Feynman technique, named after Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate theoretical physicist, helps you understand new material at a deeper level.
Attributed to Albert Einstein, the following quote aptly encapsulates this technique:
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
Explaining a concept or lesson to someone as simply as possible lies at the heart of Feynman technique.
(Richard Feynman was known for pestering his colleagues for simple explanations to complex concepts. And this habit amply reflects in his famed lectures on Physics, where he focuses more on insights than on equations and numbers.)
“Duh, I know it!” you may be thinking. You may even be using it in your own unique way without knowing that the method is called Feynman technique.
Yes, the concept is intuitive, but it’s precisely this simplicity that lures us into missing it.
Let’s understand, with few examples, how you can adopt this technique for strengthening your learning.
How you can adopt Feynman technique for studying?
Pick a topic (on which you want to test your grasp and improve) and explain it to someone who has little understanding of it (Feynman recommends explaining to a 5-year-old!). If you can’t find someone who can bear your explanation, then explain it to yourself, preferably in writing.
If the benevolent audience understands what you’ve just explained, then you understand the topic well.
Let’s consider two examples to understand how you can simplify non-intuitive concepts:
Here is one way to explain entropy, a concept in physics:
Entropy is a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. In an isolated system, entropy either stays the same or increases.
Well, this will sound gibberish to someone who isn’t familiar with the topic.
Here’s a simpler way:
Entropy is often interpreted as disorder in a system. For example, if you leave an ice cube in the open (assuming an ambience temperature greater than the freezing temperature of water), it’ll melt. Earlier, as an ice cube, water molecules were compact. After the melt, they’re freer, leading to increase in disorder.
The latter explanation will make it much easier to understand entropy, won’t it?
Calculus, especially integral calculus, is hard. Many just go through the motions of applying standard methods to solve integration problems without an intuitive understanding of why they’re using that snake-like symbol.
You can apply Feynman technique to calculus too for explaining things simply.
Here is an intuitive, simple explanation for integration:
If you know nothing about integrals, how would you calculate this area?
The simplest way is to divide the area into thin rectangular slices and add areas of all the slices. (We divide the area into rectangular slices because it’s easy to calculate the area of a rectangle.)
Now, this is approximate area, because the rectangles don’t exactly follow the smooth curve. At points, they extend beyond the curve, and at points, they fall short of the curve.
And integration is the method to sum all these slices when their width approaches zero.
More intuitive! That’s the power of simple explanation.
In the process of explaining to others (or yourself), you’ll likely stumble few times, take a circuitous route to explain a particular part sometimes, or just stop dead.
These stumbles, long-winded explanation, and dead end represent gaps in your understanding.
Review these gaps and, if need be, refer the source material to re-learn them.
If you want to watch a video explaining Feynman technique, here is one (duration: 4:07 minutes):
The two examples in the first step are from physics and math, but you can use Feynman technique almost anywhere, including non-technical subjects.
Let me provide two examples from my own experiences wherein I used this technique in my own way to get some solid results. (Then, I didn’t know what Feynman technique is.)
While reading an article, I came across the word bourgeois. I paused for a split second because it seemed to be a difficult word to pronounce, but then I proceeded further down the article without doing anything about the word.
In the next paragraph, the same word reared its head again. This time, I moved my lips. I pronounced it. To my surprise, I stumbled. I sounded bit odd, unsure when pronouncing it. And as I do normally in such cases, I referred to an online resource and got the right pronunciation.
Just few minutes back, I thought I could pronounce the word (that’s why I didn’t check its pronunciation the first time).
Do you see what happened here?
While reading silently, I didn’t pick up the gap (in pronunciation). But the moment I read it loud (tried to explain to myself, in a way), I could spot the gap.
After I finish a book (usually non-fiction), I summarize the key messages and anecdotes from the book in my mind to test if I’ve understood the book well. This is sort of explaining 200+ pages in few simple, succinct sentences.
I think this is one of the important reasons why I’ve improved my retention from a book.
Why Feynman technique works: the science behind?
In his book Brain Rules, John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, refers to a research wherein two groups were asked to gaze at a list of words for few minutes. One group was asked to determine the number of letters that have diagonal lines in them (example: the word Weather has one letter – W – with diagonal lines) and the number that do not. The second group was asked to think about the meaning of each word and rate how much they like or dislike them on a scale of zero to ten.
After the exercise, the two groups were asked to recall the words they came across.
Which group do you think fared better?
The one which thought meaning!
The better we understand the meaning of something, the better we engrave it in our memory. To quote Dr. Medina:
The more a learner focuses on the meaning of information being presented, the more elaborately he or she will process the information. This principle is so obvious that it is easy to miss.
Feynman technique forces you to really understand a concept (otherwise, you won’t be able to explain it to a layman), thereby engraving it more firmly in your memory.
Second, as we saw in example 1, Feynman technique forces you to use lots of analogies. That’s another way to engrave concepts more firmly to your memory. And the more relevant and real-world the examples are, the better they work. To quote Dr. Medina again:
Examples work because they take advantage of the brain’s natural predilection for pattern matching. Information is more readily processed if it can be immediately associated with information already present [examples used in analogies constitute the information you already know] in the brain.
Explain concepts to someone in a simple way, spot the gaps in your understanding, and fill them up.
Simple, but often missed!