The Feynman Technique

I would like to open this post by mentioning that it is classified under the Computer Science category. In actuality, the technique applies to any time an individual wishes to learn something new, improve your understanding of a subject / topic or to prepare for an exam.

To give the technique validity, we first need to know who Richard Feynman was.

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the Superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics for which he proposed the Parton model. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

Feynman developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world.

In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.

If you search the Internet, you will be able to find several articles, videos and diagrams regarding the Feynman [learning] Technique. In my own words I would describe it using the following steps (I was too lazy to make a flowchart using Visio):

1) Pick a topic.

2) Study it using multiple sources.

3) Write (and speak) about it as if you were a professor teaching it to a set of students.

4) If stuck; then go to 2.

5) Explain the topic using simple language, graphics and analogies.

6) If not clear; then go to 2.

For step 2, make sure you pick up reliable sources. With the advent of the Internet, anyone can post anything. I personally like to get my technical information from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and books recommended by experts in the field.

It seems to me that this learning technique is the practice or corollary to the following quote by Albert Einstein:  “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

From my own life, I can attest that this learning technique is quite effective. During K-12 I was an average student. School did not ring my bell. Several of my teachers were quite good. In class I would tend to drift away about 30 minutes. That said; I did enjoyed math and science.

For a few consecutive years, around the month of April, I got ill with the flu (go figure). That tended to affect my grades. The year I was taking Geometry for the first time, I did not do well. That summer, I asked my parents if I could get a few books on the subject. I spent hours each day learning and practicing by solving a book that only contained problems. The following year I became the expert in Geometry. The steps I used were similar to the Feynman Technique.

When I attended college and grad school my grades were in the top 5% of the class. I finished college in four of at the time five required years. During grad school, I got the highest student GPA in the history of the program. I was granted a scholarship at Cornell University after graduation.

During my professional career I always spend time reviewing subjects and learning new concepts and techniques. Concepts tend to stay true over time. Techniques and toolkits tend to fade with time.

If we have worked together, then you know about my documentation and diagrams. The concept that a diagram is worth 1,000 words could also be considered another corollary to the learning technique.

If you have comments or questions regarding this or any other post in this blog, do not hesitate and send me a message via email. I will not use your name unless you explicitly allow me to do so.


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One thought on “The Feynman Technique”

  1. I was invited to Caltech shortly after Richard abandoned a physical realization. His essence will be with all of us for a long time. I hope you go into Feynman diagrams for us. It is wonderful subject matter.

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