How to Easily Improve Your Test Scores and Learning Skills

Session 188

Session 188

In today’s episode, Ryan talks with Dr. Saundra McGuire, who used to teach Chemistry at Cornell University and Louisiana State University. Her passion for education also drove her to not only teach chemistry itself to her students but to also teach them how to learn chemistry. She is the author of Teach Students How to Learn.

Most premed students are struggling with studying, studying tips, and time management. Dr. McGuire now goes around different schools across the country to teach both students and teachers on how to better study.

Listen in As Dr. McGuire shares a ton of studying tips and strategies to help you improve your test scores and strengthen your learning skills.

Here are the highlights of the conversation with Dr. McGuire:

What is meta cognition?

  • Term coined by cognitive psychologists back in 1979
  • The ability to think about your own thinking
  • Allows you to be a problem solver
  • Ability to monitor your mental processing and control it
  • Allows you to be more in touch with your resources
  • Involves your ability to know what you know and what you don’t know
  • Pretending that you’re teaching the information

How to get yourself started:

  • Set yourself on timer.
  • When you hit start, start the task and don’t stop until the timer goes off.
  • This gets you so much more done in just 30 minutes than you’ve ever imagined you would.

What happens when you go back to the example to work on the problem?

  • Your brain is not working the problem but your book is
  • When you get to the test and changes anything around, your process is messed up

Mistakes are good:

If you make a mistake, you learn from them and be able to tell where your brain has the tendency to go wrong.

How to study the right way and master information:

  • Study the information the problem is going to be on and never skip the examples.
  • Then compare your answer with the answer in the book. If you didn’t get the answer, don’t look yet and try to figure out where your mistake was.
  • Work out all the mistakes.
  • Pretend it’s a test or a quiz and speed up a little bit.

Mistakes students make when studying:

  • Not fundamentally understanding the information
  • Not having a firm grasp on the concept

Reading strategies to learn effectively:

  • Read the way your brain likes to operate.
  • Before you start to read, give your brain an overview.
  • Look at the bold prints and italicized words, charts and graphs
  • Come up with questions that you want your reading to answer for you to tune your brain to look for the information and understand it.
  • When you start to read, just start to read the first paragraph and put that into your own words.
  • Read the second paragraph and start putting them into your own words.
  • Go back and tie it to what’s in the first paragraph and read the third paragraph the same way.

Strategies for learning at lectures:

  • Preview before lecture.
  • Go to lecture and be present in lecture.
  • Once lecture is over, go and review the information so your mind sees more things than what you saw in lecture.

Learning styles for non-science or non-math based subjects:

  • Read everything using the reading strategy above.
  • Identify the overarching concepts and how they fit together.

Results of using these strategies:

  • Improved scores
  • Dramatic success
  • Increased confidence

ABC’s of Success

  • Attitude not aptitude will determine how far you can go
  • Behavior will determine how well you do
  • Commitment – only you determine when it’s over

Study mode vs. learn mode:

  • What the difference between studying and learning?
  • 99% of students say they’re in study mode
  • Study mode only focuses on what you need to do to ace the test
  • Learn mode – doing well in the test and still knowing it weeks after
  • Time management is critical

Some pieces of advice for premed students:

Your performance in the course to date has nothing to do with how smart you are but has everything to do with your behavior. If you can change your behavior, you can change the results. Don’t give up. Change your strategies. It’s not over till it’s over. Have confidence in yourself. Implement the strategies and you will see that you will excel in this course.

Links and Other Resources:

Dr. McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn

LSU’s website



Dr. Ryan Gray: The Premed Years is part of the Med Ed Media network at

The Premed Years, session number 188.

Hello and welcome to the two time Academy Award nominated podcast, The Premed Years, where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your success. I am your host Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement, and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.

Several months ago I put out a question in our Facebook hangout group, which you can find at, and I asked you what you’re struggling with on your premed path, and I was surprised by the answers. One of the most common questions that came back was that you are struggling with studying, and studying tips, and time management, a lot of those things that we don’t really talk about here on the podcast until today. Today’s guest is an amazing person who used to teach chemistry to premed students, and to other chemistry students, and now goes around the country to schools and teaches students and teaches teachers on how to better study. And we’re going to dig into all of that with Dr. Sandra Maguire, so let’s go ahead and say hello to her.

Dr. Maguire, thanks for joining me here at The Premed Years.

