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Introduction

The Feynman technique is a 4-step study method that aims to help students understand any concept. This method puts emphasis on the active process of learning through inquiry.

It breaks the notion that a person must be an expert when using fancy words and jargon when talking about something.   

The technique is attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. He was known for his contributions to the field of physics and quantum mechanics. His former students and associates often talked about his ability to explain complex topics in simple terms, making it understandable and less intimidating. He was also known to frequently ask his colleagues to explain concepts in simple language to test their comprehension.

Related reading: How to Study Using Spaced Practice

4 Steps Study Method:

1. Choose a concept to learn:

Take a piece of paper and write the topic on top. Study as much as you can about the subject. Read books, listen to podcasts and lectures. To keep track of your progress, write everything you know on a piece of paper.

2. Teach it to yourself or a person who is not knowledgeable about the subject:

Try to emulate a teacher who is explaining a lesson to a class. Explain the concept from beginning to end. Aside from definitions and explanations, work on sample exercises. If, at any point, you lose your train of thought or your description becomes too wordy, take a pause. This is a sign that there is a knowledge gap.

Try to use simple words. The point of this step is to make the explanation as simple as possible. Being able to explain complex topics in simple terms displays comprehension. A person’s level of understanding can be gauged by their ability to effectively explain something using simple language.

Brevity. Pay attention to how much you spend explaining a concept. Try to imagine yourself explaining this to a child. Children and people who do not know much about a topic have a short attention span—using jargon that does not make sense of them will further distract them from listening. Try to keep your explanations simple and

Reminder: do keep in mind that at this stage, your delivery will not be perfect. There might be factual errors in your explanations, and your “audience” might lose interest sooner than you expect. At this stage, the critical part is to identify your areas for improvement and be aware of what you know and what you don’t know.

3. Identify knowledge gaps, then go back to the source material:

Knowledge gaps are the areas where you struggled to explain concepts wholly and correctly—where you might have gotten information wrong or did not understand as much.

These gaps are not meant to highlight incompetency and weakness; instead, identifying these gaps is intended to be the starting point in correcting your explanation. After identifying gaps, go back to the source material, and use other sources if needed. This step will probably take the most time. You will know it’s time to move on when you can explain the concept in simple terms, from start to end without or with minimal use of jargon. 

4. Organize, simplify:

Organize. By this stage, you will have a lot of notes containing explanations of the concepts. Organize it so that it tells the “story” of the idea, from beginning to end. This time around, you will use simple words and explain the concepts correctly. Should you find yourself using jargon, it will be because it’s the correct term to use. You will be able to explain in simple terms should any questions arise.

Simplify. After collating all your notes, streamline everything. Review your explanations. Identify areas when you got stuck or used highfalutin language, and try to break it down. By this point, you will have a set of neatly organized notes and study materials.  

Impart this knowledge with someone else, preferably to someone who does not know much about the subject. Better yet, discuss this topic with a child. Again, use simple terms and avoid using jargon when explaining to help them understand the concept.

This time around, you can use your own notes as a guide. If your “student” asks questions, take it in stride, as this will illuminate areas where you may need further understanding (which will require you to go back to step 3). Students might ask questions they did not think of asking themselves while studying using this technique.

Why the Feynman Technique Works

Aside from being a highly regarded scientist, Richard Feynman was said to be a great teacher. He could explain incredibly complex concepts using simple language. But, of course, not all subject experts are great teachers.

It takes special skills for an expert to explain complex ideas to a college freshman. This learning technique was named after him because it is how he learned and mastered equations and concepts.

The Feynman technique works because it requires students to break down concepts into simple terms and reconstruct them while staying true to the ideas. Complicated vocabulary and jargon are meaningless if a student can’t explain it in their own words; it would seem like they just memorized those words and concepts without really understanding anything.

To present an idea to a casual listener or a child, students have to force themselves to understand it at a deeper level and make connections so that they can make it understandable to others.

This technique improves students’ learning habits because instead of simply absorbing information, students are forced to engage with the material—study, explain, make mistakes, research, and refine until they finally master the concept.

Why It Is Useful

The Feynman technique can be used at any point during the learning process. It can be used when you want to learn something new, but it can also be helpful if you want to have a deeper understanding of concepts. It is particularly useful when studying for an exam.

Students can test their comprehension of a topic and challenge their assumptions about a subject. It is one thing to understand all the details of a topic or concept in one’s head, but quite another to explain it to someone else.

1. Improving the Learning Process

The Feynman technique promotes active learning by encouraging students to engage with the study material. Students are often asked questions that require them to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of concepts, and this is what happens when students attempt to discuss ideas and topics in simple terms. This level of understanding cannot be achieved through reading, notetaking, and memorization.

The problem with reading and taking notes is that students might unknowingly transcribe words from a book or a lecture without context. Some subjects demand a good amount of memorizing and reading.

For example, subjects like math and science require students to memorize formulas and apply these in exams. Students should incorporate this method into their study sessions to test their understanding of concepts.

2. Awareness Goes A Long Way

One unique feature of the Feynman technique is its ability to shed light on what students have yet to fully understand. During steps 1 and 2, students will get a sense of how much or how little they know of a topic. In a way, the Feynman technique forces people to be aware of what they don’t know, which then encourages students to engage with the concept and content in a way that can fill those gaps—and to do so repeatedly until they understand it.

Students shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that they’re an expert in the field just because they know a few things about a topic.   

3. Curiosity is Key 

This technique encourages students to ask questions and to find answers themselves using a systematic approach. Once students can identify things that they don’t know, they can start seeking answers to these questions. This method is also applicable to all types of topics.

Final Thoughts

The Feynman technique forces students to engage in learning materials at different levels. Students have to study a concept, explain it well, and consolidate everything so that the student can master a concept.

In the process, students will be forced to confront the areas in which they are still lacking so that they can improve continuously. In the long run, students can build their confidence about their knowledge of a topic and their ability to learn from others.  

Learning is a many-faceted process, which is why it is best to have a systemic approach. Gone are the days when rote memorization and copying notes was enough.

To be able to master a concept one has to continuously engage with the material in various ways. The Feynman technique is a good technique to use for those who wish to gain full understanding of a topic.

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Patricia Alfonso

Patricia Alfonso is an educator and researcher who earned her master's degree in guidance and counseling from Ateneo de Manila. She specializes in developing school counseling programs for schools.

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