Apr 30 2007
The internet is an endless, and mostly free, source of information. But, is this limitless resource of value to a student seriously preparing for the MCAT?
First, what is really free on the internet for the MCAT? You will have to work your way through the endless promotions, gimmicks and misdirections of nearly every MCAT commercial prep company out there. The MCAT prep business is very competitive for a limited number of customers. So, if you type in “free MCAT Prep”, you get many leads which are simply doorways, some would say sinkholes, to Kaplan and Princeton Review among many others. There are some truly free sites which might benefit your MCAT prep. First and foremost is the aamc.org site which offers AAMC 3R free and with an analysis…take this offer seriously. After this, you can go to the Caduceus MCAT site at http://www.scientia.org/cadonline/home.html which has free content. And, there is always the Wikipedia offerings. There are others but I was going to the 4th page or more of the Google search and the pickings were thinning out. So, there are sites out there for free, but remember, the question was regarding serious study.
The MCAT is arguably the most difficult of the high-stakes mass-administered standardized tests out there. There must be a reason for this. Understanding its current difficulty can be understood partly by understanding its evolution. This is the sixth version of the MCAT which began in 1928..and they are not trying to make it any easier. My analysis, having taken an earlier version, is that the test has become much more difficult and sophisticated. It now requires a higher level of thinking skills than previously. More critically, it requires an interweaving of basic content and these thinking skills. The basic knowledge required is fairly precisely defined in the AAMC MCAT Student Manual. The skills needed are less precisely defined in the same Manual.
This means that even your study of the basic knowledge for the MCAT should be measured and specific. Some sources, like Wikipedia, have a tremendous amount information on a subject, but it may be way afield of the MCAT. This will only distract and confound you in your prep for the MCAT. For the MCAT, believe it or not, you don’t have to know a lot of topics, but you have to know a certain limited number of topics in depth.
The next issue is how the questions are posed. Prior MCAT versions focused on recall of information unrelated to passages. Now, you not only have to recall the specific information but recall and use that information in relation to passages. This is where the skills come about and lack of which result in the refrains of “I studied hard for this test, but I did poorly.” Most of the free sources of MCAT prep, other than the AAMC 3R test, fall woefully short in this respect.
Beyond the concerns of the proper content and appropriate questions are issues of evaluations of your status, determination of the best means for you to study and then monitoring of your progress to make sure you are on-track are rarely, I have not seen any, done with free MCAT preps.
If you have developed good skills of higher order thinking, know the basic content very well, then the use of the free information may be helpful as a review. For everyone, you should take advantage of the AAMC free test at the minimum. For most others though, the commercial preps, and AAMC is a place to start, with content and questions beyond the free preps, sinkholes or not, can have some value… but you must choose wisely.
Apr 12 2007
Research has consistently shown that information is best retrieved when it has been stored based on several principles and techniques. These are: 1) sufficient preexisting knowledge base, 2) meaningful learning, 3) elaboration, 4) internal organization, 5) your optimal learning method, 6) spaced learning, 7) repetitive learning and 8) automaticity. Automaticity will be discussed at a later date. The essence of all of these is that knowledge which has been stored with the maximal number of connections or nodes and organization will be remembered better and retrieved optimally. Points 1 and 2 have previously been discussed.
3) Elaboration. Another means to entrench your knowledge in your Long-Term Memory (LTM) is by the technique of elaboration. Elaboration is similar to Meaningful Learning in that you have to have some preexisting knowledge in LTM. You can then use that knowledge to enhance or modify the new knowledge you are learning. This creates stronger and more easily accessible connections (nodes) for retrieval into Working Memory (WM).
4) Internal Organization (IO). Internal organization is when you reorganize the knowledge within itself. The Meaningful Learning and Elaboration were forms of external organization, relating the knowledge to knowledge outside of itself. Forms of IO include simply outlining the information, creating a concept map of how the different parts relate to each other or creating meaningful mnemonics. Any manner in which you can reshape the information which makes it make sense and relate to itself will result in more effective storage in LTM.
5) Optimal Learning Method. Whereas this isn’t a specific technique for LTM storage, it is important because all individuals learn information better in one format or another. None-the-less, it results in more effective storage and retrieval. You will have to determine how you learn the best. Visual imagery or depictions is generally helpful to all. But, some individuals may learn better by audio or by kinesthetic methods. For the audio learner, you may need to create your own audio summaries of material that you can listen to. This can be very effective if you commute a lot. If you are a kinesthetic learner, it will be important for you to rewrite the information. This can be combined with Internal Organization methods. Each of these will help store that info better in LTM.
6) Spaced Learning. Ineffective learning is often crammed learning. You will store info more effectively if there is spacing between the learning episodes. You should purposely learn it at one time and then plan to go over it again at some later interval. The intervals vary and you should determine which one is most effective for you. This is one reason to do your MCAT prep over time, probably a minimum of 3 months.
7) Repetitive Learning. Repetition is hand-in-hand with spacing. Repetition is not rote-learning or repeating. Rote-learning, learning lists, is the most ineffective way to learn anything. It is stored poorly and retrieved poorly from LTM. If you use repetition, do it with appropriate spacing and combine it with the techniques discussed above.
For the MCAT, you are better off knowing a select number of concepts very well via the techniques discussed above rather than trying to know a large number of concepts poorly. They will be poorly organized and poorly entrenched in your LTM, and you will NOT be able to retrieve them effectively during test time. If your preparation program does not use the techniques above, you should learn and use them yourself during your study. Your MCAT will improve…guaranteed.