Dr. Maguire: Thanks so much for having me.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Why don’t you start by explaining what it was that you used to do to bring you to what you’re doing right now?

Background on Dr. Maguire & Metacognition

Dr. Maguire: I was a professor of chemistry, but I was also Director of the Center for Academic Success, the learning center. And so in that role I taught students effective learning strategies, metacognitive learning strategies, and since I was a chemistry professor I worked with a lot of chemistry students helping students understand how to study more efficiently and more effectively. And now I go around to other campuses and talk with faculty and students about how to do exactly that.

Dr. Ryan Gray: I’m sure being a chemistry professor you’ve dealt with your fair share of premed students as well.

Dr. Maguire: Absolutely, yes. I taught at Cornell University for a number of years before coming back down to LSU, Louisiana State University, and I found that the challenges were pretty much the same at all of the institutions that which I’ve taught chemistry.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Now I want to define what metacognition is before we dig into a little bit more.

Dr. Maguire: Great question. Metacognition is a term that was coined by a cognitive psychologist back in 1979, Flavell, and simply put it’s your ability to think about your own thinking. The way I explain it to students is it’s as if you have a big brain outside your brain looking at what your brain is doing, and it’s asking your brain questions and it’s saying, ‘Does she really understand this information or did she just memorize it last night because there’s a test coming up? Does she realize if she’s got a paper that’s due in a couple of weeks, she really needs to start thinking about it and planning for it, or is she just planning to whip it out the night before?’ So you’re really thinking about your thinking, it allows you to be a problem solver and not think that you need someone else to solve all your problems or answer your questions, and it’s your ability to not just monitor your mental processing but to control it so that if you know that you have a big organic chemistry test coming up, and you’ve decided that you’re going to spend Saturday night studying, if some friends come by and say, “Oh let’s go out,” then your metacognitive brain says, ‘No we’ve already scheduled what we’re going to do Saturday night.’ And if you decide that it’s a party you absolutely can’t miss, then your metacognitive brain says, ‘Well okay you can go but we’ve got to reschedule this time that we were going to spend Saturday night.’

Dr. Ryan Gray: I’m just picturing your little metacognitive brain sitting on your shoulder like the little angel and devil talking to you.

Dr. Maguire: Yes, absolutely. And it really allows you to be more in touch with your resources. A quick example I’ll give you, many students and professionals have a problem with procrastination for example. Like I am also having the problem.

Dr. Ryan Gray: I don’t even know what that word is.

Dr. Maguire: Yes I can believe it with everything that you do. But if you’re not using your metacognitive brain then you say, ‘Oh I’m a procrastinator, I put things off, I wish I didn’t procrastinate.’ But the metacognitive brain says, ‘Well that’s a problem, we need to solve that problem.’ And so you say, ‘Well what am I supposed to do?’ And the metacognitive brain says, ‘Well what do you do now when you want to find out about something you don’t know anything about?’ And what do most of us do when we’re trying to find out something about something we don’t know about?

Dr. Ryan Gray: We Google it.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly. Google it. And so your metacognitive brain says, ‘Well just Google it.’ And so if you Google how to avoid procrastination, you’re going to be brought to all kinds of websites that have wonderful strategies about how to tackle procrastination. One of the most effective being just use your cell phone timer. Because what’s the most difficult thing- part of doing something that you really don’t want to do?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Oh I don’t know.

Dr. Maguire: Getting started.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah.

Using the Pomodoro Technique

Dr. Maguire: Yeah just getting started. And so one of the strategies that I found online was you just set your cell phone timer. Set it for thirty minutes, forty minutes, and tell yourself when I hit start I’m going to start this task and I’m not going to stop until the timer goes off. And you will feel yourself wanting to jump up and do something else but you say, ‘No I’m going to do it until the timer goes off,’ and you will get so much more done in that thirty minutes than you ever imagined you would. And then once you’ve gotten it started then it’s easier to continue with the task.

Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s the Pomodoro Technique.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly, exactly.

Dr. Ryan Gray: The timing of that.

Dr. Maguire: And metacognition also involves your ability to know what you know and what you don’t know. So you don’t show up at a test, a biochemistry test thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve studied, I know all this stuff,’ and then when you sit down you see, ‘Oh I don’t know this, I don’t know that.’ And so one of the strategies there is just to pretend that you’re teaching the information because if you go through pretending that you’re teaching the information, your brain is going to get stuck at those points where you don’t totally understand the concept, and then you know to go and look it up and review it so that by the time you get to the test you will have gone through everything. But without that, your brain will kind of convince you that you totally understand things that you don’t, and if you haven’t pretended that you’re teaching it then you’re not going to find out that you don’t totally understand it until you get to the test.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow, that’s very interesting to just- just the simple concept of just picturing me sitting outside of myself and dictating what I’m doing. I’m sure there’s a fine line between metacognition and a DSM diagnosis in there.

