How to Use the Feynman Technique to Learn Faster (With Examples)

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein which goes:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Whether or not Einstein himself actually said this (it’s never been properly sourced, so it’s likely he didn’t), it’s still an insightful observation. It’s also one that yields a pretty powerful study tip when reversed:

If you want to understand something well, try to explain it simply.

By attempting to explain a concept in simple terms, you’ll quickly see where you have a good understanding of that concept. You’ll also be able to instantly pinpoint your problem areas, because they’ll be the areas where you either get stuck or where you end up resorting to using complex language and terminology.

This is the idea behind the Feynman Technique.

Named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman – who, in addition to being a brilliant scientist, was also called “The Great Explainer” for his ability to relay complex ideas to others in simple, intuitive ways – the Feynman Technique is a method for learning or reviewing a concept quickly by explaining it in plain, simple language.

In addition to helping you pinpoint those problem areas in the concept you’re trying to learn, the Feynman Technique gives you a quick, efficient way to shore up those areas using targeted learning. It’s a simple technique, but it’ll help you study much more efficiently once you put into action.

So how do you actually use it?

How to Use the Feynman Technique

Since the root of this technique involves explaining the concept, you could execute it in a number of ways – including literally grabbing a friend and explaining to them what you’re learning.  However, you don’t always have willing friends at hand, so here’s the simpler method that just involves a sheet of paper.

  • Step 1: Grab a sheet of paper and write the name of the concept at the top. You can use pretty much any concept or idea – even though the technique is named after Feynman, it’s not limited solely to math and science.
  • Step 2: Explain the concept in your own words as if you were teaching it to someone else. Focus on using plain, simple language. Don’t limit your explanation to a simple definition or a broad overview; challenge yourself to work through an example or two as well to ensure you can put the concept into action.
  • Step 3: Review your explanation and identify the areas where you didn’t know something or where you feel your explanation is shaky. Once you’ve pinpointed them, go back to the source material, your notes, or any examples you can find in order to shore up your understanding.
  • Step 4: If there are any areas in your explanation where you’ve used lots of technical terms or complex language, challenge yourself to re-write these sections in simpler terms. Make sure your explanation could be understood by someone without the knowledge base you believe you already have.

That’s it!

3 Examples of the Feynman Technique in Action

As I mentioned earlier, simply defining a concept is only half the battle. If you want to explain is clearly, you have to apply it by working through examples.

In the spirit of eating my own dog food, I’ve included three examples of how you might use the Feynman Technique below.

Example #1: The Pythagorean Theorem

We’ll start with a very simple example. The Pythagorean Theorem shows how you can find the length of any right triangle’s hypotenuse:

The Pythagoreon Theorem - Feynman Technique Example

When I initially started writing this explanation, I simply wrote the sentence at the top and then added the formula.

However, note how the final page has a couple of additions:

  • A small picture showing what a right triangle is
  • An arrow clarifying the nature of C in the formula

This was my attempt to go back and further simplify the explanation. Even with a basic mathematical theorem like this one, there are still assumptions and terms that encompass ideas that you may not be 100% clear on. Challenge yourself to identify those things and define them.

Example #2: Bayes’ Theorem

Since the Pythagorean Theorem is a pretty simple concept, I thought you might like to see an example using something more complex. Bayes’ Theorem – a concept used in probability theory and statistics – fit the bill nicely.

Bayes' Theorem - Feynman Technique Example

And here’s a page working through a specific example and using the formula:

Bayes Theorem Example Problem

These pages do a decent job of explaining Bayes’ Theorem at a very broad level, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is a topic that takes a good long while to truly grasp.

In fact, I had to spend three hours reading through A.I. researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 15,000-word explanation of the theorem before it “clicked” in my brain, so definitely check that article out if you’re curious. You can also check out Arbital’s more recent guide, which is – by Yudkowsky’s own admission – much better and easier to follow.

