The Feynman Effect – aka the Illusion of Understanding

What is Einstein getting at in this quote?

Educational Psychologists talk about the “illusion of understanding.”

Sometimes this term is used to describe the potential downside of a very clear explanation.

For example, the Feynman Lectures on Physics are often characterized as being one of the clearest explanations of introductory physics. Richard Feynman was a great presenter and a gifted writer.

However, it’s said that he was not inclined to oblige his students to do homework. He took a very laissez-faire approach to teaching. If his students wanted to work through problem sets, they could. If they did not want to do so, that was fine too.

It’s also said that when educational psychologists tested his students to see if they had learned more that students in other classes, they were surprised by what they found. They found that Feynman’s students were under-performing the students from other classes. The researchers were expecting just the opposite. Why were Feynman’s students under-performing, they asked.

The problem with Feynman’s approach to teaching – especially if you’re a gifted presenter/lecturer – is that some (many) of your students will think they understand something from just attending your lecture.

This is not an excuse for delivering a confusing lecture, however. The moral of the story is that your students should test their understanding of what you’ve presented by actually applying what they have learned (or have not learned) by working through a well-designed set of problems.

So, when I read the Einstein quote above, I’m reminded of the “illusion of understanding.” Reading a well written book or going to a good play are not bad per se, but it’s good if you also apply what you’ve learned from these experiences.


The Feynman Lectures on Physics

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