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Apr 09 2007

Techniques for Creating Effective Long-Term Memory for the MCAT - Part I

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Author: Dr. James L Flowers
Category: MCAT Prep Tips

The goal of studying, or learning, is to use that information when you need it. In preparation for the MCAT, you want that information available when you sit down at your computer booth to take the MCAT. This is when you want all that study, knowledge, information you stored in your Long-Term Memory (LTM) to be at the “beck and call” of your Working Memory (WM). It will be immediately available if you stored it properly, i.e., if you studied properly.

Research has consistently shown that information is best retrieved when it has been stored based on several principles. 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.

1) Sufficient Knowledge Base (SKB). Remember that existing knowledge makes it easier to learn new knowledge (ie, add it to LTM). This is best done by taking the basic requirements for the MCAT and studying them and learning them as much as you possibly can. This occurs when you first enter college. This means you go to every class, read every page your instructor tells you do, do every assignment, etc. So, that when you enter the phase to prepare for the MCAT in your junior year, typically, you have that solid base of knowledge for your MCAT prep. If you do not have this base of knowledge, you should plan to spend extra time in your preparation.

2) Meaningful Learning (ML). This is a technique and not a statement of fact. ML means that every new bit of information is related to existing information. When this is done, the new information is stored with connections (nodes). Nodes are created that can searched during the process of retrieval from your LTM. This speeds up the retrieval process. So, this means that as you are studying new information, you should be making every effort possible to relate it to what you already know. Or, at least, give it some meaning in terms of yourself or the world you know.

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Importance of Effective Long-Term Memory for the MCAT

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Author: Dr. James L Flowers
Category: MCAT Prep Tips

To do well on a high-stakes standardized test like the MCAT, you must have created an effective storage of the correct information in your Long-Term Memory (LTM). The reason for this is partly obvious and partly not. Some questions will just require knowledge that you must bring to the test in your brain…not on your palm or your palm-pilot. Other questions will require a combination of information from the test and this prior knowledge. In either case you have to retrieve that information rapidly and effectively in the setting of a very hostile environment-the test itself.

First, storage in LTM is actually more efficient if you already have a sufficient base of knowledge already in your LTM. I.e., it is easier to add new information when a certain amount of information is already there. This is where a great number of students preparing for a content rich test like the MCAT makes a big mistake. If you do not have a decent fund of knowledge when you start to review, its going to make your review more difficult and less efficient. And, I have not even started discussing problem solving and anxiety! It makes little sense to rush and try to take real MCAT’s if you do not know your basic knowledge status. Some students are well prepared in the basics, and the real MCAT’s would be great for them. But, for many  others, the first order of business should be getting a solid basic knowledge in place. This is done by proper review of the content required for the MCAT. We all should know what is required by going to aamc.org and studying the MCAT Student Manual.

Second, if you have a sufficient base knowledge to start a serious preparation, there may still be additional knowledge needed, or, the knowledge you already have needs to be encoded optimally. The issue in LTM is getting that information out of the LTM during test time. Getting information out of LTM during test time is predicated on putting it into LTM in the proper way during your learning. The absence of this connection is one important reason why so many students complain of “studying hard” and “testing poorly”. You can have an encyclopedia or Wikipedia in your LTM, but if you cannot get that information out and into your Working Memory (WM) during the test time, it is worthless. This is where many students are doing it all wrong…when they try to store the information, ie, learn the information initially. They are definitely “learning poorly” and it should be no surprise when they “test poorly”.