The Feynman Technique
This old standby is a favorite of students everywhere: “I understand it, I just can’t explain it…”
Those of us with experience learning and teaching know, of course, that this is a contradiction in terms. If you can’t explain something, you don’t understand it!
The contrapositive of this gives rise to the Feynman Technique for mastering any material:
1. Study the material you want to learn until you feel you have some grasp of it
2. Re-communicate it in some form to someone who doesn’t already understand it, making it as simple yet as complete and accurate as you can; you can do this by writing as if you were explaining it to someone, or by actually explaining it to someone.
3. If you don’t understand a particular point or detail well enough to explain it in simple, clear terms to someone who doesn’t understand it, return and review the material until you can.
4. Repeat as necessary/desired.
Where the real magic of this technique comes in is that in the process of explaining the ideas you want to learn about, you will be organizing and contextualizing your thoughts as you articulate them, so the process of communication itself generates comprehension!
There are many ways to put this principle into practice in your own learning process. Of course you can just write about what you are learning on a piece of paper and keep it to yourself, but this is likely to seem dry and lifeless. An even better approach is to engage others in your learning process, by actually explaining what you are learning to interested friends and relatives, or other students in the same class. You can write articles and blog posts, answer questions and provide homework help online, or even tutor other students.
Whatever you do to put yourself into a situation where you are re-communicating what you are learning for someone else’s benefit, making it as simple and clear as possible, will cement your own comprehension. Just remember, you can’t say you understand something until you can explain it!