Learning occurs when you can explain the concepts and use it in a wide variety of situations. The more you know, the fewer blocks you will encounter, because most new things will connect to something you already understand.
The Feynman Technique turns information into knowledge that you can access easily without any memorization. There are four steps to this method. They are as follows:
- Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a sixth grade student.
- Identify gaps in your explanation. Go back to the source material to better understand it.
- Organize and simplify.
- Share it.
Step 1: Pretend to Teach it to a Child
Take out a blank sheet of paper. At the top, write the topic you want to learn. Now write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to a child. They have just enough vocabulary to understand basic concepts and relationships. Force yourself to be as simple as possible.
We hide our lack of understanding by using complicated vocabulary and jargon. If you can’t define the words and terms you are using, you don’t really know the meaning of those words. Explanation must be at a sixth-grade reading level by using simple words and phrases.
When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. You can better explain the why behind your description of the what.
Some of the writing to teach will be easy. These are the areas where you have a clear understanding of the topic. But you will find many places where things are confusing to you.
Step 2: Identify Gaps in your Explanation
In the previous step you will identify areas where you struggle, you have gaps in your understanding in these areas. Gaps in your knowledge means you forget something important, aren’t able to explain it or simply have trouble thinking of how variables interact. Identifying gaps is a critical part of the learning process. Filling those gaps makes the learning stick.
Now that you know your gaps in understanding, go back to the source material. Supplement it with other sources. Look up definitions. Keep going until you can explain everything in basic terms.
Only when you can explain without jargon and in simple terms you demonstrate your understanding. If you need complicated terminology to explain, when someone asks you a question, you can only repeat what you’ve already said.
Simple terms can be rearranged and easily combined with other words to communicate your idea. When you can say something in multiple ways using different words, you understand it really well. Skipping the work needed to explain in a simple way leads to getting stuck when challenged.
Identifying the boundaries of your understanding is also a way of defining your circle of competence. When you know the topic and are honest about what you don’t know, you limit the mistakes you’re liable to make and increase your chance of success when applying knowledge.
Step 3. Organize and Simplify
Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes containing a simple explanation. Organize them into a story that you can tell from beginning to end. Read it out loud. If the explanation sounds confusing at any point, go back to the previous step of identifying the gaps in your explanation. Keep iterating until you have a clear story that you can tell others. You can use the Cornell notes taking template to organize your story. Download the template from: https://www.codingskill.net/assets/files/CornellNotesTemplate.pdf
If you follow this approach, over time you will end up with a lot of notes on different topics. When you revise your notes periodically, you will see just how much you retain.
Step 4: Share It
Share your understanding of the material with someone who knows little about the topic. A good test of your understanding is your ability to convey it to another person. You can read out directly what you’ve written. You can present it like a presentation. Make an attempt to share the material with at least one person who isn’t that familiar with it.
The questions you get and the feedback you receive are invaluable for further developing your understanding. Hearing the curiosity of your audience will likely stimulate your own curiosity and set you on a path for further learning.
The Feynman Technique is also a different way of thinking that makes you tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up. Feynman understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, when you truly know something, you can use that knowledge broadly. When you only know the name of something, you don’t know its meaning and lack understanding. You can’t take it apart and play with it or use it to make new connections and generate new insights. When you know something, the labels are not important, because it’s not necessary to keep it in the box it came in.
Feynman’s explanations on why questions are simple and powerful. We talk in fact-deficient, confusing generalities to hide our lack of understanding. Take things apart. Staying at the abstract level does not promote understanding. Take apart the final solution; see how it works. See the cleverness of the different pieces; see the interactions between them. Learn something about the working code, the way the algorithm is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the algorithms and data structures.
Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. We learn from books, people, ideas and getting exposed to different ideas. Improving requires questioning your knowledge and the knowledge of others.
You can see how I applied this technique to learn about Topological Sort in my PDF notes: https://www.codingskill.net/assets/files/toposort.pdf.
Read about interleaving as a study strategy: https://www.codingskill.net/assets/files/Interleaving.pdf.
Download Feynman learning technique template: