The Feynman Technique 2.0 - How to Learn and Study 10X FASTER
How many times did it happen to you that you read and re-read something you need or want to learn, only to find yourself unable to recall anything a few hours later. If that’s the case, you are not alone.
The Illusion of Competence
I love learning. I spend countless hours a week reading books, watching YouTube videos, and taking courses, and that feels amazing. But when someone asks me to explain something to them, my so called knowledge falls apart. In my head, everything made sense and I was clear about the subject, but when it was showtime, I realized my clarity was merely an illusion. But this is to be expected.
We nowadays live in a world that is constantly feeding us new information with memorable, easy-to-digest snippets either through engaging YouTube videos, eloquent tweets, short and sweet articles, or story-like podcasts. And, of course, we consume them because it’s entertaining and at the same time they teach us stuff. But are they really?
There’s a well-known psychological phenomenon called the Illusion of Competence. Basically, it’s when you believe you know something or mastered some concept, but in reality you haven’t. That’s why you might read a book for a test and are sure you understand it deeply, but in the middle of the exam you unfortunately realize you didn’t.
Not because we’ve watched a video or read about a subject means that we understand it. But since the video or the book is so well made, clear and digestible, we fall into the illusion that we know as much as the person that made it. But nothing can be further from the truth.
Media consumption doesn’t mean learning, reading doesn’t mean studying, and memorizing doesn’t mean understanding.
So, what is learning and understanding in the first place? And is there anything beyond them?
What is Understanding?
There’s no better place to start our investigation than etymology of the words. To understand means to “stand in the midst of”, to “stand under” the subject we want to learn. It refers to the experience of being embedded in our topic. On the contrary, remembering is to recall something from memory that is not actually present.
We might have remembered some mathematical formula or a YT Video for our physics test and effectively applied it to several exercises, but that’s not the same as deeply understanding what its being represented. And that’s probably why we forget it after a day or two.
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As an analogy, swimming in the pool is not the same as remembering swimming in the pool. But perhaps more interestingly, getting your feet wet is not the same as fully diving in the pool. This brings us to a concept I call: “The 3 Levels of Learning”, which, if you get it, it will completely revolutionize how you approach your studying, and perhaps your life.
The Three Levels of Learning
Not all learning is equal. There are different degree of comprehension that can be achieved. They are:
0 – Level is 0 which is not actually a level per se because there’s no learning occurring. Here we are not able to recall what we read or watched. This is what usually happens to the information we absorb in our YT video binges (or to the people that read a book a day).
- The first level of learning is: Remembering
Most of the learning and studying we do happen at this level. This is the one related to being able to remember what we read and watch, like the mathematical formula we talked about. This kind of learning usually is forgotten after a few days or weeks. Basically, most of high-school and university. 🙂
- The second level of learning is: understanding
Memorizing it’s not the same as understanding. As an example, I can memorize a Chinese phrase like 我喜欢橘子 (WUSHI JUANCHI SU) but be completely clueless about the meaning of it (It means “I like oranges”). On the other hand, I can understand the Chinese language and easily construct that or any other sentence.
This level of understanding is necessary for the effective application of any piece of knowledge – whether it is a math theorem, a coding language, or a tennis swing.
- The third level of learning is: making it yours
If you think about it, anything created, invented, discovered, and written was done by someone. And even though this may sound trivial, it is not. Those people didn’t need to memorize anything because they were the ones coming up with it in the first place.
When you study, you may not just memorize something but also understand it. You know what the subject is about. But it’s on a completely different level to make it yours. When you make a subject, a topic, or a formula yours, you are as if the creator of the thing. You are in the same place as the one writing it. The level in which you grasp the concept is way deeper than what we normally call understand.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? So how do we move from the first level of learning to the second, and hopefully to the third one? Come the Feynman Technique into the picture.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique is derived from Richard Feynman’s studying and teaching methods and technique.
