In previous posts, I mentioned the importance of maximizing the time spent using active techniques when you’re studying in medical school. There are many techniques to turn to, but here I will discuss a technique made famous by one of the world’s brightest minds, Richard Feynman.
Feynman, if you’re not familiar, was a world-renowned physicist who ultimately won a Nobel Prize. Aside from his contributions to quantum mechanics, Feynman was a master at learning new material. His technique is now known as the Feynman Technique
I learned of this technique early in college and it changed how I approached studying. I still use it when I’m studying in medical school.
What is the Feynman Technique?
“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” – Richard Feynman
Feynman had a knack for taking complicated concepts, such as quantum mechanics, and breaking them down to simple bits of information.
The first part of his method was to make the concept as simple as possible. So simple that he would be able to explain it to a young child.
The second part of the technique was to identify any shortcomings in his understanding. He would find these gaps in knowledge through mediums such as notebooks, mind dumps, and conversations with peers.
The Power of a Brain Dump
Let’s say you’re trying to learn about Topic A.
The obvious thing to do first is to use your current methods of studying to learn the topic. I’ve talked about a few ways to study and have also included my own method of studying in medical school. You can learn more about these techniques here.
Once you have a basic understanding of Topic A, it’s time to use the Feynman technique.
Grab a piece of paper – I like to use blank computer paper. Next, from memory, fill that sheet of paper with as much information about Topic A as possible.
If you learned the material well, you can get from point A to Point B or C.
The magic happens when you get stuck. That important fact which you convinced yourself you knew is now escaping you.
What would Feynman do? Skip it and move to his next bit of knowledge.
When you’re stuck, star or highlight that part on the page and move on. You will come back to it later. For now, continue filling the page with as much information about Topic A as you can.
When the page is full, you will have several stars on the page indicating your gaps in knowledge. This is when you will spend time looking up the information that you have forgotten.
Once you fill all the gaps, you do the mind dump again! You’ll find with each repetition, less and less of the material will elude you. You will patch any holes you still have with more repetitions.
An important note to remember is the mind dump is not meant as a memorization tool. Instead, it’s meant to form a strong and well-rounded understanding of the information.
The material on the page should feel connected, similar to a web, and less like a laundry list of symptoms and diseases. You should be able to give the piece of paper to a younger sibling and they should be able to understand the organization of the material at the very least.
Why Does The Feynman Technique Work?
We medical students are very good at convincing ourselves that we know something about a topic. When a question comes around on exam, however, we find ourselves humbled by our lack of knowledge at an unfortunate time.
Another common pitfall we fall into is we spend too much time studying information we already know. I’ve discussed the 80/20 principle in an earlier post, and it seems that most students have this concept flipped.
Instead of focusing extra hours on the topic that gives us trouble, we equally divide our time over all the lectures.
We may pass an exam doing this but we miss out in learning the information for the long run.
The Feynman technique addresses both of these pitfalls. For one, having a blank piece of paper can be revealing on much we really know. For example, you may find yourself knowing the etiology and clinical features of a disease but completely blank on the options for treatment.
The mind dump allows you to focus on what you do and do not understand. Overall, studying in medical school should become more focused using this technique.
Studying in Medical School with the Feynman Technique
When you’re studying in medical school, either for a quiz or an exam, you can use the Feynman Technique to highlight your weaknesses.
I like to make a list of big topics that will be covered on an exam. With this list, I will perform a mind dump with each topic.
After each mind dump, I will get an idea of which topics I need to work on the most. From this point on, I will focus on my weak points, while consistently performing mind dumps to reevaluate my progress.
So there you have it! The Feynman technique is a great active studying technique and provides constant feedback on your understanding. Try it out the next time you’re studying in medical school for an exam and let me know what you think!
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Until next time…