It’s a struggle all students can relate to. How do we master difficult concepts from school and actually get them to stick? I provide plenty of study tips and strategies on my Youtube channel and on this blog. While you can find similar tips elsewhere, I know that teaching you the strategy is only half the equation. The other half is knowing when to actually use it. I have gone over various memorization strategies (blogpost and video) and when to use each, as well as how and when to use flashcards in my Anki series. In this post, I’ll go over not only how to use the Feynman technique, but when to use it as well.
The Feynman technique is named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel-prize winning physicist. I’m not going to go into all the ways that Richard Feynman was a huge badass, but feel free to read more about him – he’s a very fascinating guy. Among other things, he was known as The Great Explainer because of his teaching chops.
What is the Feynman Technique?
The Feynman technique will help you master difficult concepts in a way that you will retain them for long periods of time. There are four steps to it:
- First, write the concept’s name at the top. You are deliberating focusing your attention on mastering this one topic or concept.
- Next, explain the concept using simple language, as if you were explaining it to one of your friends who is unfamiliar with it. This is where the magic happens, because of what happens next.
- As you work on explaining the concept, you will naturally identify problem areas – areas that you are having difficulty explaining in simple terms. Use this as a guide to go back to your textbook or lecture materials to fill in the gaps in your understanding.
- Now that you’ve explained the concept, go back and pinpoint any complicated terms and challenge yourself to simplify them further. Feel free to use analogies that may aid in understanding. Don’t just think of how to make it simple, think of how you would explain it to a child.
My Experience with the Feynman Technique
In my own time as a student, I used this technique time and time again. I just didn’t know there was a name for it. Both as a premed in college and as a medical student, this technique helped me master difficult concepts very quickly. The traditional way the technique is explained is to write this all out on a piece of paper to pretend like you’re teaching someone. The way I like to implement it is to have a group study session with only one or two other people and actually take turns teaching the difficult concepts to one another up on the white board. As each person takes their turn teaching the group, attempt to simplify it further each and every time. When the group gets stuck, refer to your textbooks and notes and try to solve the problem together.
The act of simplifying difficult concepts using the Feynman technique helps a great deal with understanding and information retention. But the sensory stimulation and emotional responses of explaining to your friends real time in a small group setting takes it to the next level. Studying alone with a piece of paper is not as memorable as explaining the concept to others when their eyes are on you. After I mastered a concept by teaching my friends, I would not have to study it again for the exam.
I do not recommend group studying like this all the time. It’s best used occasionally and with smaller groups. I go over how to use group studying in some of my earlier videos.
When to Use It
Now when should you actually use it? To be most efficient, you should not be using this for everything you study. It will be more appropriate for certain classes or topics and less so for others. The Feynman technique is most commonly described for difficult mathematical concepts. But I used it during my time in undergrad studying Neuroscience or tackling difficult concepts in medical school.
The key is knowing when to use it. If the topic is a task of memorization, then the Feynman technique is generally not going to be very helpful. There’s also no point wasting time using the Feynman technique on concepts that you find simple and easy to understand already. For simple memorization (which there is a lot of for most students), use flashcards, mnemonics, or the memory palace. I go over how to use each one in my Memorization video.
For concepts requiring more complex understanding, use the Feynman technique. In medical school I found this most useful for topics that had challenging concepts or complex interactions. Specifically cardiology and pulmonology, which both had a little bit of math and physics, as well as immunology, renal, and neurology. As a premed, I used the technique often during the most difficult Neuroscience classes that required deep understanding of multiple elements interacting together.
The Feynman technique is great for these specific cases. Don’t feel like you have to do small group study sessions like I did. That was just my preference. Our learning styles are different, so as always, figure out what works best for you. Have you tried the Feynman technique? Let me know about your experience and thoughts in the comments below.