The Feynman Technique Will Help you Learn Faster and Improve your Results
Exams are finally over, at least for this block. There are dozens more exams to come if you are at the start of your bachelor's or master’s degree. It sounds so daunting, but that’s how it has been and will continue to be. We often grumble when it comes to revising for tests or exams. Studying is indeed tough, stressful and frustrating, or even traumatic for some. It all boils down to the same thing - reading thick books and poring over lengthy academic papers and case studies. And the process seems endless because there are countless theories or concepts that we need to remember, memorise and apply.
What is Your Study Technique?
Each one of us has our own study technique, which may have worked well for the past number of years (and that’s why you’re still in university and not a school drop-out). But is it really the most efficient and effective study technique there is for you? (Marketing management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things”). Does your study technique require a lot of self-discipline and independent work and cut down your other activities to zero? And after all that hard work, at the end of the day, do you feel satisfied and confident that you can answer the questions in the exams? Or are you back to square one where you realise you cannot remember anything at all or your understanding is patchy, causing you to start panicking? Are you bored with the same old method of reading chapter after chapter of theories, concepts and explanations, be it science, maths or economics?
What if I tell you there’s one study technique that could not only speed up your studying process, but is also more effective and fun? And the best of all, what if I told you that this technique could actually improve your scores and studying ability? Don’t believe me? Read on.
The technique I’m referring to is called the Feynman Technique. This fine technique (Feynman is pronounced fineman - pun intended) is designed to help you learn more effectively, and is considered one of the best study methods in the world.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, author, graphic novel hero, philosopher, and genius who pioneered an entire field of quantum electrodynamics (QED). But he is not one of those scientists who uses complex, scientific language or a language that is difficult to understand when explaining something. He was a brilliant and eloquent teacher who stands out unambiguously for his ability to synthesise and explain complex scientific knowledge in simple language. That is why he has been called the “Great Explainer”. No wonder great legends like Albert Einstein attended his talks. Bill Gates was so inspired by his teaching pedagogy that he called Feynman, “the greatest teacher I never had.” This even prompted Gates to go the extra mile and buy the rights to Feynman’s lectures, and make them publicly available on a Microsoft video portal nicknamed “Tuva”.
What is the Feynman Technique?
This technique is a mental model (a breakdown of your own personal thought process - ‘thinking about your thinking’) to understand and then convey what you’ve learnt in precise and simple language. Feynman derived this technique while he was a student at Princeton. Feynman believed that “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough”, which is so very true. If you asked somebody to explain to you a particular concept, and he went about regurgitating a whole paragraph of text-book definition using complex terminology and language, that person probably hasn’t fully understood the concept. What he has done is merely memorise by heart, which he will find difficulty in remembering during an exam. Feynman prefers understanding and teaching a concept in simple terms. He is notorious for asking his fellow mathematicians to explain concepts in simple terms to test their understanding.
5 -Step Process
Essentially, the Feynman Technique is a 5-step process:
Step 1: Study the concept (i.e. read the book - you can’t escape this). That’s the toughest part isn’t it? Students like us don’t quite understand jargon or a lexicon of difficult vocabulary. Many textbooks are written using complex terminologies and dense language. Big and complex words or figurative language stifle our understanding of the main points of a concept. (This is what I suffer most of the time when reading books and academic papers, despite my command of the English Language. I can imagine how difficult it is for someone whose language foothold is not as proficient.) So how is it if you don’t understand what’s in the book? One thing I can suggest is always to go to the internet to check on the definition and explanation of anything (using reputable sources). There will always be an explanation about any concept which is simple enough for you to understand.
Step 2: Write down everything that you know about the concept. Explain or write out your understanding IN YOUR OWN WORDS, as simply as possible (forget about all the technical words used by the book). It doesn’t have to be in a paragraph or essay type. This is where the power of creativity can help you reach new heights in learning. Use concept maps, graphic organisers or cartoons, or if you’re not into any of these things, simply use a diagram, squiggly lines or table. Feynman, just like me, believes in a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Throughout my 18 years of teaching, I have found out that kids learn best through a repertoire of strategies, and by connecting them in creative outlets like drawing or music. These are tools to strip away chunky language and allow you to understand via a pictorial representation that even a child can understand.
Step 3: Teach it to a child. Well, if you’re living with your siblings, that will not be a problem. But for international students like us, what then? Simple. Find a study partner. But if you don’t like to torture your poor friend to sit down and listen to you, simply talk/record yourself explaining the concept. From this step, you can identify your own knowledge gaps. You will know what you are missing and which part you still don’t understand. If you can make somebody else, especially a child, understand a complex concept, then you really know your stuff. Research shows that if you study for the purpose of teaching to someone else, you learn at a faster rate. Not only that, it will help you to achieve better exam results. If you had difficulty putting thoughts into notes, that shows you haven’t really understood the stuff and you need to improve on it.
Step 4: Correct your knowledge gaps. Once you’ve identified your areas of weakness in the concepts learned, return to your source material (books, lecture notes, internet, articles) and then compile the information that will help you fill in those knowledge gaps. You will be really surprised that after the second or even third reading, you will come to a full understanding of the concept or theory. So don’t despair when you cannot understand during the first reading. Go back and reread or like I suggested above, find a better explanation via articles or through videos.
Step 5: Reorganise and simplify your diagram or explanation to include those items that you’ve missed before and make your language simpler. Use analogies, but in simple sentences or phrases to strengthen your understanding. Read it again to fully understand it and to commit it to your memory. Once you’ve reached this point, you have armed yourself with a weapon to tackle the questions in your exams.
The Feynman Technique will revolutionise the way you think and study. It is a tried and tested technique, vouched by many experts and students all over the world. The key to using this technique is always to stop and pause. Read the chapter portion by portion and review. Do not attempt to read the whole chapter continuously without understanding what you’re reading. That is definitely a waste of time and a pathway to failure. Stop, pause and review. This also allows you to take regular breaks in study, a technique which is endorsed by many other study gurus.
The Feynman’s Technique is claimed to be the fastest way to level up. How far this is true depends on you and how you implement his technique in your own studying. The essence of his technique is that you test yourself first on your knowledge of the concept before you are being tested in the actual exams. This is where the logic lies - it helps you to pinpoint what you don’t know or understand fully before it is too late, and thus gives you time to go back and relearn or revise. The strength of Feynman’s technique is that it is ideal for quickly learning new concepts, deepening your understanding of what you already know or remembering ideas that you don’t want to forget. It is useful for any subject matter, and even for writing essays or presentations. Check out this video to understand more about the Feynman Technique.
Beginning this week, MBA student Hanna Abdelwahab, will write a regular "Student Column" for WUAS News, contemplating the ups and downs of student life and the questions international students in particular grapple with. Hanna is from Egypt, but also lived in Singapore. She is doing an MBA in Education Management and also has a postgraduate diploma in education.
by Hanna Abdelwahab