Feynman was a popular American theoretical physicist who made insightful discoveries in the fields of quantum mechanics, superfluidity and particle physics. He also received a Nobel Prize in 196 for the development of quantum electrodynamics.
Apart from being a great physicist, he was also known to be a great teacher and explainer. He used to boil down very complicated scientific concepts into something comprehensible to a primary or high-school student.
The crux of Feynman’s Technique is basically trying to explain to yourself what you are learning or studying. By doing it, you realize which sections are not very clear and need further reinforcement. The technique steps are:
- Choose the concept
- Explain the concept like you are teaching it to a child
In this step, the idea is to write down in a comprehensive way everything you’ve learned about your subject. Remember to keep it simple. Use examples, connections with other concepts, and analogies. If you catch yourself using complicated jargon, chances are you are not understanding the concept deeply.
- Identify your knowledge gaps
Once you go through everything you know about your topic and try to explain it in a simple manner, it will be clear to you which sections need further study and comprehension. What are you missing? What don’t you know? Where are you stumbling?
- Go through it again
Once you studied and learned what you needed to learn, explain it again from scratch. Try to explain it as simple as you can make it, like you are teaching the concept to someone that has 0 clue about anything related to it. This will force you to polish your understanding.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
So that’s the Feynman Technique in a nutshell. It’s a great tool to move from the first level to the second level of learning. If you do it successfully, you cannot avoid understanding your subject. But it doesn’t necessarily take you to the third and last level of learning, which is “making it yours.”
When you make a concept or subject yours, it is as if you invented or discovered it for the first time. In a way, you are in the same place as the person who wrote what you are learning and studying.
You are not just understanding something, you are creating and discovering it real time. And that’s way more powerful.
As an example, imagine not just understanding the Pythagoras Theorem, you are discovering it like Pythagoras did. You make the same insights, connect the same dots, and arrive to the same truth.
It will feel like the famous Eureka moment of Archimedes. Everything just makes sense and you just get it.
You probably had or knew a classmate in your physics or math’s class that got straight A’s without studying nearly as half as you did. And most likely the reason is because he made the formula his own. He didn’t memorize it, he just understood it at a very deep level.
All of this sounds cool and fun, but how do we get there? You do it with the Feynman Technique 2.0. This is a revisited and improved version of the Feynman Technique that includes some simple but powerful tips that will boost and further deepen your understanding of your subject. If you follow them correctly, it will be just a matter of time until you make any concept yours.
Start with not-knowing
Since the idea is to be in the same place as the person creating or writing about the subject we want to learn, we must put ourselves in his or her shoes. And the best guess is that she didn’t know about the subject until she discovered it. So, we must do the same.
By starting with a clean slate, we are in a much better position to grasp what the person grasped at the moment of writing about the subject. Of course, this will vary if you are learning about science, math, psychology, or philosophy, but the idea remains the same.
When we are studying and ask why, we discover aspects of our subject that were not very clear, that we were just memorizing or believing they were true instead of actually understanding it. Asking why several times helps us dive deeper into what we are learning and improves our clarity and comprehension.
Yeah, sure: a squared times b squared is equal to c squared. But why? That’s where things get interesting.
Or in music for example. Many musicians know as a fact that music has 12 notes, but why? Few of them probably know why there are 12 notes and not, 14 for instance. Knowing this type of stuff may open their possibilities when creating music and thinking outside the box.
Study the story of what you are learning
When you read about how what you are learning was created and discovered, it changes your relationship with the subject completely. You begin to understand where the writer was coming from and his context.
For example, how did Newton discover the law of gravity? What was believed before that? What were the clues and observations that lead Newton to formulate his theories? The same framework can be applied in engineering, computer programming, economics, and even business.
Using the Feynman Technique 2.0 by adding these tips to your learning sessions, you will get to the third level of learning in no time. And once you reach it, I can assure you that the depth of your understanding will help you learn 10x as fast and effectively. And perhaps most importantly, it will make it way more fun than trying to memorize bullet points or demonstrations.
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