Example #3: The CSS Box Model

Here’s an example of how the Feynman Technique can be used to review a non-mathematical concept.

The CSS Box Model is a tool for representing the size of HTML elements (i.e. the code that makes up web pages just like the one you’re reading right now), as well as the spacing around them. I chose it as an example because it’s a concept that took me a long time to grasp back when I started learning how to build websites as a teenager.

The CSS Box Model - Feynman Technique Example

To clarify that page’s general explanation, here’s an example of an element with specific height, width, margin, padding, and border values written in CSS code:

CSS Box Model Example

In addition to writing the code out, I thought it would be extra helpful to show exactly how each attribute affects the overall size of the element.

To a budding web developer, it might not be immediately obvious that, say, a padding value of 10px actually increases the element’s width by 20px overall (because the 10px is applied to each side).

If you happen to be curious about the Box Model and want to learn more, check out this guide.

Think Like a Child

One final tip: While you’re working through the Feynman Technique for any given concept, it can be useful to pretend that you’re explaining that concept to a child.

Doing this will boost your own understanding for one simple reason; in addition asking things like, “Can I have another Oreo?” and “Can I go watch Dragon Ball Z now please?” a kid is probably going ask…

“Why?”

While older people often become accustomed to taking things at face value, kids are naturally curious. They’re quick to point out their confusion.

If you teach a kid how the Pythagorean Theorem works and give him the formula for using it, there’s a good chance he’ll ask you:

“Why does that formula work? How can you know it’ll always work? Prove it, sucka!”

…and then you realize that the kid was actually Mr. T in disguise all along, and now your life depends on being able to explain a geometry concept. How did you even get here?

Seriously, though, this is a great mindset to adopt. Maybe you do know how the Pythagorean Theorem works, and maybe you can easily draw out the proof by rearrangement:

Pythagorean Theorem - Proof by Rearrangement

When it comes to other concepts, though, it’s likely that you’re relying on assumptions, heuristics, and other black boxes when it comes to certain details. So adopt a child-like mindset and challenge yourself to clearly explain the whole concept.

Once you’ve done that and worked through all the steps, you can further refine your knowledge of whatever you’re studying with other techniques, including:

Hope this helps!

If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.

Looking for More Study Tips?

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  • Taking great notes
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If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:

I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂

Video Notes

How to Learn Faster Using the Feynman Technique (With Examples)

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16 Comments on "How to Use the Feynman Technique to Learn Faster (With Examples)"

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Paul Jacobson

This is great, thanks! I just watched your video and love the CSS explanation. I’m currently learning CSS and your explanation is really helpful.

Douglas Jardine

I liked your video (although I don’t do the thumbs up thing). I would like to recommend to my students (I teach mathematic). Small problem – Bayes Theorem is P(A | B) = P(A and B) / P(B) not P(B | A) / P(B)

George Hnatiuk

Nick97 The statement is correct as shown. For example (e.g.) he might be Batman. He may not be Batman but Superman so you cannot conclude (i.e.) he is Batman.

Nick97

I think you meant to write “i.e.” instead of “e.g.” in the Bayes’ theorem example.

Great article, by the way!

