states how the more regions we keep data stored, the more interconnection there is in the collection information that we later process.

4. Teaching What You Learned to Others

It doesn’t have to be in a tutoring situation, but this method is still a reliable way for two people to grow.

Regardless of learning styles, we retain the information we tell others more effectively than if we keep it to ourselves. Was there a random fact you told someone a few months ago? You are more likely to remember that information because you brought it up to someone.

5. Use Relational Learning

Relational learning is relating new information to things you already know.

A typical example of this is remembering someone’s name. You can better recall that person’s name if you associate that name to something or someone familiar.

6. Gaining Practical Experience

Nothing beats learning than trying it for yourself. Sure, seeing information does have its strong points -and most learning styles benefit from exposed information – there is something to be said about getting your “hands dirty.”

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7. Refer Back to past Info If Need Be

The learning process is not perfect. We’ll forget at certain points. If you ever struggle to remember something, make a point of going back to your notes.

This is key because if we try recalling, we risk ourselves learning or relearning the wrong answer. And again, there is a difference between learning the right way and the wrong way.

8. Test Yourself

While this step may seem odd, there are benefits to testing yourself. Even if you think you know everything about the topic, going back and testing yourself can always help.

Not only does testing improve our recall, but we may realize that we learned a concept or task incorrectly. That knowledge can enhance our effectiveness in the future.

9. Stop Multitasking

While we should be learning new things all the time, we shouldn’t be trying to do several tasks at once. We ought to focus on one activity at a time before moving onto other tasks.

By trying to multitask, we are learning less effectively and are only hindering ourselves. Check out how multitasking is merely another way of distracting ourselves.

Bottom Line

Psychologists define learning as the process of a permanent change in a person’s behavior resulting from experience. The understanding of the learning process is up to us, but do consider the bigger picture. Be aware of what style works best for you, and work to improve it while enhancing other learning styles. The only way we can advance a skill is to learn continuously. Even in the skills you have mastered, there are always new developments.

You can learn more about how you can cultivate lifelong learning and attain an edge in every niche that you get associated with today!

Featured photo credit: Aliis Sinisalu via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Gordon Training International: The Four Stages of Competence
[2] Habits for Wellbeing: Flow: the Secret to Happiness: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
[3] Training Industry: How the Brain Learns
[4] International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training
[5] Judy Willis MD, M.Ed: Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success

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