Use This Simple Technique to Speed Past Your Learner’s Block
A learning strategy developed by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
Our ability to learn and understand complex, abstract concepts is part of what makes us human. But have you ever wondered why some people just seem to understand everything quicker than you, or what you can do when you just get stuck?
A 2015 Dartmouth study found that some people learn faster not because they’re smarter, but because they find learning more rewarding. These individuals actually get a bigger dose of dopamine (our brain’s innate reward signal) when they find a correct answer than others.
I’m probably one of those people.
But if you’re not one of those people, if learning new things and wading through hours of research does not spark joy, you’ll likely not be as motivated to push through your learner’s block.
I absolutely love that “aha!” moment when everything just slides into focus. It’s satisfying in a peculiar way, like I’ve achieved some goal I didn’t even know I set out for. That’s probably in part why I became a technical writer — my love of learning. When your job is explaining things to people in a simple way, you need to understand the thing you’re explaining. But if you’re not one of those people, if learning new things and wading through hours of research does not spark joy, you’ll likely not be as motivated to push through your learner’s block.
Learner’s block is that feeling where, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t understand the topic or concept at hand. You might end up staring at the same references for hours, not really reading anything. Anything you do read doesn’t really click. And while it’s not a defined condition, I propose that everyone experiences learner’s block, no matter how rewarding they find learning new things.
So the next time you hit a wall in your learning, try this technique.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique is a mental model (a representation of how we reason) named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. The goal of this technique is to help you understand concepts, remember what you’ve already learned, or study more effectively. I’m pretty sure it’s what got me through college. 🤷
There’s a quote popularly attributed to Albert Einstein that goes:
If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.
The jury is out on whether Einstein actually said this, this is most likely a bastardization of this quote attributed to Lord Rutherford of Nelson:
An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.
This is the core idea behind the Feynman Technique: learn complex ideas by trying to explain them in plain, simple language. Feynman broke this out into a few basic steps.
1. Write what you already know
Start off with a blank paper — physical or otherwise. Identify the subject at the top, and start listing everything you know about the topic. Don’t reference any outside material! This is your baseline.
2. Find the knowledge gaps
Look at what you’ve written down, and start picking it apart. What are you missing? What doesn’t make sense? What seems disjointed? These are the areas you need to dive into.
Go back to your source material, Google or otherwise, and re-read and re-learn. Add these new points to your notes. Focus on the meaning behind each concept, don’t just memorize the name.
For example, if you are learning the Pythagorean theorem, don’t just memorize the formula (a² + b² = c² if it’s been a while). Understand the parts as they relate to the whole.
Some knowledge gaps might be:
- What kind of triangles does this apply to?
- What is a right triangle?
- What is a hypotenuse?
- Which sides of the triangle do A, B, and C relate to?
This is a very pared-down example, but hopefully you get the idea. As you answer one question, that may spark another question. This is how we learn as adults, by making connections to our existing mental model.
3. Teach it to a child
While it might be helpful to literally try explaining it to a child, the spirit of this step is really just to simplify, simplify, simplify.
Take all the information you’ve gathered and organize it into a coherent story. As you’re building your narrative, you may find you need to go back and repeat step 2 — that’s fine!
Once you have a story, read it out loud. Pay attention to places where the story stops being simple. If you find that you need to take a breath mid-sentence, that sentence likely needs to be pared down. If you stumble, that’s probably an incomplete thought or an unclear transition.
Make sure all technical terms are explained clearly using simple words. Each time you introduce an abstract concept, try using analogies and examples to connect the abstract to the physical.
Most importantly, get to the point in as few words as possible, without losing any meaning. If you can do that, you truly understand the topic.
How do you learn? Share your thoughts in the comments!