The Feynman Technique


When historian Charles Weiner looked over a pile of Richard Feynman’s notebooks, he called them a wonderful ‘record of his day-to-day work’.

“No, no!”, Feynman objected strongly.

“They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”

“Well,” Weiner said, “The work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

“No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?”, Feynman explained.

Source: Clive Thompson (2014). Smarter Than You Think. p. 7

Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel prize for Physics, understood that writing his equations and ideas on paper was crucial to his thought.

Let me ask you this – how many times it has happened that, after reading a book, you thought you understood the idea but found it difficult to explain it to others? The idea seemed pretty clear in your head but the moment you had to verbalize it you discovered that either you didn’t have a proper grasp on the idea at the first place or you were unable to explain it in a logical coherent way to a third person.

As far as I am concerned, this is the kind of reaction people gave me, “You’re telling me that you just finished reading a compelling book but can’t explain the central idea in few sentences?”

Reading something passively creates an illusion of knowledge. It creates a confusion between  ‘mere familiarity with the concepts’ in the book and an actual understanding of them. Only by testing ourselves can we actually determine whether or not we really understand.

This is when the Feynman Technique came to my rescue. It says that the mere action of writing something down allows for a more effective integration of the learning.



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