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Apr 09 2007

Long-term memory and working memory for MCAT

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

Some of you may remember from one of your courses the discussion about the types of memory. What may not have been emphasized is the central role of these types in terms of success on standardized testing. Specifically, the Long-term Memory (LTM) and the Working Memory (WM), also called short-term memory are central to standardized testing. For a high-stakes test like the MCAT, fully understanding their role can make a significant difference in overall scores. This blog will just review what they are, and then future blogs will explain how you can optimize your LTM and WM to increase your test scores.

I am not going to focus on immediate memory although it is also important, but not nearly to the degree the LTM and WM are for standardized testing.

WM is also your active memory. As you read this, as you think about anything, you are using your WM. The major feature of the WM to understand is that it has a limited capacity…only so much can be present in it at any moment. How much is not definite, but some estimate that 7 items for the average person. But, there are ways to increase that capacity and make it more effective.

LTM is your memory storage. Most theorists believe there is no measurable capacity limitation, that is, it has unlimited capacity. Additionally, most believe that whatever enters LTM is always there. While some would debate these claims, the gist is we have a lot more capacity than most of us are using and what we do place there tends to stay there a long, long time. But, LTM is inactive, you DO NOT do any thinking in your LTM.

In terms of standardized testing, ie, the MCAT, the critical feature is the retrieval of information from the LTM into our WM, so we can solve that d==n problem. That’s how many of us feel during these tests when our LTM appears to have gone to sleep and our WM is not as active as it should be. All of us have had the annoying situation of seeing a question on a test that we just knew we knew at the time. But, unfortunately, three hours later while sitting down to dinner, the answer pops into our mind. What this means is that, yes, the information was in our LTM, but, alas, we could not retrieve it into our WM at the time we needed it. We need to understand why this happens and what we can do about it. Our dreams depend on it.

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Computerized Based Test (CBT) versus Paper MCAT

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

A question students, advisors and teachers have been asking is “How is the new CBT different from the old paper MCAT?” This is a critical question for many reasons, but it is really composed of a number of questions. One, is the content different? Second, is the structure of the test, how they ask the questions, different? Third, are they measuring the same factors or has that changed? Fourth, will it be used the same or differently by medical schools? And fifth, is there something different I must do now compared to what I’ve done or been told about on the old paper MCAT?

You can get answers to many of these questions by going to aamc.org and clicking down to the MCAT and specifically, the Computerized Base Test (CBT) links. Following are my take on these questions.

One-content different? The content is the same on the CBT and the most recent paper MCAT’s since the revision of 2003 (the “R” tests). So, if you knew the content for the last paper test given in August 2006, then you will know the content for the CBT’s.

Two-structure of test different? This is a very critical question, but the answer again is “no”. The way AAMC asks questions and the question types are all the same. If you understand and know how to apply MCAT test-specific skills, then this is excellent news.

Three-same factors being measured? Yes they are. Whatever those factors are, they have not changed. I state this in this manner, because AAMC does list some factors you are being tested on, there are many others which are NOT listed but are none-the-less being tested.

The essence to understanding questions one, two and three is something called Item Response Theory (IRT) and understanding that AAMC has expended millions of dollars developing a question bank from which they draw questions. By using IRT, they can be as certain as is possible, that every test, and every form of the test, since the latest major version change in 1991 is the same. They are the same in terms of overall content, overall skills and overall ability to discriminate students of different abilities. Simply because the number of items has changed will not change the overall validity and discrimination of the MCAT.

Four-use by medical schools. My belief is that medical schools will continue to use it just as they have in the past. The Moss Test, the original MCAT from 1928, was created to help select students who are likely to complete medical school…they still use it for this purpose and will do so into the future.

Five-what is different? You must become totally familiar with the mechanics of taking the new MCAT. There are also differences in the number of questions, registration, retakes etc. You will have to get use to taking the computerized form versus the paper form…eg, you can’t write notes in the margins anymore…so, now what? The best way to get prepared is to go the aamc.org site and go through their tutorials and free practice test.