How to use the Feynman technique in medical education

In this video, we'll go through the six steps to mastering the Feynman technique and how to use this mind-blowing tool to explain absolutely anything to anyone.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
9th Jun 2021 • 4m read

According to Albert Einstein, "if you cannot explain something simply you don't understand it well enough". This concept underpins the Feynman technique, a powerful tool designed to do two things for you—help you become a better learner and a superstar teacher. In this video, we'll go through the six steps to mastering the Feynman technique and how to use this mind-blowing tool to explain absolutely anything to anyone.

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Video transcript

Albert Einstein once said, "If you cannot explain something simply you don't understand it well enough." And that's also the essence of the Feynman technique, a way to supercharge your learning and teaching skills. Iconic physicist Richard Feynman was a pioneer in the field of quantum electrodynamics. His research on the interaction of light and matter earned him a Nobel Prize in 1965.

And he was also a member of the Manhattan Project. As a physicist, Feynman was famous for his ability to learn, distill concepts down and to teach. Bill Gates called Richard Feynman the greatest teacher I never had. The Feynman technique is designed to do two things for you. It will help you A. become a better learner and B. a better teacher. It consists of six steps.

Step number one, select the topic you want to learn or teach. Avoid concepts that are too big, like explaining the entire theory of relativity. Instead, focus on smaller concepts or sub-concepts of a bigger concept, something that can be taught within five minutes or less.

Step number two, pretend that you're teaching it to a child. Write everything you know about the subject down as if you were to explain it to a 12 year old who has just enough attention span and vocabulary to understand basic concepts. If it's an advanced medical concept, and you cannot avoid medical vocabulary, like red blood cell, or AV node, then target your explanation towards a biology savvy 17 year old high school student.

This will force you to use simple language. A child's or adolescence short attention span forces you to get to the point without extraneous detail. The result, simplicity and brevity. In order to be successful, you will need to come up with good analogies, examples and visualizations, since that's how kids and everyone else learns.

Ask yourself how you can make something seemingly confusing feel obvious. Doing so will force you to understand the concept at a deeper level. You will form new relationships and connections between previously isolated concepts.

Step number three, review your explanation and identify the holes in your understanding. Find the spots where you got stuck. What was hard for you to come up with simple terms and simple explanations. Remember Einstein's words. When there's an aspect to the problem that you can't explain in simple words, it usually means that you don't understand it well enough.

Now that you know where you have problems, go back to the source material and relearn it until you can explain it in basic terms. Step number four, read your explanation aloud and make it even simpler. This is the editing stage of the process. Read aloud what you have written. Make sure you didn't use any jargon. Or if you did, ensure that you clarified the terms for your learner.

Not only does this ensure clarity for learners from varying educational backgrounds, but also from differing primary languages, and reduces confusion in cases where some medical abbreviations may be the same but have different meanings based on the context. Does PT mean physical therapy, prothrombin time, preterm or something else entirely.

If the explanation isn't simple, or sounds in any way confusing, that's a sign that your understanding in that area still needs some refinement. Step number five, do a test run. That's optional. Run your explanation by someone who knows very little about the subject at hand or find a 12 year old. The ultimate test of the quality of your explanation is your ability to convey it to another.

Can your test learners understand the material after first pass through? If you can still find areas that meet more work, go back to the source materials and refine them. If you're happy, your written explanation becomes the basis or script for your presentation or other teaching materials. Step number six, create the teaching materials.

Based on the script you created, come up with ideas for illustrations, photos, or schematics that will help support and clarify your explanation. If you came up with great analogies and examples, you will have no problem coming up with ideas for your visuals. And here's another pro tip, use the powerful presentation principles taught in presentations and by Garr Reynolds to make your teaching as effective and successful as possible.