Use the “Feynman Method” to Learn New Things

We often don’t understand things the way we think. How often have you “learned” something that you can’t fully remember later, or that you can’t explain to someone else? While we previously encouraged you to write down or discuss a detailed version of your understanding, there is a related and easier way to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge: the Feynman technique.

It comes from physicist Richard Feynman’s observation that if you can’t explain a complex concept at a simpler level, you probably don’t understand it yourself. Or to put it another way: teaching others can be the best way to learn.

How to learn with the Feynman method

There is a four-step method named after Feynman. It looks like this:

  1. Teach imaginary child concepts.
  2. Identify gaps in your knowledge and go back to the source material to find out what you are missing.
  3. Organize your notes in the form of a narrative.
  4. Now go and teach it to someone.

Teachers recognize that this is about the same process as preparing a lecture. You may think that you know your topic, but when you think about what you are going to say, you will realize that there is one detail that you need to find. Or you recognize a place where a student will ask a question and you’re not entirely sure how best to answer the question.

When Richard Feynman remarked that if you can’t explain something, you just don’t understand it, he was trying to prepare a lecture for college freshmen. People have since expanded this idea into being able to explain something to a “five-year-old” or “smart schoolboy.”

There is no specific age of a person to strive for. I know many science writers who say they are explaining a difficult topic by imagining they are telling their grandmother, husband, or best friend about it. And it is worth remembering that the younger the audience, the more you have to simplify.

This can backfire if you end up oversimplifying so much that you miss all the important details you want to understand. “The doctor will give you medicine so that you don’t get sick” is an explanation for vaccinations that a two-year-old child can understand. But if instead you were talking to a ten-year-old, you would need to say something about how the medicine keeps you from getting sick . You can also include a discussion of efficiency; Vaccines are not a guarantee against disease .

You can repeat the first and second steps of the Feynman Method over and over again if you like. Explain the topic out loud or in a note on your phone, then brush up on the hard part and repeat. The third and fourth steps are only necessary if you want to explain the subject to someone else.

Organizing your notes is important because you need to know where to start. The way we think about a topic is often a series of nested thoughts (where referring to one thought reminds us to go deeper, as here), but to give a clear explanation, you need to unravel all these parts and put them together. structure. path that can be taken.

Finally, you can get your message across to a real child, grandmother, or partner. And if they ask questions that you cannot answer, it does not mean that you have failed. Just answer with an honest “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” and repeat the steps one more time.


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