Patricia
Hmm, Thomas, you mentioned that you read Yudkowsky’s 15,000-word explanation before understanding Baye’s theorem hurh? Herein lies a very interesting phenomenon. And also a potential irony/catch-22 situation. Sometimes when we are reading new material, we come across theorems that appear very puzzling. To what extent are we dissatisfied? This can have great implications on our ability to learn. I had a friend, who rarely did his homework, and he would tell us that when we encounter something that we do not understand in the book, we should go and research it. And read about it until you understand it fully. That’s what he does. But I have another friend, he reads a lot of books and when he encounters something he does not know, he takes it at face value. And he is able to apply it. He does not necessarily need to understand it so thorougly. It is merely sufficient for him to familiarize himself with something. And the mother of familiarization is memorization, he tells me. So he would memorize the equation. And he does that very easily. And when I ask him about the deeper explanation behind academic stuff, usually he does not know, and he sometimes… Read more »
John W
Patricia, That is a well-stated summary of an almost universally-unstated dilemma in education. I think a satisfactory, insightful response would require an essay, if not a textbook. But I would offer the thought that education and learning require different strategies. Education has become more of a vehicle for acquiring socially-empowering bona fides and credentialing (especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, or those involving extensive qualitative efforts) and less about deep learning. If your strategy is to disrupt your own learning or the institution’s with deeper questions and critical thinking (especially if it detracts from the prevailing sloganism) you will be attempting to exercise a noble instinct in an environment that will only harm, injure, and personally attack you for your intellectual good deeds. The academy has become a very hostile space for those who question the prevailing political hegemony. And most of the “learning” acquired in these disciplines is about conforming to the prevailing political hegemony. So stick to practices that optimize your credentialing outcomes. That would exclude your first friend’s approach. A notable exception to this might be a university education in the hard sciences. For true learning, on the other hand, or for those engaged in hard… Read more »
Ivan Feng
Can you find the solution to the candle stick problem if you don’t know what a box is? Can you speak Japanese fluently if you do not understand what the words mean, or in what context they speak it, and learn Japanese by imitating every phonetic sound and scribble? Problem solving is very… trollish in this regard. A lot of stuff you thought was trash will provide solutions in the long run. That’s where “diffusive thinking” come from, as in A Mind for Numbers. Obsessiveness is also a feature of all star athletes (and I suspect geniuses, i.e. top experts), as said in The Power of Habit. Favoring speed over fundamental correctness will cost you effectiveness in actuality, as well as more time as you try to fix the problem. This latter concept is well-supported in coaches, trainers, and masters world-wide, but you can find this well featured in Unleash the Warrior Within, a SEAL story, and The Little Book of Talent. On the other hand, true, the company does what the CEO measures, and if you ace those tests you’ll meet more geniuses and highly motivated people. Plus, according to Algorithms to Live by, time limits adds a natural… Read more »
Jimmy

Similarly, me and my friends noticed this problem during high school. We were always the curious kind, and refused to use equations or continue with other material until we fully understood /why/ something works the way it does.
We also got pretty terrible gradings that way, as fully understanding each concept was too costly for us in time – leaving little to fully learn the other 3/5 subjects in an exam.
So, we learned to move on and simply behave as you 2nd friend – it was necessary for us to get good grades in decent time.

FabXIII
You should definitely read “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman” – Ferynman talks a great deal about this exact issue you’re referring to and ‘why’ there’s an importance in understanding the ‘why’ so much (as mentioned in this article) – see the chapter about Richard teaching in Brazil. In fact, the internet has made it easy for you – someone’s posted it here http://v.cx/2010/04/feynman-brazil-education Excerpt: “After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!” The problem here is you’re studying to pass exams, not to truly understand the problem/concept. You… Read more »
Eric

Hahaha, I am sure, in the process of creating these notes, you begin to realize why this technique does not come intuitively for most learners. This business of simplifying the thing out, especially in the Bayes theorem that you wrote, seems like a big waste of time at first. You are writing out in long English sentences something that you know already. And not only once, you got to write it out several times.

I am glad there are people like Feynman and you who point us to things that are counter-intuitive. Things that, at first glance, appear like a complete waste of time. But upon further observation, actually help to solve important problems.

Azamat

Great post! especially the last example is very useful. Thomas which website would you recommend for Html and CSS?

Sandesh

Dumbest explination to bayes therom everyone does not observe denominator set in bayes therom its n(b)

Elle Falconer

Do you have a video on studying/taking online or distance education courses? I’m going to be taking some for the first time but I don’t know where to start

Paul Heyman

Thanks for sharing such a useful post like this. Please keep up your good work to guide people.

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