Ever read a great article and go to tell your parter, friend, or family member about it only to realize that you’ve forgotten many of the details or can’t quite explain the concepts in the article despite feeling that you understood what you read? Happens to me ALL.THE.TIME.
Docendo discimus – “by teaching, we learn.”
-Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD)
Retrieval practice is essentially practicing your learning, calling information back from your brain, or simply testing your own understanding. Let’s look at one learning strategy we can use for retrieval practice – The Feynman Technique, named for the famed physicist known for the clarity of his explanations of scientific phenomena.
The Feynman Technique is pretty simple.
Step 1: LEARN SOMETHING
Read an article or book, listen to a podcast, attend a conference session, participate in a lecture, webinar, or course, or watch a video.
STEP 2: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Without going back to that original source, jot down on a piece of paper (or type on a device) the concept or idea you want to ensure you’ve learned. This could be any concept or idea from your learning experience. It could also be a summary of a chapter, a lesson, or a whole book or course.
Try to explain what you learned as you would to a young child — one around 11 or 12 years old — using vocabulary someone that age would understand. Or, think of someone who wouldn’t necessarily have the background knowledge or familiarity with the vocabulary associated with the concept. This prevents you from simply spitting out jargon, buzzwords, or catchphrases. So no getting away with, “It means leveraging strategic assets to move the needle on mission critical core competencies in a matrix structure.” No.
The Feynman Technique requires you to say for example, “differential calculus is about how things change from moment to moment and how they change in comparison to other things, like how fast something is going in a certain period of time” rather than saying, “The primary objects of study in differential calculus are the derivative of a function, related notions such as the differential and their applications.”*
STEP 3: REVISE & RESUBMIT
Review what you wrote and try to identify any gaps. Here are a few reflective questions to help with this step:
- Were there places you weren’t sure about the accuracy your explanation or where you’re missing key pieces of the concept?
- Where did you have difficulty explaining aspects of the concept or remembering certain parts?
- Where might the person you’re teaching ask a question or ask you to give an example of the concept?
This is the time to return to your original course or book notes to fill in the gaps and solidify your understanding. Then, return to your Feynman Technique notes and again, try to retrieve what you just relearned and write that down.
Finally, review everything you wrote for any terms or jargon that slipped in that should be explained further. What words or phrases might that individual you’re teaching not understand? Try to explain these in even plainer language.
NEXT STEP? JUST DO IT!
Like any retrieval practice strategy, the Feynman Technique only works if you try it. It’s simple to do, but hard to get started, and can feel uncomfortable because it’s work. It’s mental effort that feels a lot more challenging than reading or listening.
So, put your book/your notes/your journal down right now and check your own understanding of what you’re trying to learn.
*Source: Wikipedia (you didn’t think I could come up with that definition, did you? 😂) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Differential_calculus#
Check out my other articles on retrieval practice and professional development and learning!
Here are a couple of articles that go a bit deeper on the Feynman Technique:
- The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything
- How to Use the Feynman Technique to Learn Faster (With Examples)