The Danger of the Feynman Technique (why most people are using it wrong)10 min read

Published by Zach on

The Feynman (pronounced “Fine-man”) technique has changed my life. Reviewing all the study methods I’ve ever used, this technique easily secures a place as one of my top five study methods. The basics of the technique are that you try to explain a complicated topic in simplified terms, allowing you to better understand the complex topic. Pretty simple right? I thought so. The only problem is that my grades went down when I first started using it, and my time spent studying went up; what was I doing wrong?

Over time, I identified the Feynman technique’s fundamental principles, the golden rules. When I started to use the technique properly, my understanding of topics not only deepened, but I found myself making new connections and sometimes even guessing test questions (that’s a good feeling). And, of course, my grades went up too. The incredible power of the technique is the how the technique is unique and perfectly matched to each student. My explanations are the most perfect for me because they are my explanations.

In this post, I’ll give you 8 tips to level up the Feynman Technique.

What is the Feynman Technique?

Richard Feynman was a renowned author, physicist, teacher, and more. Albert Einstein was present during Feynman’s talks when Feynman was a graduate student, and Bill Gates reports Feynman as “the greatest teacher I never had.”

Personally, the trait I most admire in Richard Feynman was his teaching ability. I’ve watched a couple of old videos of him talking and his lectures, and I am always astounded by his ability to make reading a few o the complex extremely simple. So how do we use this magical technique? There are three simple steps:

  1. Identify the information; what did you learn?
  2. How would you teach it? Imagine explaining this information to a 12-year-old child.
  3. How did your explanation sound? Could you simplify it? Study up some more and try explaining the topic even more simply.

Ok, now we know what it is; let’s get to the meat of this post. How can we maximize the potential of this fantastic technique?

1. Understand the topic first

Don’t learn something for the first time with the Feynman Technique. Remember, what we are doing with the Feynman technique is taking something complex and making it simple so we can understand the complicated thing better. So, if you take that difficult thing that you don’t even understand yet, and try to apply this technique, you may find it impossible to explain. Secondly, and more importantly, you may explain the information wrong. You don’t want to do that because you are storing the wrong information in your brain.

This is why I don’t learn something with spaced repetition or active recall when learning something for the first time. I actually have to understand something before I can explain it, right? So I learn it! I don’t open up my textbook on mitosis and try and explain anaphase if I don’t even know what a chromosome is.

Usually, you are alone, coming up with this explanation to yourself. Make sure you understand the topic by possibly reading the chapter in the book very carefully, watching a third-party video, or having a friend explain it before attempting the Feynman Technique.

Bottom Line: Make sure you really understand the complex topic first.

2. Long-term retention

So you just read ten dense pages on mitosis, you watched a 20-minute YouTube video, and you spent 30-minutes drawing out every step. Then, you practiced the explanation three times until you finally figured out a super simple way to explain mitosis, the lamp you’ve been explaining it to seems to really understand how a cell becomes two cells.

Ok, bam, mitosis down. Now, why not just go straight into learning meiosis and the Kreb’s cycle, and … No! You just did so much work? Don’t you want to consolidate that information? Convert that information to long-term memory.

Studies indicate we lose as much as 2/3 of learned information 48 hours after learning it. We don’t want those one or two hours we just spent on the Feynman technique to waste, so what do we do? We make sure we use the magic of spaced repetition to keep this knowledge until test day (I have a huge post here on spaced repetition).

This is what I would do:

  • Use the Feynman Technique
  • Create one flashcard that says, “explain mitosis – Feynman,” and in the answer, write down precisely the explanation you just perfected. You can use a physical flashcard or Anki.
  • If you want to get extra, you could create an additional 3-5 questions on the main points of the thing you just explained, but make sure these are simple flashcards like: “The phases of mitosis are Interphase, Prophase, “BLANK,” Anaphase, Telophase, and Cytokinesis.” Notice how this flashcard is just a simple fill-in-the-blank.

Ok, now, you can move on to studying meiosis. How fun!

Bottom Line: After perfecting your explanation, create a flashcard out of the explanation and test yourself regularly.

3. Notes on notes on notes don’t work

In college, I used to study by taking notes on notes on notes. I wish I had some of my posts to read or briefly looked up the evidence around summarizing (the evidence doesn’t support it)2. It’s not necessarily that this technique is terrible; there are techniques so much better than this. Like active recall and spaced repetition, especially once you’ve understood the information.

The idea behind notes on notes seems to make sense initially; you simplify the information. The problem is the notes on notes method is inefficient. In medical school, time is tough to come by, so I jump on any strategies that can save me time without losing retention.

