Research like a fifth grader

22 Apr 2018

Originally this post was going to be on the Feynman Technique, a four-step procedure for learning anything under the sun. It was named after Richard Feynman, Nobel-winning physicist, polymath, atomic bomb scientist, safe cracker, and player of bongo drums.

Remembering my fifth grade research skills, I grabbed a stack of index cards and a pen. After reading twenty articles on the Feynman Technique and writing down one fact per card, I had at the end…one card.1

It read: Feynman was asked about a physics topic. He said he’d prepare a freshman lecture on it. Came back later and said: “I couldn’t reduce it to freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

That’s it. Someone took that little blurb and build a four-step learning system out of it. Since no one would be interested in learning the Nobody-You-Heard-Of Technique, he named it the Feynman Technique.

Basic research skills are super-important now we’re drowning in clickbait and fake news. Ignore opinion and find some trustworthy primary sources (see below). And look for the facts.

What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Robert Heinlein

The Fifth Grader Technique

  1. Pick a topic.
  2. Find sources, primary if possible.
    1. Primary sources are first-hand accounts: original works such as diaries, interviews, surveys, and original research.
    2. Secondary sources interpret, summarize, or critique primary sources: encyclopedias, textbooks, essays, and reviews.
  3. Write one fact per note card, in your own words (unless it’s a direct quote). Ignore all facts not related to the topic.
  4. Write the source of the fact on the card.
    1. List each source on a sheet of paper, numbering each source item.
    2. Use the source number on the note card.
  5. Review your cards and write an outline based on them.
  6. Write a draft based on the outline.

  1. When you start taking notes you’ll find that most newspaper and magazine articles literally aren’t noteworthy.