“Do not read so much, look about you and think of what you see there.”
-Richard Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track
I’ve been thinking about how people learn lately, wondering if it’s true that we all learn differently. I’ve always identified as a visual learner, and almost everyone I know can state if they are visual, auditory, reading or kinesthetic learners. However, multiple research reports have emerged in recent years debunking these classifications. These reports indicate that your preferred method of learning doesn’t actually impact your test results. What do we do if the methods we’ve been following for years don’t actually help us learn?
Fortunately, there is one learning strategy that seems to work for nearly everyone: The Richard Feynman Technique.
Who is Richard Feynman?
Richard Feynman was a scientist, physicist, Nobel Prize winner, beloved professor and great thinker of our times. He was born in 1918 in New York City and died in 1988. Educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, he later went on to teach at CalTech. He was known for his work on developing nuclear weapons with the Manhattan Project, winning a Nobel Prize in quantum electrodynamics, investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster and his jovial attitude that often contradicted what you would expect from a scientist.
Beyond his scientific achievements, he is perhaps best known for encouraging others to think differently and more independently in order to truly learn and understand. He believed that too many people focused on memorization and not truly knowing something.
Feynman readily admitted when he didn’t know something. He even made lists of things he didn’t know and worked to connect them to things he did know. In an interview done in 1979, he was quoted as saying, “I don't know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
What is the Richard Feynman Technique?
Feynman and Albert Einstein are often considered to have been quite similar in a number of ways; Feynman even won multiple Einstein-titled prizes during his career for his various intellectual achievements. There’s a quote that’s typically attributed to Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Feynman must’ve followed this example, as he was known as “The Great Explainer.”
It’s understandable that someone with his intellectual curiosity, willingness to investigate what he didn’t know and eagerness to develop an understanding of any question he had would be capable of explaining things simply.
His ability to understand, diagram and explain even the most complicated of topics has led to the development of the Richard Feynman Technique. This mental model, or breakdown of how Feynman thought about problems, is a simple, four-step approach to learning anything.
1. Choose a Topic
To get started, write the subject or concept you want to learn about at the top of a blank sheet of paper.
2. Teach it to an Eight-year-old
Using simple language, write down what you know about the topic. It’s helpful to pretend you are teaching it to an eight-year-old to ensure that you are keeping your explanations clear and that you really understand the topic. If you haven’t been around any kids lately, just ask “why” after every sentence. That should help you dig deeper for the real meaning of the words you’re writing.
3. Review and Identify Gaps
When you can’t write anymore, review your notes and identify any areas where you need more information or where your explanation is not as sound as it could be. Also, identify areas where you are repeating yourself and select the best explanation. Then go back to your research to fill in those holes.
As the last step, check if there are any places where you used jargon or complex terminology. This is often an indicator that you don’t really understand the underlying concepts. For some reason, many people hide behind big words when they aren’t really sure what they’re talking about. Rewrite these sections in plain language or go back to your research sources if you don’t understand them. Also, be sure to delete repetitive information during your review. An important aspect of clarity is brevity.
Another optional step in this process is to actually teach the information to someone else. Whenever I have time to include this optional step, I always do it. Teaching helps me learn the information better and further highlight areas where I need to do more research. It helps me organize the information in a way that makes sense and tells a logical story. If I can’t find someone to be my student, even the act of sharing my information out loud can help me identify areas for improvement.
How Do You Use the Technique?
An important part of the technique is its objective. The goal is not to memorize more content, it’s to understand the information. As he explained in his essay, The Making of a Scientist, “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. … I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
Whether you want to learn about birds or something else, one of the best things about this technique is it can be applied to any subject or discipline. It’s the best way to really know something and not just know the name of something. I’ve used it in many situations including:
- As a study tool
- To learn about a new subject matter
- To improve my knowledge of subjects I’m already familiar with but want to learn more
- To recall ideas I don’t want to forget
- To learn about multiple topics in a short amount of time
- To dissect a complicated subject
- To stay on top of new developments in areas of interest (ex: politics)
No matter what subject I’m interested in, I find I develop a deeper and more authentic understanding of it when I use this method. It helps keep me focused and energized about my studies too. With simple and clear steps to follow to keep enhancing my knowledge, I don’t get bogged down in unnecessary information or lingo. For me, it’s been a much more efficient manner of studying than other methods I’ve tried.
It’s also helped improve my writing abilities. It helps me get all of my ideas on a topic out of my head and on to paper. Once they are on paper, I can better organize them and shape them into a coherent narrative and piece of content for my audience.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
There are no jokes here, despite what you may read in Feynman’s book of anecdotes by the above title. Although Feynman’s intellect may be near impossible to imitate, I’ve enjoyed learning to think like him. Digging deep not only boosts my intelligence, but it’s also fun! The technique named after him really is as easy as it sounds and really does work for nearly every person and every subject. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!