“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” -Richard Feynman
Have you ever committed countless hours into a study session just to end up feeling frustrated because you can’t seem to retain the information or can’t develop a real understanding of the topic you’re learning?
What if there’s a better way? Meet the Feynman Technique, a clear cut way to improve your understanding of any subject and learn new material.
What is the Feynman Technique?
As Yogi Bhajan, a spiritual teacher and entrepreneur put it, “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” That’s the fundamental idea behind the Feynman Technique, named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman.
How does the technique work? According to a 2018 study by Aloysius Wei Lun Koh, Sze Chi Lee, and Stephen Wee Hun Lim found in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, “Teaching educational materials to others enhances the teacher’s own learning of those to‐be‐taught materials.”
Their study concluded that the benefits of learning-by-teaching play a massive role in memory retrieval. This method works because it requires you to internalize the material before communicating it to others.
Feynman believed that one of the best ways to study is to think critically and learn deeply to grasp a deeper understanding of an idea. In other words, if you take what you learn and simplify it as if you are explaining it to others who are unfamiliar with the idea, you’ll quickly be able to see where your weaknesses lie.
The goal is to learn by explaining in simple digestible language that a fourth grader can understand. If you can’t simply explain and teach the concept, then you don’t understand it well enough.
Applying the Feynman Technique to Study
It doesn’t matter what subject you’re learning or what field you’re trying to get into; the Feynman Technique is here to help with just five simple steps.
Step 1: Choose a Topic
Begin by picking a topic you want to understand and start studying it for 1-3 hours. Once you know that topic, get out a blank piece of paper, and write the subject at the top of the page.
Step 2: Write it Out
Write down the concept as simply as possible. Think of how you might explain it to someone with little to no familiarity with the idea.
When you write down an idea from the beginning to the very end in simple language, you force your brain to have a deeper understanding of the topic and bridge connections between new ideas.
Step 3: Start to Teach
As you’re writing down the explanation, describe the concept out loud and pretend you’re teaching it to a group of elementary kids. This step is crucial to understanding where you still have gaps in understanding and helps you better pinpoint areas for improvement.
Step 4: Revisits for Improvement
Whenever you feel like you can’t explain a topic in simple terms, go back to your notes and textbooks until you feel confident enough to write down those weak points simply and clearly.
When you can explain your understanding without using complicated and potentially unclear language, you’ve successfully demonstrated your knowledge of the topic. Step 4, in particular, challenges you and requires you to truly learn the material.
Skipping this step can produce a false illusion of knowledge.
Step 5: Simplify with Analogies
When you are unable to explain a concept simply, try to create an analogy to make your point. If you’re studying biology, for example, think about how veins are to blood as roads are to cars. This allows your brain to process the information in a different way and approach it from a new angle. In the end, the real test of your knowledge is the ability to transfer it to another person.
Think Like a Child, Win Like an Athlete
Studying isn’t always fun or easy. However, the Feynman Technique can help, especially when you are learning something new, want to broaden your understanding of a complex topic you’ve already learned, or are trying to improve your score on your upcoming exam.
While some people spend hours studying without significant results, you can cut the time down with this technique and retain that knowledge for years.
The next time you find yourself stuck on a complicated topic, use The Feynman Technique and turn your lessons into a teaching opportunity. As you’re able to comprehend ideas quickly, you’ll slowly start to see improvement with your academic performance.