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Using Cognitive Psychology to Study for the MCAT

Using Cognitive Psychology to Study for the MCAT

Published on August 10, 2013 in Studying

What learning techniques are you using to study for the MCAT?

Earlier this year, researchers from several universities jointly published a thorough review of learning techniques in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.  The lengthy report consisted of individual analyses of 10 study techniques and the authors' recommendations on the relative effectiveness of each:
  1. Elaborative interrogation - generating an explanation
  2. Self-explanation - explaining relation of new information to old; explaining steps to solve a problem
  3. Summarization - writing summaries
  4. Highlighting/underlining - marking portions of material
  5. Keyword mnemonic - using keywords and mental imagery to associate material
  6. Imagery for text - forming mental images while reading or listening
  7. Rereading - restudying text
  8. Practice testing - self-testing or taking practice tests
  9. Distributed practice - spreading out study activities over time
  10. Interleaved practice - mixing different kinds of problems or material into a single study session

What does Cognitive Psychology have to say about preparing for the MCAT?

Common to the self-explanation and elaborative interrogation techniques was that each was shown to have a greater usefulness when used by students that already had prior knowledge or familiarity with the subject.  The authors speculated that once we have a greater familiarity, we may be able to more correctly and effectively provide explanation of the concept.
  • Application to MCAT prep: use these techniques later in your prep after you have gained basic familiarity; consider working with a study group or partner
Interestingly, the authors point to results that conclude summarization may be of limited benefit when testing requires not producing information but recognizing a correct answer, e.g. multiple-choice questions.
  • Application to MCAT prep: vary usage depending on the MCAT subject; this technique may be more appropriate for studying the process for solving a type of physics problem than for learning the effects of hormones
Are you a highlighter?  The authors demonstrated relative poor performance of highlighting/underlining as a learning technique in several studies.  One study in particular "suggested that underlining can be detrimental to later ability to make inferences."
  • Application to MCAT prep: take care not to use this technique as a crutch for truly understanding material; remember that the MCAT is a thinking test, so making inferences is of critical importance
In the use of keyword mnemonics, the authors listed medical terminology as a kind of material well-suited to this learning technique.  Additionally, the mental imagery used in mnemonics and also imagery for text is described as being beneficial to "comprehending and learning text materials."
  • Application to MCAT prep: avoid getting lost in all the review material that you need to cover with a practice of forming a mental image of the concept while reading the text
Rereading was described as a technique that a majority of students, including high-performing students, rely on for preparing for exams.  However, its relative utility compared to some of the other study techniques was questioned.  In particular, studies showed little benefit beyond the second reading.
  • Application to MCAT prep: do not rely on rereading text to dramatically improve performance
The authors begin their review of practice testing with the comment that "testing is likely viewed by many students as an undesirable necessity."  This study technique, which can include the use of flashcards or practice problem sets, was described as effective when the time allotted for practice testing is modest and there is time afterwards for restudying.
  • Application to MCAT prep: schedule practice tests so that you have time allotted for restudying; avoid pushing practice opportunities to the very end of your prep
Distributed practice was very well supported as a learning technique, but as the authors noted, "one issue students face is that their study materials may not be set up in a way that encourages distributed practice."
  • Application to MCAT prep: design your study schedule so that you are able to review the individual topics over a distributed time period; avoid reading through all material without revisiting early topics
Interleaved practice was described as providing an "impressive effect" over the method of studying all of one topic and its related practice problems before moving onto the next topic.
  • Application to MCAT prep: include review or practice of multiple topics in each study session

What was the final assessment of each technique?

  • High Utility: practice testing, distributed practice
  • Moderate Utility: elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, interleaved practice
  • Low Utility: summarization, highlighting/underlining, keyword mnemonic, imagery for text, rereading

It should not go without notice that the two techniques identified as high utility are to incorporate practice tests along your prep schedule and to study over a distributed period of time.  Undoubtedly, pre-med students preparing for the MCAT are inundated with many important tasks and responsibilities, and "study early, practice often" is likely advice heard many times over.  Yet, as demonstrated by this review, such a strategy is not only good advice but also shown to be most effective among the techniques analyzed.

Source (PDF): Dunlosky et al. (2013).  Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1) 4-58.

Tags: research, study techniques

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