So, don’t just rewrite your simplified summary repeatedly to try and concrete it in your head. Instead, do one or two rounds of simplification after you’ve had your initial attempt at the Feynman technique and then convert the information to a flashcard as described above.

Bottom line: don’t write notes on notes.

4. Choose which topics to use the Technique Carefully

Do I use the Feynman technique on every piece of information I learn? No! that would be a ridiculous waste of time. I use it for critical general topics to establish a basis of understanding.

For example, I’ve used the Feynman technique to describe obstructive vs. restrictive lung disease, but I did not use it to remember the histopathology of various lung diseases.

Obstructive and restrictive lung diseases work nicely with the Feynman technique as they can be explained simply, and the explanation helps me learn. However, with histopathology (which is looking at diseased tissue under a microscope), I can’t explain that information in words nicely. Because these are pictures of tissue, I need to study them. I need some photos to understand that information.

Bottom line: Choose which topics to use the Feynman Technique on carefully.

5. Spend the time

I have chosen carefully which topics I want to use the Feynman Technique on. However, I do the Feynman technique when I do the Feynman technique. I don’t half-ass it. Here’s the issue: if you half-ass the explanation, you are half-assing your understanding, and, on test day, you will be a complete ass.

So to be a non-ass, it might mean spending two hours on the complex topic before I can explain it, but that’s ok. And sometimes, it may only take ten minutes to execute the Feynman technique fully. The only person you are cheating is yourself. Make sure you have a solid explanation in your head before moving on to the next thing.

Bottom line: Spend the time to prepare a proper explanation of the complex topic.

6. Avoid jargon and complexity

The other classic trap is only simplifying parts of the explanation. For example, a partial simplification of anaphase might be something like this:

Microtubules attach to the centromeres and pull apart the chromosomes towards the respective centrosomes at each pole of the cell.

What’s a centromere? Chromosome? Centrosome? Microtubule? We are still too complex here. A better explanation using the Feynman technique might be:

Anaphase is when the replicated genetic material in the cell, now solidified in the form of a chromosome, is pulled to opposite ends of the dividing cell, so each of the new cells has its copy of genetic material.

That’s better, but I can make it even better by expanding on it:

So, how is the genetic material pulled to each side of the dividing cell? A special protein in the cell, called a microtubule, attaches to the center of each new chromosome, and then the special protein pulls the chromosomes apart to opposite sides of the dividing cell. This sets the cell up nicely for telophase, the final stage of mitosis.

The simpler the explanation is, the more likely you are to understand it. You can fill in the specifics later. You need to understand the big picture before you get deep. Then, when you get deep, still, keep it simple. Confusion can creep in super quickly. And if your explanation is confusing, your understanding is confused.

Bottom Line: Avoid jargon and complexity

7. Use it for real

Want to definitely learn a topic? Prepare an actual lecture for other students.

In the first two years of medical school, every week, we would have to explain a topic to 10 of our classmates with a supervising doctor present. Then the other ten students would present their topic. And yes, those presentations were graded. I worked hard on those presentations because I wanted to perform well and because I wanted to help my classmates learn the topic. Over the years, guess what topics I remembered the best? The topics I presented on.

The actual teaching seems to solidify the learning and the preparation to teach. Two sets of students were asked to prepare a teaching presentation in one study. One set was taught to other students while the different sets did not. The group of students who taught had better retention of the content when compared to the students that did not teach.3

So, what would I do, well with most of your content, just use the standard method of the Feynman Technique. However, for the important stuff, see if you can find someone to actually teach it to. This could be peers, a friendly parent, or even your professor (I guarantee you will know the topic will if you practice teaching before your professor).

Bottom line: Try teaching your topic in real life

8. Simplify your explanations so YOU understand it

All in all, this is the most important tip. You must simplify your explanations so you actually understand them. If at ANY TIME during the explanation (remember this is your explanation) you are lost or not sure what is going on, STOP. Take a second; what do you mean? Does it make sense? Can you make the explanation simpler? When you are on test day, staring at that exam, you will not remember the fancy words and long sentences; you will remember the basic explanation; you will remember the thing that makes sense to you. So make sense to you. Don’t be a donkey.

Thanks!

If you want to learn more about my favorite study techniques, I just finished my biggest ever course on studying. It is everything from how to prepare your body and mind to the specifically laid out study techniques I use every day. You can check it out here and get 20% off if you use my link!

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476736/
  2. Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4‐58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
  3. Gregory A, Walker I, Mclaughlin K, Peets AD. Both preparing to teach and teaching positively impact learning outcomes for peer teachers. Med Teach 2011 Aug;33(8):e417-e422.


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