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Use the Feynman Technique to learn complicated concepts

Learning new concepts is key to any work or life endeavor. Here's how the Feynman Technique helps maximize learning new concepts and improves communication skills.

Software developers know that continuous learning is necessary to remain relevant. However, complicated technical concepts and skills are difficult to master. Sometimes, it can be more productive to stop focusing on how hard the concept is and focus on an effective way to learn it.

Enter the Feynman Technique, whereby students learn concepts by teaching them to others. The logic is this: if you can successfully explain something complicated in terms that even a little kid can comprehend, that ensures you solidly grasp the concept.

What is the Feynman Technique?

The Feynman Technique -- developed by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and pioneer in quantum computing theory -- is a learning method that helps guide a person through a complex concept or skill, to the point where they can explain it to others. As mentioned earlier, the goal is that the explanation is so clear that a kid can understand it. If done correctly, you can apply this technique to learn virtually anything, from coding languages to scuba diving.

The Feynman Technique comprises four steps: learn, teach, review and simplify.

Step one: Decide what you want to learn

When you choose the skill or concept you wish to learn, keep it focused. Computer science, for example, is much too broad. A topic better suited to this method is this: how to rename default branches in Git. (Spoiler: Here's how to rename a Git branch.)

Once you've selected your skill or concept, write down everything you already know about it. Keep this to a couple of pages to remain focused. This exercise helps to build your confidence in the subject, because you might surprise yourself with the knowledge you already have. It also leads you to break down the concept even further.

During this first step you may consult textbooks, manuals and other educational materials related to your concept or skill. Make notes but keep them simple as well.

After you've documented everything you know about the concept or skill, including what you've gleaned from additional research, summarize your notes. Consider this summary an elevator pitch, or an explanation you'd give to friends in an informal setting -- or how you would respond to a curious little kid who asks about the concept in question.

Step two: Teach the concept or skill

The core philosophy behind the Feynman Technique is that we best understand concepts or skills when we can teach them to others. That's exactly what this step does.

The person you're teaching doesn't have to be a little kid, but your explanation should be clear and simple enough for a child to understand.

Also, encourage your audience to ask questions. This will help you identify what pieces of the puzzle you've missed, and provides guidance on how to attack the next step in the Feynman learning technique.

Step Three: Fill in the blanks

Once you have explained to someone what you want them to understand, it's time to review what worked well and adjust what can be improved. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which parts of the concept did I find difficult to explain?
  • Did I omit any key details?
  • Where did I lose my audience?
  • How did an audience question stump me?

The answers to these questions will help you focus on the parts of the concept or skill that you don't yet fully grasp. They will also direct you toward the information you need to study to strengthen your understanding of that which you are learning. Then, go back to your research materials and complete the process by filling in the gaps in your understanding and how you explain the concept to others.

Step four: Simplify, analogize, and teach it all over again

Once you address the weak points in your explanation, it's time to put the entire puzzle together again. Work the new knowledge you acquired in step three into your summary. Remember to keep it simple and avoid including any unnecessary points that will confuse you or your audience.

During this step, you might also develop your own analogies to illustrate the more intricate elements of the concept.

When you arrive at an explanation with which you're confident, it's time to try it out by teaching it to someone else again.

The Feynman Technique is also a communication tool

While many employ the Feynman Technique to learn specific concepts, a nice side benefit is that it also forces people to improve their communication skills.

When you can successfully explain something complex in a way that others understand, routine team meetings become less daunting, especially for those who loathe being called upon. Everyone can get on the same page more quickly. Meetings feel and become more efficient and productive.

Not only can the Feynman Technique serve to build your technical skill set, but it's also an effective tool to help develop what is arguably the most important "soft" skill -- for any professional or personal situation.

Carolyn Heinze is a Paris-based freelance writer. She covers several technology and business areas, including HR software and sustainability.

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