What a Nobel Prize-Winning physicist taught us about learning complex subjects
April 9, 2017
Richard Feynman is a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist known for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he obtained his B.Sc. in 1939 and at Princeton University where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1942. Throughout his career, he holds multiple awards including Albert Einstein Award, Einstein Award, and Lawrence Award.
In addition to being a brilliant scientist, Feynman also called “The Great Explainer” for his ability to relay complex ideas to others in simple, intuitive ways. Most of us may not be a scientist, but in reality, his technique in doing so is useful and applicable in anything we want to learn.
In a lecture given by Richard Feynman in 1966, he told a story that pointed out that there are two types of learning. Most people aren’t aware of them but understanding the difference between them helps you to learn better.
The first one is knowing the name of a concept. In this first type of learning, what we did is simply know and memorize the name of it. And most of the time, we don't understand the entire concept of that particular piece of knowledge. For an example, we all know about gravity, but I’m sure most of us who are reading this can’t explain what gravity is.
The second type of learning is knowing the knowledge itself. When you master this, you don't just know the name, you grasp the complete picture, you can simplify it, you can utilize it, and you can create your own ideas around and based on the very same knowledge. Furthermore, when you master the second type of learning, you can explain it.
Most techniques that help us to learn faster focus on the first type of learning. While this statement makes people who created those techniques seem shallow, I don’t think that’s the case. Putting it into a better context, we, the readers, students, and consumers, focus on the first type of learning most of the time.
Part of the reason is because it takes too long to get to the next level and new knowledge, in its natural characteristic, has a very low retention rate due to our limited cognitive performance. At the same time, the main factor here is because we don't have a strategy to get there.
Related Article: The Three Zones of Learning
Named after Richard Feynman, this learning technique is useful for anyone, to learn basically anything at a deeper level, in a short period of time. Instead of using the passive learning method that is less effective, the Feynman technique is an active way of learning.
Indeed, this technique is the exact technique Richard implemented to master his exams in Princeton University, stated out clearly by James Gleick, in his biography of Feynman.
You can use the Feynman technique to:
Let's go through the Feynman technique so you can implement this to learn anything faster and better.
Step 1 doesn't sound like a step at all. But this is one common mistake people made in their learning. Failing to draw a clear line and define what concept we want to learn is the guaranteed way to waste all the time and energy you invest into your study.
The first step is to select the concept you want to learn. If the concept is new to you, walk through it for one to two times before you proceed to step two. Take out a blank piece of paper and write the title out on top of the page.
Now, write down everything you know to explain the concept. Pretend like you’re teaching it (not to an expert or your professor) but to a toddler. This eases off the pressure to get everything right and helps you to revise the concept you just learned in your own words. Avoid using any jargon vocabularies in this step because that usually how we fool ourselves.
This step is crucial because it doesn't only revise what you have already known, it also reveals and pinpoints the areas that you don't fully understand.
There will be questions and gaps pop up when we are doing step two. No worries, that’s the point of using this technique. You now have a clearer picture of what you know and what you still don’t know.
Go back to the materials to fill in the gaps. This process helps you to understand the knowledge at a deeper level. Repeat step 2 and 3 until you feel you can understand and explain the concept completely.
Review the final concept you get. If you are using overly wordy or confusing language, or you simply rephrase the paragraphs without truly understand the concept, try again so you filter the content.
Simplify your vocabularies and language so you’re explaining it in your own analogy. One way to do this is by pretending you’re teaching verbally. If you’re using your own words and have a complete grip on the concept, your speech and presentation should be smooth without very little lags.
This technique reminds me of my years in the university where I spent very little time memorizing, but a great deal of time in explaining the lecture to my friends (before I understand a topic entirely) and revising on the gaps I found I didn’t understand.
This not only a useful learning technique but also a great window for us to see perspectives of genius in learning. Learning it not about remembering, but understanding. How do you know when you understand a certain concept? When you can explain it simply in your own words.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” —Albert Einstein
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