The Feynman Technique, Peer Instruction, and the Power of Feedback

Posted on September 22, 2016


This is part of an ongoing exploratory series on Educational Ideas

I recently stumbled across a description of the technique that Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman used to enhance his learning process. You can read a short explanation here:

The Feynman Technique Model

The basic idea is to take what ever you are learning and try to write out the ideas in your own words. Doing this will expose areas where you feel less confident about your understanding:

Write down an explanation of the concept on the page. Use plain English. Pretend you are teaching it to someone else (e.g a new student). This should highlight what you understand, but more importantly pinpoint what you don’t quite know.

This idea reminds me a great deal of Peer Instruction, where a student can learn more about a subject by teaching it to another student. Eric Mazur, a professor at Harvard, uses this technique with great success in his physics class:


The idea here is extremely similar to the Feynman Technique except instead of grappling with your misconceptions of lack of understanding through explaining a concept to yourself on paper, you’re debating with a partner.

In both cases I believe the key aspect is that you are creating a feedback loop that exposes your lack of understanding. People often need feedback about their understanding in order to grapple with their understand of something. We’re simply not very good at testing our understanding on our own without a feedback loop. We may think we understand something when really there are large gaps and significant misconceptions in our understanding.

These feedback loops are also at the heart of challenge-based or project-based learning. In each case feedback is built into the challenge, helping students identify their lack of understanding. With a project the student simply won’t be able to progress on the project  or the project simply won’t work or won’t sound or look right if it has been designed using misconceptions.

I think this is key to learning. If you can provide someone with an instruction (e.g. a book, a teacher, etc.) and a way for them to effectively test their understanding, then you’ll see significant gains in someone’s learning. You’ll help people avoid the trap of walking away from learning without realizing that there are significant gaps or misconceptions in their understanding.

It’s certainly no guarantee. Even the best feedback loop can be ignored, but having no easily accessible feedback loop significantly increases the odds that students will walk away thinking they understand something when they really do not and would not be able to apply the learning in a novel situation.