How to learn something well? – Feynman Technique and Humility

feynman4Richard Feynman, the nobel winning Physicist had a great learning technique. The technique, which has come to be known as ‘Feynman Technique’ has been described by many bloggers and writers including his biographer James Gleick.

However what I really like about the technique is the title of it. Let’s understand the technique first. Once for an oral exams Feynman opened a new notebook and titled it, “Notes on things I don’t know about”. He made this a habit. The notebook would start with a title of the topic that Feynman wants to learn. Then he would fill the notebook with explanations and examples. He would write it generally in a way that would help somebody else understand it. Best way to learn something is to explain it to someone. Through these notebooks Feynman literally tried to teach himself something new in the simplest and the most effective manner. Following are the four steps one should follow as per Feynman Technique.

Step 1

Write the name of the concept at the top of the first page of the notebook.

Step 2

Write down an explanation of the concept on the page. Use simple language. Write as if you were explaining to a student who is completely unaware of the topic and the related areas.

Step 3

Review issues and concepts where you feel stuck. Go back to your reference material and try to explain it in lucid language.

Step 4

Review language. If you have used language that is too pompous or complex, simplify it by use of analogies. Try to find examples, proofs or even anecdotes to support  your assertions and propositions.

However what I like the most in this technique is the pretext that he used to set for himself. He used to call this “Notebook of things I don’t know about”. Instead of calling it ‘Musings’, or ‘My Explorations’ etc etc, (names I have seen or heard people frequently use for their journals – diaries – blogs). The title Feynman chooses has two important benefits. First, he defines the contents as ‘things I don’t know about’. As a result, while exploring the subject, his objective is clear, ‘to know’, not just to get acquainted with or informed about. On the other hand, the title implies humility. Humility is the greatest facilitator for knowledge. Arrogance is ignorance. In summary, it’s not just the Feynman technique that made him a great physicist but also his humility and attitude of learning that made him a nobel laureate.


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