Dr. Maguire: I’m not familiar with DSM, what is DSM?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Oh that’s a psychiatry diagnoses. How did you get into this?

Becoming a Learning Strategist

Dr. Maguire: Great question. I was teaching at Cornell University back in 1970, I was a teaching assistant and as a teaching assistant we had to sit in on all of the lectures because we had to have a consistent message when we did our recitation sections. And so I remember sitting in class thinking, ‘If I didn’t already understand this information, there’s no way I would learn it from the lecturer.’ And the lecturer was a brilliant lecturer, he was doing a great job, it’s just that there was so much information between the lines, there was so much background information that students really needed to understand so that they could understand what he was talking about, and I knew students didn’t know that. And so I started just voluntarily holding a weekly review session for students, anyone who wanted to come, where I explained the between the lines information, the background information that they needed to know. And the students did wonderfully in the course, and ever since then I’ve been dually involved with teaching chemistry, but also with teaching students how to learn chemistry. I’ll give you another quick strategy. So many students don’t do well in especially general chemistry, and organic chemistry also, because of the way they do their homework. Typically- and I’ll ask you Ryan, has this ever happened to you? Think back to when you were doing homework, did you ever look at a homework problem, and then flip back in the chapter to find an example of the problem that you had to work?

Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s how you get through homework, isn’t it?

Dr. Maguire: That was the number one reason I found that my students at Cornell who had the ability to make A’s in the courses were making C’s, D’s and even F’s. And the reason is this, when you use the example to work the problem, are you working the problem? Is your brain working the problem?

Dr. Ryan Gray: No.

Dr. Maguire: No, the book is working the problem. And so then- but we’re all really bright people, and I’ve got a confession time, I did the same thing because nobody told me that there was another way to do it. But because we’re very bright, when we look at the way the example works it we think, ‘Oh yeah I understand that. I got that.’ But then when we get to the test, if they change anything around at all, what happens?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah then your process is messed up because you only learned it one way.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly. And so there is a great way to prevent that, and the way to prevent it is to before you look at the first problem, study the information that the problems are going to be on. For example if you’re looking at bimolecular versus unimolecular nucleophilic substitution, and so you study that information as if it’s going to be on a test or a quiz the next day. And so whether you’re using your textbook or your notes, you’re going to come across examples after they explain the process. And so I didn’t know this but when I asked students, “What do you do now- if you’re using your textbook or your notes, what do you do when you get to an example?” What do you think most students tell me?

Dr. Ryan Gray: They probably just skip over it.

Danger of Skipping Examples

Dr. Maguire: Yes, they skip it. Now Ryan I have to tell you, that was a shock to me because I never skipped the examples, I would look at what the author said. But I tell students that you’ve got to commit to yourself that you will never skip another example, because the examples are your brain’s best resource for convincing itself that it can work these problems, it can answer these questions, it doesn’t need the author. And so you work the problem yourself, and even if you get to a point where you’re not sure exactly what to do next, you just power your way through it and you get to an answer. And then when you’ve gotten to an answer, now just compare your answer with the answer in the book. If you got the same answer, then you can look at what the author did. But if you didn’t get the same answer, don’t look yet, try to figure out where your mistake was. And I ask students at this point, I say, “Now at this point in the process, do you think making a mistake is good or bad?” And what do you think?

Dr. Ryan Gray: They think it’s bad because as type A students we all think mistakes are bad. But I now know that mistakes are good.

Dr. Maguire: Yes believe it or not Ryan, whenever I ask students this question, students always say good. Yeah whenever I ask faculty, “What do you think students say?” faculty always say exactly as you said, “Students say bad.” But students always say good. Now they haven’t really thought about it before because nobody’s put it to them this way, but they say good and then my response is, “Absolutely but don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad if you don’t make a mistake at this point, it’s great if you don’t make a mistake at this point, but why is it good if you make a mistake at this point?” And what do you think they tell me?

Dr. Ryan Gray: They can learn.

