Does the name Feynman sound familiar to you?
I believe most students who have studied the Natural Sciences, particularly Physics, have heard of this man. Indeed, the famous American physicist, Dr. Richard Philips Feynman, has revolutionized the art and science of note-taking. The method he developed is recognized today as the Feynman Notebook Method. It is an “organization-based learning method” (TheBestColleges, 2012) that can help students take quality notes for revision and studies. In doing so, he/she can learn and absorb information better. This method has been recognised by educators to be very effective as it helps “teach students how to learn” (Vieker, 2020, p. 15). Let us first learn a little history behind this method. Afterwards, I will show how this method can be applied to note-taking.
The method: Some context
Richard Feynman invented this method as he was preparing for his graduate oral examinations and while doing so, he had visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus. Without hesitation, he simply opened a new notebook and decided to try something that he never thought of doing before. He filled a notebook full of interesting but complex and challenging concepts taught in Physics that he was unfamiliar with. This later turned out to be the most successful notebook for his studies and this method of note-taking came to be known as the Feynman notebook method. It is now often cited as a superb way of learning concepts in a fast and efficient manner.
Although this method may sound foreign, its development was simple and began with him assigning a title as the “NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT” and using that notebook, he consolidated and rearranged his knowledge (Newport, 2015). Feynman spent many weeks of effort continuously working on that notebook. After considerable time, it became a fully organized system of notes and knowledge, almost akin to that of a bible, which he could easily refer to.
Debunking Common Assumptions
People may assume that this note-taking method is more suited for students studying the sciences and as the creator of the note-taking method, Dr Feynman himself, came from a Physics background. Indeed, when he created it, he had in mind that the application of this method would work well when learning the Natural Sciences.
However, the Feynman Notebook Method is essentially a universal technique that anyone can use; meaning that it can be used across disciplines and in everyday life. It provides a detailed framework that can help one learn anything with the knowledge of those concepts embedded in one’s mind. For example, it can be used in Economics, Sociology, Psychology, etc. such that the concepts are easily written down together with the relevant diagrams.
Learning through the Feynman Notebook Method
This Feynman Notebook method has been such an effective tool that creating the notebook in this manner has been recognized as the ‘Feynman Technique’. This technique is a simple process that helps you gain “cohesive understanding of a subject” (Cam, 2020). In the infographic below, we see how the technique can be applied, step-by-step.
This technique ensures effective learning through a five-step process such that one can study and understand concepts but also remember and explain them to others. Effective learning is known to be enhanced by teaching others, such as through peer tutoring, so that one can fully register their understanding of the concepts in their Long-Term Memory (LTM). LTM, can be retrieved more readily and lasts longer than Short-Term Memory” and therefore retained for longer periods of time (TheHumanMemory, 2020)(Camina & Güell, 2017).
Students can easily use this Feynman method to identify what they would like to learn first, then jot them down in their notebooks and explain the concepts in a layman’s manner as if one were to explain it to a 5-year-old child. This method highlights the importance of simplify[ing] new and often abstract knowledge using examples and analogies and explaining knowledge clearly and effectively (Cam, 2020). It also inculcates, a habit of metacognition where one thinks about thinking and learning.
Note-taking with Feynman Notebook Method: A Sample
To show how this method can be applied to Economics, I have included a personal example of my notetaking – see below. This method made note-taking more enjoyable as I could absorb information in bite-sized chunks and not feel overwhelmed by the concepts which can be rather wordy and complex. The topic I chose is Price Mechanism, an essential concept in microeconomics. Wherever there is a market that involves transactions and exchange of goods and services, there is bound to be a price mechanism. By using the Feynman Notebook Method, I have simplified the complex concept so that it is more “digestible” and added diagrams in my notes and additional information that can help understand the topic better.
My note-taking sample done with Feynman Notebook Method
Although this is just a sample of my note-taking using the Feynman Method, it explains the concepts with considerable detail and clarity.
Tried and Tested: Some thoughts on the Method
Using the Metacognitive Cycle, I evaluated the effectiveness of this method on my learning and note-taking. First, I compared my notes to the content taught in lectures and textbooks and checked to ensure that they summarise the key points in a clear and methodical way. While doing so, I think of ways to improve on my note-taking using this method so that I can maximise my effectiveness for my next study session.
Then right before my next note taking session, I plan carefully what to include or omit, writing them with the objective to make my notes as simplified and useful as possible. Undoubtedly, this planning can be tedious as I am not a very organised person, but what I would do is outline and plan my note-taking as I would for an essay plan while reviewing the points and material taught. Lastly, I would implement this plan by ensuring that I follow both the plan itself and the note-taking Method. The last stage for my notetaking is the ‘application’ part which requires a lot of focus and persistence.
My verdict on the method’s effectiveness
Overall, this works well for me as it trains me to be more succinct in my note-taking and to study more effectively as my notes contain the key points essential for exam revision. Certainly, I will be recommending this method to my friends and schoolmates. I do not need to worry about cramming information by studying everything as I previously would by taking down every single word in my notes. My new notes done using this method are as detailed as my old notes done by simply writing everything down, with the exception of the information that will not be tested. Fewer words and information means my notes are less wordy and easier to recall. However, this notetaking method does require a lot of self-discipline as it must be done methodically and periodically. Hence, I feel that consistency is crucial if one wants to derive the most successful outcomes of learning through the Feynman Notebook Method thoroughly.
To conclude, this method is rather useful. Some other people even consider it to be “one of the most effective study strategies for decades” (Tamm, 2021) and “the most effective study method ever developed (Brainscape, 2020). This notebook method for note-taking can be used across disciplines and helps students to create and organize their notes effectively. Why not try it too? All you need to do is grab a textbook, a notebook and pen and start working on your notetaking today!
TheBestColleges. (2021, April 23). 17 Scientifically Proven Ways to Study Better This Year. TheBestColleges.org. https://www.thebestcolleges.org/17-scientifically-proven-ways-to-study-better-this-year/.
Brainscape. (2021, May 13). Use the Feynman Technique to make knowledge STICK. Brainscape Academy. https://www.brainscape.com/academy/feynman-technique-studying/.
Cam. (2020, August 31). The Feynman Technique. A&S Academic Advising and Coaching. https://www.colorado.edu/artssciences-advising/resource-library/life-skills/the-feynman-technique-in-academic-coaching.
Camina, E., & Güell, F. (2017). The Neuroanatomical, Neurophysiological and Psychological Basis of Memory: Current Models and Their Origins. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2017.00438.
Evernote. (2017, August 5). Learning From the Feynman Technique. Medium. https://medium.com/taking-note/learning-from-the-feynman-technique-5373014ad230.
TheHumanMemory. (2020, November 25). Long-Term Memory: Facts, Types, Duration & Capacity. The Human Memory. https://human-memory.net/long-term-memory/.
Vieker, J. (2020). Building a Retention-Friendly Classroom. [PowerPoint Slides] Director of Retention and Student Success, Truman State University. http://vieker.sites.truman.edu/files/2020/01/2020-01-22-apdc-retention-talk.pdf
Wolswijk, F. (2014, October 24). How to Learn Anything Faster With The Feynman Technique. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141024121647-107244930-how-to-learn-anything-faster-with-the-feynman-technique/.