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Computerized Based Test (CBT) versus Paper MCAT

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April 9, 2007

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.

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Long-term memory and working memory for MCAT

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April 9, 2007

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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Importance of Effective Long-Term Memory for the MCAT

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April 9, 2007

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”.

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

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April 9, 2007

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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The Early Years

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April 6, 2007

Welcome to my blog. This is my first entry. I’m going to start by telling how I started helping prepare students from across the world prepare for the MCAT…

I took the MCAT in 1971. At that time, I could not afford to take any MCAT prep. In fact, most MCAT preps were in their infancy. I relied on a number of books published by ARCO and Barrons. I found these books to be nearly worthless. They focused on questions only. There was no content given to review the topics being covered. So, I set up my own study program based on what I perceived I needed to study. Fortunately, I had recently prepared for and taken the GRE in chemistry and performed very well. So, I could limit my study to physics and biology, which I did. I then scored in the 99 percentiles on science and math.

Although my own preparation helped me appreciate some aspects of preparing for the MCAT, my real education occurred as I began to teach students to prepare for the MCAT.

I took a job as Tutorial Coordinator for the Experimental Program in Higher Education (EPHE) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) in 1970. I had been a graduate student in chemistry at Dartmouth. In the spring of 1970, an event called “Kent State” occurred and my classes were disrupted. I spent the spring traveling around the east coast and observed several Viet Nam war demonstrations. Eventually, I decided to take time off and try to decide what I really wanted to do. A Dean at Dartmouth was from Wisconsin and got me the job at UWM.

Early on, I was asked by a student to help him prepare for the MCAT. I had not even prepared for it myself, but I took it on anyway. I was able to meet with him and developed an approach to help him learn the material. He took the MCAT, did well and ended up in medical school. I was shooting 100%.

Then I spent the time preparing myself for the MCAT and did extremely well. I then applied to medical schools for 1972. I did an early application for Marquette Medical School, now the Medical College of Wisconsin. With my MCAT scores in the 99 percentiles, I was immediately accepted. During a discussion with one of the professors, Dr. H, he told me I should really apply to other schools and not attend Marquette. I followed his advice and did. I applied to Harvard and within a few months I got a personal call from Dr. Pouissant asking me to attend Harvard Medical School (HMS). I accepted. But, during that year, my first child was born, I had married in 1970, and was now a nontraditional medical student. I would not leave my wife and newborn and turned down the admission to HMS. I was told I could not hold over the admission to next year, but I had to stay with my family. So, I took my chances and would have to reapply next year.

The next year, I reapplied to Harvard and Stanford only. I interviewed and was accepted by both. I chose HMS. My wife had problems taking OCP’s and contraception doesn’t always work. So, my second child was to be born in September of 1973. My wife decided I should start HMS in September 1973…which I did.

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