Dr. Maguire: Absolutely! That’s the number one answer. They say, “You learn from your mistakes.” Sometimes they say, “Well now you know where your brain has a tendency to go wrong.” Or sometimes they’ll say, “Well you’re not going to make the same mistake twice.” And so they recognize that it’s good. And so then if you do the examples that way, work out all the mistakes, then you get to the homework problems, pretend it’s a test or a quiz and speed up a little bit like you’d have to do on a test or a quiz, and Ryan I have tons of students who were making sixties and seventies before, and changing that one thing their scores go into the eighties, nineties or even one hundred because now they’re learning the information and they’re working the problems themselves, and mastering the information.

Biggest Mistakes Students are Making

Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow that’s incredible. Now Dr. Maguire we talked a lot about some mistakes that students are making. Would you say that how they’re reading the questions and doing that is the biggest mistake that students are making? Or is there some other mistake that you see as a very common mistake?

Dr. Maguire: Yeah I think the biggest mistake goes back to really not understanding- fundamentally understanding the information. Assuming that they have mastered information that they’ve read, and re-read or highlighted, but not really having a firm grasp on the concept, and that’s where I think teaching is so important. But you mentioned reading and you mentioned reading a question, but I’ll give you another reading strategy because so often students are not using the textbook, they’re not reading the textbook, and that is extremely important. But many students don’t really know how to read effectively for comprehension and retention, and so I’ll just give you a very quick reading strategy that I recommend that all students start using. And the process is to read the way your brain likes to operate. And we know from cognitive science that if the brain is going to learn something new, if it has a big picture, an overview, and then it starts to get individual details to fill in that big picture, it’s much more efficient than if it just starts out reading, getting individual details, trying to create its own big picture. So before you start to read, you’ve got to give your brain an overview. Look at the bold faced print, the italicized words, any charts or graphs. So for example if I were reading a chapter on acids and bases, I would see strong acid, weak acid, strong base, weak base in italics, and so my brain already knows that’s what I’m going to be reading about. And then the next thing is come up with questions that you want the reading to answer for you. And so I might say, ‘Well I wonder what this thing is going to say is the difference between strong acids and weak acids.’ So I’m tuning my brain to look for that information and understand it. And then the next step is when you start to read, just read the first paragraph. Then after you’ve done that, stop, put that into your own words, and then read the second paragraph, stop, put that in your own words, and then try to go back and tie it to what was in the first paragraph, and read the third paragraph the same way. Now whenever students do this, they’ll come back and they’ll say, “Wow Dr. Maguire, this is really, really helpful.” And I will ask them, “Does it take you longer to do your reading this way?” And to a person Ryan, they’ll say, “Well no actually I finished the reading sooner doing it this way.” And the reason is because they’re more focused, they’re not having to read, and re-read, and re-read because their mind is wandering, and it’s a great reading strategy that I strongly recommend students do.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow that sounds awesome. It sounds very familiar. I took a speed reading class a long time ago, and some of the strategies are very similar which is interesting.

Dr. Maguire: Yes and the thing is Ryan, this is not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination. And the interesting thing is that the successful students- most students who are very successful in undergrad school, and medical school, and law school, they are using these strategies. But the students who are not doing well don’t know this is what the students who are doing well do. And so this is what I do and it’s so much fun. In fact I just talked with a student yesterday who I taught freshman year, he’s in medical school now, and he told me- I saw him Saturday, he said, “Dr. Maguire I’m using all those strategies,” and the one he said that really works for him- one of the strategies is in order to get the most out of lecture, you want to do a quick preview of what’s going to be talked about in lecture, do that overview, and then when you get to lecture your mind is going to be tuned into the information. Come up with questions even that you want the lecture to answer for you, and then as soon after class as possible review what just happened in lecture because when you hear something for the first time it goes into short term memory, and unless you do something to move it into long term memory, it’s not going to be available. So if you review right after lecture- in fact it has the same impact as if you’ve seen a movie more than one time. Have you ever seen a movie- any movie more than once?

Dr. Ryan Gray: I have a two year old so I’ve seen Frozen a handful of times.

Dr. Maguire: I got you. And did you notice the second time you see it, you see things that you didn’t know were there the first time.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Definitely.

Dr. Maguire: The third time you see more things. And so one of the strategies I tell students is preview before lecture, and then go to lecture and be present in lecture, and you can do that if you’ve done your previewing. Don’t be on Facebook, don’t shop on the web or anything, just be very focused on lecture. Then as soon as lecture is over, go and review that information so your mind is going to see even more things that it saw in lecture.

