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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Learning on steroids with Richard Feynman

By Matt Jenner, on 4 February 2014

Richard Feynman, who is better known for his physics, was also something of a character. He made a series of videos in which he explained a lot of concepts, ideas, thoughts and musings on the world. He was clearly a genius, curious and mischievous in his approach to life, but also he was inspirational to many who have discovered him. It’s possible, perhaps, that his genius was fostered by the way he learned new things. In the video below he talks about his father explaining about birds on their summer holidays, and the joy of learning about the animal itself, rather than the anthropocentric view we often take on learning. His learning was directed around the linking of new things he’s reading, into what he knows from reality. If you have 50 minutes, check out the whole video (if not, please skip ahead)

Blooms Taxonomy

I am sure you know about Benjamin Bloom and his pyramid of learning (see pic if you forgot), where synthesis an evaluation is at the top of all learning. But what does that mean? In many examples it’s defined as ‘being able to teach the concept to someone else’ – that requires all the elements below, and a high level of conquest in the subject. To reach this challenging peak, learners must synthesise and evaluate their knowledge, and subsequently there must be opportunities for them to do so. But this isn’t so easy to do, often a question and answer may only require you to dig into knowledge and recite the answer – that’s only the ground floor in this 6-story pyramid.

So how do you get higher?

One technique I have come to enjoy, as it relies on nothing but the learner to try, and therefore can be adopted at will, has been coined the ‘Feynman Technique’. Scott Young makes a great job of explaining it, or Learning on Steroids as he charmingly calls it.

Here’s an overview:

  1. Choose your concept
  2. Pretend your teaching it to a new student
  3. Whenever you get stuck, go back to the books
  4. Simplify wordy bits or create analogies

Video version

Written format is on Scott Young’s website

Peer instruction

There are similar techniques to this, one is Eric Mazur from Harvard Business School who created the ‘Peer Instruction’ approach whereby students in class are asked to vote on the solution to a problem. Their votes are counted (often using polling hardware like clickers/PRS).  Then, in a twist, Eric asks his students to find a neighbour who has a different answer, then to convince the other person that you are correct. He then finally  re-polls the audience to see if they have changed their original answers. He has year-upon-year of evidence to suggest this approach has benefits to student learning, and retention, of concepts. It’s not just that they get a theory, they can apply it to a problem, in their own language, and perhaps really synthesise it to their neighbour. I see this as the same technique, only with Feynman’s they have to convince themselves, a challenge some of us might find much harder.


Try it and let me know if it works for you!?

9 Responses to “Learning on steroids with Richard Feynman”

  • 1
    mattjenner wrote on 4 February 2014:

    I managed to justify blogging about Feynman for work purposes: Learning on steroids, Discover the Feynman Technique – http://t.co/l02LdM2Nqi

  • 2
    Clive Young wrote on 7 February 2014:

    Happened to see this today, “Richard Feynman dismissed quite a lot of allegedly scientific research, notably targeting the fields of education and psychology, as ‘cargo cult science’ … the blog applies this approach to MOOCs

  • 3
    Julie McCarty wrote on 11 January 2017:

    Really don’t think this is what Feynman was referring too. I read some of that link. The person who wrote this is the reason why some people think academics are ‘pretentious snobs’. He literally compared his learning to being a warrior having to slay his courses to earn his gown. O m g… he went so far has having to ‘correct’ people that address him as ‘Mister’ instead of ‘Dr.’. Who does that? Oh yea, pretentious academics.

    I’m a academic, in terms of being a life long learner. I’m also an Environmental Scientist. Semi-retired. I have never viewed courses as things that needed ‘slaying’, or learning that was a ‘right of passage’ and ‘a bed of coals’ that had to be overcome. Lol

  • 4
    Matt Jenner wrote on 7 February 2014:

    Richard Feynman didn’t assume something is true because it’s been proven by some test. He conducted each experiment again, not taking in any published results as fact. And with this approach he redefined components of physics. If he and Ben Goldacre were in the same room, I’d fear they’d emerge with the idea that up was actually sideways, there are 53 dimensions and a whole new colour existed.

    As an aside; the blog post was indeed interesting. We’ve got to stop doing things because that’s how they were done before. This isn’t a method to rule us.

  • 5
    Matt wrote on 10 February 2014:

    Richard Feynman is somewhat of a saint figure to we physicists. As well as his world-class research skills, he also worked out a lot about how teaching worked. If you like fictionalised recreations of him, the BBC film The Challenger, mostly concerned with his service on the Challenger disaster Congressional Committee, is worth at least a bag of popcorn. Within the medium of paper, I thoroughly enjoyed the graphic novel entitled, er, Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

  • 6
    Paul Walker wrote on 5 June 2014:

    The Feynman video seems to have been taken down from YouTube. Clicking on it gives a message “This video does not exist”.

  • 7
    Matt Jenner wrote on 5 June 2014:

    I have semi-fixed the video with a new one explaining a point which is different, but relevant enough!

  • 8
    Learn Anything In Four Steps With The Feynman Technique – fengtasy blog wrote on 22 January 2017:

    […] The Feynman Technique is laid out clearly in James Gleick’s 1993 biography, “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.” In the book, Gleick explains the method in terms of how Feynman mastered his exams at Princeton University: “He opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.” This is the first part of his process, but let’s take a look at all four steps: […]

  • 9
    The Feynman Technique – Simply Simple wrote on 8 February 2017:

    […] is when the Feynman Technique came to my rescue. It says that the mere action of writing something down allows for a more […]

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