One of the popular methods of learning a new subject is what is known as the Feynman Technique. Numerous books and blogs talk about the method. It is said that Richard Feynman, The Nobel Prize winning Physicist only considered to have learned something if he could give an introductory lecture on it.(P85, How to Take Smart Notes)
Learning sciences in fact support this method. The work of Lev Vygotsky first showed that we don’t learn something and then express it – we learn something as we’re expressing it. Articulation helps us understand better. If you have ever helped explain a concept to your friends the day before the exam, you would understand this. Teaching a particular concept makes the concept more clear to your own mind.
If this is true, teaching others is a great way to learn something. But if you don’t have anyone else to teach, you can still use this principle to learn better. Here are a few practical suggestions to do this:
1. Listen to yourself to check if you have learned something
If you are learning something (perhaps for an exam), record a voice note where you are explaining the concept to someone else. Then listen to the entire voice note and see if it makes sense. If you haven’t understood a concept well, you will know it by this step.
2. Make paraphrased notes of what you learn
Writing down what you learn in your own words is a great way to check if you have learnt something. This is in some ways the same as recording voice notes. However, the advantage with writing is that you can easily re-read and correct specific portions of what you have written if it is not specific enough or if it seems to contradict something else you have written previously.
3. Draw a mind map
Drawing a mind map is once again similar to recording a voice note or writing a paraphrased explanation. The only difference is that it is more graphic. This has advantages. Our mind often remembers visual details much more vividly than words or numbers. A mind map leverages this tendency of our mind to learn better.
4. Use collaborative argumentation
Here is a surprising trick to better your learning. Arguing with others! There is a field of learning sciences called as dialogue theory. Now what dialogue theory says that in arguing to learn, students are not primarily attempting to convince each other; instead, they are engaged in cooperative explorations of a dialogical space of solutions.(P 445, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences) The reason argumentation is great for learning is that it forces you to articulate your position in specific and exact terms. You would use examples and evidence to support your claim. All these articulations are forming the idea and solidifying it more deeply in your own mind. Moreover, being part of discussion groups where such lively and deeply stimulating discussions occur is a great way to improve your own learning.
At the end of the day, remember that learning cannot happen passively by consuming information (in the form of a lecture or a book). Learning always requires an active involvement of the learner, whether that involvement is in the form of talking or writing, or even drawing. Each of us is different and we might have different perspectives when it comes to how we learn. Keep experimenting till you find what works best for you.