Feynman Technique for Learning
As a Physicist, I admire the American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. He used his own personal method for learning which is known as the ‘Feynman technique’. It contains four repetitive steps called study, teach, fill the gaps and simplify.
Sri Lanka, Southern Asia
Story by Chathurıe Nıluka Nupearachchı. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on August 28, 2022. Reading time: 5 minutes
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As a physicist, I admire the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. He used his own personal method for learning which is known as the ‘Feynman technique’. It contains four repetitive steps: study, teach, fill the gaps, and simplify. His method has helped me a lot as a physics student. I will explain how I applied those steps in detail so you can also use the technique if you would like to.
The first step is simple – I selected a topic of my interest and started studying. In this step, we need to break the topic down into its main components and try to understand the big picture in detail. This is what I did in the mechanics' section of classical physics. In this case, I learnt the basic theorems, principles and formulae of mechanics until I was able to teach them to someone else.
In the second step, I taught mechanics to university students. The students gave feedback and asked me questions, which helped me to identify gaps in my knowledge. During my undergraduate days, I happily taught mechanics and other sections in physics to the students of the junior batch as well as my friends of the same age. I sharpened my teaching methods when I later became a lecturer. In my current role, I need to be able to explain the objectives of the subject, as well as rules and basic strategies to understand the subject matter. If I do not have students to teach, then I can lecture to an imaginary audience as well.
Once I got involved in teaching, I identified the gaps in my knowledge (as we are not perfect). The third step in the Feynman technique involves concentrating on my weaknesses and turning them into my strengths. To prepare for teaching mechanics, I went back to basics and studied exactly what I had missed repetitively. Hence, I started to understand the basics and the applications of mechanics thoroughly.
The last step is a simplification. It has been useful to try to explain the subject matter to young learners with a simple vocabulary. I’ve also found it challenging but necessary to my learning to explain mechanics to a student who has little to no previous knowledge on the subject. Through this step in the Feynman technique, I have been able to master my communication skills in order to impart relevant mechanics information to a target audience. Breaking a complex idea into its simplest form is easier said than done. As Albert Einstein said, “If you cannot explain it to a six-year-old, you do not understand it yourself”.
After spending more than a decade in the higher education sector, I feel sad for the university students of Sri Lanka that I have met in my career. Most of the university students whom I encountered are frustrated, irritated and worried about their future with uncertainty, especially after the COVID pandemic. Due to the exam-centred higher education system, students are always under a lot of pressure and competition. They are always being flooded with assignments, exams, lab work and lectures. Even after they graduate, most of the students that I have conversations with are not happy with the job and challenges in life as they mature.
I started to use the Feynman method to popularize physics amongst the undergraduate students that I used to teach in my career.
I started to use the Feynman method to popularize physics amongst the undergraduate students that I used to teach in my career. I always wonder why the majority of our Sri Lankan university students cannot live in a productive way while having fun. I believe that most of them are not enjoying the process of learning from childhood. Hence, time has come to change the perceptions of students with new learning techniques. I believe that the Feynman method helps students to enjoy the process of learning. So, I am still using it in my work as a physicist to prove my tagline in teaching: “Life is more beautiful with physics!”. I hope that all physics lovers will agree with me. In short, I am on a continuous mission to attract more students into physics in a meaningful way. Wish me good luck, dear readers!
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