Self-explanation (elaborative interrogation) and the Feynman technique are the final tools for better information synthesis. When we are forced to try to explain concepts through self-inquiry, we will quickly discover what we do know and what we don’t know at all. These are called blind spots, and they are far more common than you might like to think. Can you explain why the sky is blue or how gravity works? Probably not off the top of your head, even though you think you understand those concepts. The Feynman technique is an offshoot of self-explanation that helps find blind spots as well, with an added component of using an analogy to explain what you think you know. This is probably the most powerful tool because it instantly makes you feel ignorant—a positive thing in the realm of learning.
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Elaborative interrogation is one method of asking yourself questions that focuses on you seeing the whole picture behind a piece of information. You can use the journalistic questions or contextual and background questions.
The Feynman technique, named for Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman, is another type of discussing with yourself. Known as the “Great Explainer,” Feynman was revered for his ability to clearly illustrate dense topics like quantum physics for virtually anybody. In Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun, David Goodstein writes that Feynman prided himself on being able to explain the most complex ideas in the simplest terms. It stemmed from his own study techniques as a student at Princeton University, and he refined the method as a professor and teacher of physics.
Most of us have internal monologues in some form or another throughout most of the day. Verbalizing these conversations in the context of problem-solving spurs more cognizant attention to how your mind works through a problem.
Properly carried out, the Feynman technique will prove whether you really understand a topic or have glossed over certain important concepts. It’s also suitable for almost every conceivable subject, allowing you to see the gaps in your knowledge that need to be connected.
If you feel your explanations are long, rambling, or protracted, you may not have grasped the subject as well as you may have thought.
The usefulness of the Feynman technique is especially helpful in scientific or technological topics, but it’s adaptable for any subject. Literature students can use it to narrow down themes, historians can use it to explain events and historical patterns, and civics students can use it to understand living conditions or urban issues—there’s really no restriction on how you can use it. All you need to do is honestly answer the questions you are asking yourself, and you will quickly see where you need to focus your attention.
The Feynman technique is a specific application of elaborative interrogation. Remember, the goal is not to actually answer the questions; it’s to see what you are unable to answer—that is the information it provides. It has four steps.
Step One: Choose your concept.
The Feynman technique is very widely applicable, so let’s choose one example we can use throughout this section: gravity. Suppose that we want to either understand the basics about gravity or explain it to someone else. This can obviously differ depending on what you are learning at the moment.
Step Two: Write down an explanation of the concept in plain English.
Can you do it? Is this easy or difficult? This is the truly important step because it will show exactly what you do and do not understand about the concept of gravity. Explain it as simply, yet accurately, as you can and in a way that someone who knows nothing about the concept would also understand.
So going back to the concept we are using, how would you define gravity? Would it be something about being attracted to large masses? Would it be something that makes us fall? Or would it be about how our planet was formed? Can you do it, or will you resort to saying, “Well, you know… it’s gravity!”
This step allows you to see your blind spots and where your explanation starts to fall apart. If you can’t perform this step, clearly you don’t know as much about it as you thought, and you would be terrible at explaining it to someone else.
You might be able to explain what happens to objects that are subject to gravity and what happens when there is zero gravity. You might also be able to explain the causes of gravity. But everything that happens in between might be something you assume you know but continually skip learning about.
Step Three: Find your blind spots.
If you were unable to come up with a short description of gravity in the previous step, then it’s clear you have large gaps in your knowledge. Research gravity and find a way to describe it in a simple way. You might come up with something like “The force that causes larger objects to attract smaller objects because of their weight and mass.” Whatever you are unable to explain, this is a blind spot you must rectify.
Being able to analyze information and break it down in a simple way demonstrates knowledge and understanding. If you can’t summarize it in one sentence, or at least in a brief and concise manner, you still have blind spots you need to learn about. This technique is how you can find them easily and make sure you understand the concepts you are taking notes on and learning. I encourage you to take a second and try this right now. What seemingly simple concept can you try to explain? Can you actually do it, or does it reveal a lack of understanding somewhere in the process?
Step Four: Use an analogy.
Finally, create an analogy for the concept. What is the purpose of this step? It’s an extension of step three. Making analogies between concepts requires an understanding of the main traits and characteristics of each. This step is to demonstrate whether or not you truly understand it on a deeper level and to make it easier to explain. You can look at it as the true test of your understanding and whether you still possess blind spots in your knowledge.
For example, gravity is like when you put your foot into a pool and the fallen leaves on the surface are attracted to it because it causes a barely seen impact. That impact is gravity.
This step also connects new information to old information and lets you piggyback off a working mental model to understand or explain in greater depth. Of course, it’s unlikely that you can do step four if you can’t do steps two and three, but sometimes you can do steps two and three and find you can’t do step four—now you understand the boundaries of your knowledge better.
The Feynman technique is a rapid way to discover what you know versus what you think you know, and it allows you to solidify your knowledge base. When you keep explaining and simplifying to yourself and discover that you can’t, you’ve just discovered that you don’t know as much as you thought you did.
Remember, it’s another extension of elaborative interrogation, which is where you quiz yourself by asking questions where you can demonstrate your comprehension or lack thereof. Tedium is indeed the name of the game in this phase, but your brain will feel no motivation to learn, progress, or grow without it.
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://bit.ly/peterhollins to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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