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Deep Dive on MCAT Studying: To Study More Efficiently, Engage in Retrieval Based Learning

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Dive Brief:

  • How do you normally start to study for a test? There are so many different ways to study, and yet we don’t apply the scientific method when we take a look at the evidence that we have in front of us in terms of how cognitive psychology can improve and even supercharge our learning. Instead, we relie on biased inferences that we make based on intuition, observations, and anecdotes which may be based in at best, misperceptions and, at worst, fiction. 
  • Most people take their MCAT books and passively read when they are studying — 80% of a population surveyed by Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger in 2009 in the journal Memory use this strategy when they are trying to learn something and 50% of them used it as their top strategy when preparing for an exam or another assessment. The upshot was of the study that rereading, even in large quantities, had no significant effect when it comes to learning – it produced absolutely no effect. This is because “time does not cause learning, only mental processes cause learning” 
  • In fact, re-reading caused minimal improvements, but massive overconfidence. Subjects that re-read a passage that they were tested on thought that they did much better on a test than they did. Have you ever had this effect when you went into a test and tried to take it blind, only having re-read the chapter a few times and thought that you know what was going to be on the test? 
  • The best way to learn is a method called retrieval based learning and repeated spaced retrieval, which means that you need to take material that you are learning about, setting it aside, and actively reconstructing by remembering the things that you have learned. This is uncomfortable, but you are literally rewiring the circuitry of your brain to think about a topic in a certain way and this is how you push your brain to learn new things. 

Dive Insight:

Learning how to learn is such an underrated skill because this metacognition, or deliberately changing practices based on empiric evidence is how effective habits are discovered and reinforced. During the MCAT, which is a test largely based on the ability to learn new concepts and retain them for a long period of time, I can definitely see this advice playing a role in any student’s preparation. 

For example, let’s think about a student who is studying the amino acid structures for the MCAT. By applying this strategy and looking at the structures once and trying to reconstruct them from memory, the student will be able to find deficiencies in their thinking more readily than just rereading the concepts. SOmething that the brain does well is “trick” you into thinking that you know a topic when you really do not, and these flaws become apparent when you set the book aside and have to reconstruct certain parts or arguments from memory. Also, this is not like memorization because it will allow you to put together concepts that you don’t readily think about all the time, combining facets of your education and fostering diverse neural connections. 

This may not seem very exciting, but it will allow you to supercharge your test scores in a way that no other test strategy will. It will take something that you are not very comfortable with and throw you in the deep end, but with a fail safe (since it isn’t the real test, you’ll always be able to reference the book again). Simulating real testing conditions is something that you probably have heard, but you should do this often. Not only will it help you get in tune with your own way of thinking, it will also calm the anxiety that you may have before a test happens (I know I certainly have this type of anxiety). 

Medical Schools are looking for self-starters, people who are not afraid of being able to take something, look at how it is inefficient, and change it. If you start with your study habits, things will fall into place not only in your MCAT preparation, but also classes and outside. Learning on the fly is somethins that is underrated, and having an attitude that complements the desire to learn makes you unstoppable in terms of how far you can go in medicine. With a naturally curious personality, interviews will no longer feel like a challenge but rather another way to test your retrieval based learning and your inquisitveness. This strategy can inculcate that curiousity within you—all you have to do is believe in its efficacy. 

If your MCAT practice test scores aren’t where you want them to be, don’t settle for less. MedSchoolCoach offers tutoring for the MCAT, in addition to other medical school courses and exams. Our tutors have done exceptionally well on the MCAT and they have used the strategy mentioned in the study, among more. Ultimately, that means a significantly better score for you. Learn more here.

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