The Feynman Technique for Learning

length: ~2 1/2 minutes

Forgetting What We Learn

At the end of 2016, I thought about the two-dozen books, thousands of articles, Quora posts, and other scraps of knowledge I encountered in the past few years.

My estimation is that I have retained less than 10%; and worse still, I let myself get away with not truly understanding a concept. The result is essentially anterograde amnesia – the inability to form new memories.

Part of the inspiration for Newcula comes from that pain. I will try to teach what I learn to you, and remember it better as a byproduct.

What’s a “Feynman”?

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics. But it was his willingness and ability to engage with science beginners that made him special. It’s why so many people outside of the physics circle know of Feynman, but not Schwinger nor Tomonaga, his two co-Nobel Laureates.

He was once asked by a professor at Caltech to explain some quantum theory to a freshman class. After some time, he returned and said, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

And that is the crux of the Feynman Technique.

The 4-step Feynman Technique

The legacy and reputation of Richard Feynman is a man who can explain severely complicated concepts to beginners. It should be no surprise then, that the learning technique named after him is likewise simple and easy to understand.

Step 1: Pick a Concept

Choose a concept that you deem worth remembering. This can be anything from quantum mechanics to psychology.

Take a piece of paper and write it down.

Now brainstorm everything you know about the subject.

Step 2: Teach it

At this point, everything you’ve brainstormed is probably only understandable to you, and experts in that subject.

Instead of an expert, pretend you are teaching this subject to someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject – a total beginner.

Practically what this means is to cut out technical jargon and avoid layering other complex concepts on top of it. Simplify.

At this point, you will be able to spot any gaps in understanding that you might have.

Step 3: Fill in the Gaps

Once you’ve identified the gaps, go back to the source material and reread, or branch out and find other materials explaining the subject. You will end up with smaller subtopics and you can use the same two steps above to make sure that you’ve successfully filled gap.

Once you’ve made sure the gaps are filled, go back to Step 2 and try again.

Step 4: Simplify and Analogize

Once you can successfully teach it to (an imaginary) beginner, go back once more to your notes and simply even further wherever possible. You’ll find that it might be easier now you understand the subject better yourself.

You should also try and form analogies. Since you now have a full understanding of the subject yourself, putting it in terms of an analogy will cement it in your memory. By associating one concept with something concrete, we trigger our visual memory. As I’ll explain in another post, our memories are designed to work spatially and visually. That’s why analogies help us remember.

To see this in action, watch this 2-minute video of Richard Feynman explaining physics and the scientific method through a god-chess analogy.

Next time you come across a concept you would dearly like to retain, follow this 4-step process and lockdown your learning.

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