We all know the feeling. It’s that feeling when you’re supposed to be paying attention, but get lost amongst all the jargon and waffle. The feeling when you’re engaging with a new topic, but just can’t keep up. These kinds of feelings make learning trickier than it needs to be. You end up just switching off.
What if there was another way?
The Feynman Technique is fundamental in helping us to understand the most complex of topics. Using this will help you to learn something so well that you’ll be able to teach it to a high standard in no-time. It gives you time to learn new content, helps you to remember it, and solidifies it in your mind without all of the complexities that could come with new topics.
It’s an excellent study tip, and one that could mean the difference between one grade to the next.
Step one: Learn
Like any new piece of content, you’ll have to put in the hours to learn it. This can be done through whichever means you’d prefer – maybe Cornell Note-Taking? Or you could try the write, cover, check, repeat method? Whichever technique you go for, this part of the method is all about picking up that new information that your brain’s not used to, so get that done first and then get back to me.
If it were me, I’d create a spider diagram or mind map at this stage, but ultimately you need to pick whatever will help you the best.
Step two: ELI5
There’s a page, on Reddit, called Explain Like I’m Five. Feynman called for you to explain this new topic to someone as if they’re twelve years old, but I figured that ELI5 sounded somewhat catchier.
Whichever age you’re pretending to explain this new content to, the whole point of this step is that you’re wanting to explain your learning in its simplest form. That means removing all the jargon and all the waffle, and reducing your learning to the fundamental basics – so that a five (or twelve) year old could understand.
There’s more reasoning for this, too; all learners encounter a phenomenon called the zone of proximal development. In short, this zone refers to what the learner knows, what they could learn with help, and what would be too much for them to understand, resulting in cognitive overload.
The younger you are, the more susceptible you are to encountering cognitive overload. Imagine trying to teach a five-year-old about quantum mechanics. Granted, I would still find it tricky to understand, but a five-year-old would switch off far sooner! So make those explanations simpler!
The way I would handle this step is to take my original mind map and reproduce my notes – in the way a five-year-old would understand – below. This way I’ll be able to easily compare the complex with the simple. If you can then use this learning to explain the new topic to a friend or family member, even better – since verbalising your explanations and teaching others is also a great memory aid.
I get my students to teach other all the time for this very reason.
Step three: Check for gaps
With all the jargon removed, can you still explain your new learning to give somebody a complete understanding?
If not, that’s fine – this is a cyclical process. So, instead of panicking, calmly identify where there may still be gaps in your understanding or explanations. If working with a friend, ask them if you’ve explained something completely, or if they have any questions. If you struggle to answer their questions, it’s time to return to the drawing board.
Step four: the drawing board
At this point, you will have learned about a new topic, reduced the complexity so that a five-year-old can understand, and identified any gaps in your learning. Feynman suggests that you should then return to the literature to develop your understanding.
Whether this means reading through your class book, opening a textbook, or asking a teacher/lecturer for help, use this as an opportunity to further develop your understanding and plug any gaps in your knowledge. At this point, you’ll return to step two – can you explain these new bits of information to a five-year-old? Do you still then have any more knowledge gaps? If so, return to the literature again.
By constantly following this method, you’ll get to a point where this is no more that you could possible ever hope to learn about a new topic, by which point you will be a Bona fide expert. Hooray!
Now, onto the next topic you go.
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