The Richard Feynman Learning Method

How to Learn Anything Quickly and Commit it to Memory

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith

Richard Feynman, physicist
Richard Feynman, physicist
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Richard Phillips Feynman, ForMemRS (Foreign Member of the Royal Society), was an American theoretical physicist who was well known for his classic work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. For the random layman, he was as well known as Einstein and Hawking. He was a very colorful fellow who had a penchant for his logic and thinking out of the box. If all that isn’t enough, he also came up with his signature learning method, which we will look at here.

The Problem With Traditional Learning Methods

Most people learn by rote, meaning we simply repeat something enough times to memorize it. Next, we are tested on it. The problem is that if we don’t use it, we lose it. It simply doesn’t remain in our memory. Another way is to associate a fact with something else, like using mnemonics to remember someone’s name. So, what’s missing here? These traditional learning methods don’t address understanding a subject.

This is at the core of Feynman’s method. Don’t be that guy that simply spouts jargon. When you really learn something, internalize it, you’ll have acquired a tool that you can use for the remainder of your life. The more you really know, the fewer surprises you will encounter, because most new things will connect to something you already understand.

Feynman’s Learning Technique: 4 Easy Steps

The beauty of this method is its simplicity. Well, that, and the logic of it. You’ll wonder why nobody nailed this sooner. How much can we really commit to memory? Like the limit of human sports endurance, we don’t really know. Someone always moves the goal post.

Step 1. Define your topic and conceptualize teaching it to a child. Start with the topic you want to absorb. Write it down. Then write down everything you know about it, noting any gaps in your knowledge as you imagine explaining to a child, with, say, a sixth grade education. This will ensure that you get it in simple terms.

Step 2. Fill in the gaps in your understanding. If you don’t have gaps after explaining things to your imaginary friend, you’re not doing it right. You are running the risk of being the jargon and trendy catchword phrases-spouting guy. Check other sources. Investigate definitions. Keep it up until you can explain everything in basic terms. Continue to write it down and keep it simple. If you need nerdy terms to explain what you know, you are lacking in flexibility. When someone questions your understanding, you can only regurgitate what it is that you’ve already said.

Step 3. Compile all your notes and simplify them. Now that you’ve got a firm grasp on all the finer points of your topic, re-write them into a single document that you can file away. This isn’t just make-work; this step will aid in understanding and retention. A lot of people find it helpful to keep a permanent binder of all researched topics, ready to review at any time.

Step 4. Put your new expertise to the test. You’ve done the work; it’s time to spread your wings. Find a willing friend and communicate your knowledge of your topic. Encourage questions. Not only will this solidify your knowledge, it will most likely generate further topics of interest.

How Feynman Saw In-Depth Knowledge

Feynman didn’t just wonder about things; he wanted to know what made them tick. Unlike many scientists, he did not embrace jargon-spewing. He put it this way:

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling, and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people: what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

Richard Feynman

That’s how Feynman saw knowledge. Life is not just an encyclopedia. To really understand something and have that knowledge in usable terms, it is necessary to break it down in simple terms that can be used in real-life ways. He gave us that with the Richard Feynman learning method.

Further Reading

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at Considered Opinions Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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