FeynmanHow often do you feel like you understand something until someone asks you to tell them more about it? When teachers and learners want to convey information quickly there’s always a temptation to rely on definitions and a sampling of big picture ideas to help the learner hit the ground running. But Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had his own methodology for mastering new concepts.  He asked, what does it mean to know something well, over simply “knowing its name” (or memorizing definitions and concepts)?

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird.” 

Understanding the meaning behind the madness is a great goal for long-term mastery, and if your learners understand the “why” behind what they’re doing they’re more likely to engage, apply, and succeed on the job. But presenting material this way can seem daunting, after all, learners are often trying to grasp many new concepts at once!  So how can you ensure that they are internalizing the material, rather than simply memorizing what’s on the surface to pass the course?

The Feynman technique follows three primary steps (and one optional) to ensure learners use consolidation and recall to understand the material. Although there are some variations, Quartz suggests what appears to be the most classic lineup.

  1. Teach the new material as simply as possible
  2. Identify gaps and go back to the source material
  3. Review and simplify again

So how can we apply this technique toward greater understanding in the eLearning arena? Let’s take a look at some possibilities!

Step One: Teach It Simply

As the old adage goes, “to teach is to learn twice”, and mastery comes to those who apply what they’ve learned. So step one: we want the learner to take an active role in teaching the material that they’ve learned to someone who hasn’t learned it, which is perfect for scenario based learning.

Not only does scenario learning allow learners to practice the material that they used in a true-to-life situation, but it can also give them the opportunity to make their own choices based on the information that they’ve been given. Consider giving your learner the virtual role of explaining the new policy or skill to another new trainee. Offer them the active task of organizing new material into groups or a logical order.

If you have the resources, you can take this step even further by utilizing online documents or discussion boards, like the ones we offer in KD LMS, thereby challenging learners to help each other process the new information and write things out. This can encourage further investigation into the “why” of the material, and writing out ideas in their own words can help them with information recall.

Step Two: Go Back

Missing some pieces? Ideally, after attempting to “teach” the first step, learners will start to discover where there are gaps in their understanding. We can help learners fill the gaps by allowing them to repeat modules and media that explain the idea so that they can revisit the concept, so they can replay or revisit when they’d like.

Another way is to track what learners get wrong in their knowledge checks or assessments. Consider collecting these questions so that you can include them in a later assessment, giving your learners a chance at redemption. Getting a question right the second time around could be a useful measure of progress.

Step Three: Review and Simplify

Practice makes perfect, right? Now it’s time for your learners to review and simplify what they know. How can we help? Consider allowing users to mark questions or sections so that they may revisit the tags later.

If you utilized a smart web document in your course during a more difficult section, challenge learners to simplify their work even further with a strict word count.

Create assessments that review new concepts without falling back on terminology, the ultimate simplification. Can they identify these concepts without the label there to help?

These are just a few ideas; I’d love to hear some of your own! As you can see, there are many ways to help your learners achieve mastery by incorporating the Feynman technique, so don’t be afraid to get creative with your course design if you’d like to give this learning theory a whirl.

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