Learning Strategies in Non-Science Subjects

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah that’s awesome. Now you talked a little bit about chemistry problems, and reading a textbook, and reading through the book, coming to example problems and working through the problems. How does this learning style work for non-math based or non-science based subjects?

Dr. Maguire: That’s a great question. Yeah for those the analogy for the way people do problems in those other courses, it’s the way they answer questions. So for example if you’re taking an ethics course and it’s using a textbook, and there’s some questions that the instructor comes up with that you have to turn in for homework. Typically people will read the question, and then they’ll find that part in the chapter that is related to specifically that question, and they will read that and answer the question, and so they’re doing great on the homework. But in fact the faculty member wants them to synthesize the information to put it all together. And so for courses that are not problem based, my strong suggestion is to read everything using the reading strategy that we just talked about. But also try to identify what are those overarching concepts? How do those concepts fit together so that you have a much deeper understanding of the conceptual foundation for the course?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, very interesting. Now this is obviously something you’ve been teaching for a long time, and you have data that actually backs up what you’ve been talking about from your own research and looking at students’ performances. Can you dig in just a little bit on what you’ve found actually teaching this to students, and what happens to them when they utilize this information?

Dr. Maguire: Yes, great question. And actually Ryan, I have not been teaching it for a really long time. I started helping students in chemistry at Cornell, I was giving these review sessions, but I wasn’t really teaching them how to learn. I was reviewing the information and making sure they understood things, but it wasn’t until about fifteen years ago when I got to LSU that I started delving into the cognitive science aspect of teaching people how to learn. And I’ve got to tell you, when I first started doing this I really didn’t think it would make a huge difference. But I started teaching students how to read differently, how to do problems, and there were students- I had an organic chemistry student who made a 28 on the first test, 30 on the second test, and then after hearing this information in the eighties on the third test, and then the nineties on the fourth test. There was a student- and at the Learning Center at LSU, the Center for Academic Success, they were doing some of these strategies but I kind of refined it after I got there. But there was another learning strategist who doesn’t know chemistry, but she just taught the basic learning strategies, and there was a student who’d made a 42 on his first general chemistry test, and he made hundreds on everything after that. I had an analytical chemistry student who had made not higher than 65 on any of the exams throughout the semester, and I talked with him two days before the final exam and he made 107 on the final exam.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow.

Dr. Maguire: So it is amazing. And I think Ryan, one of the things that this does is when students aren’t doing well, especially very good students, students who’ve been straight A students in high school who really never had to study; when they get to college and they flunk that first chemistry test, they don’t know what to do differently. And so when I talk with them about these strategies, then they immediately see, ‘Ah I can do this differently.’ And so it empowers them, it motivates them to do something differently, and then when they get success there’s not more powerful motivator than success. And so the confidence- that’s the other thing that having strategies improves. Now you know a way to master the information so your confidence soars, and if you’re- yeah it’s just a beautiful kind of symbiotic relationship when all these factors come together to improve student learning very dramatically and very quickly.

Dr. Ryan Gray: One of the things we talk a lot about on this podcast, or I talk a lot about on this podcast is course correction. And I talk to a lot of students that say, “I did poorly, I got a C in chemistry, a C in organic chemistry, should I retake it?” And I always start off with you need to figure out why you got a C in the class before you move forward. And it sounds like using these techniques, using this information, they can hopefully course correct and improve and figure out why they’re doing so poorly.

Course Correction and the ABC’s of Success

Dr. Maguire: Absolutely, and that’s a great point because I talk with a lot of students, many of whom are premed, and I always finish talks with what I call the ABC’s of success. A is attitude, it’s your attitude not your aptitude that will determine your altitude, how far you can go. And then B is for behavior. It’s your behavior that’s going to determine how well you do. Just do it. If you know what to do and you don’t do it, then you’re not going to be successful. But then the C is for commitment, and I always say that it’s not over until it’s over, and only you determine when it’s over. Change courses when you need to, but I say if every organic chemistry student who was told by an organic chemistry professor, “Well you’re never going to be a doctor because you only made C’s on my first two tests,” if they hadn’t stopped and said, “I’m not going to listen to that, I’m going to change course,” we’d have a lot fewer doctors in the world. But I think the other component that what I’m talking about now adds onto it is now you know what to look at for what you were doing wrong. Because before I had learned this I would tell students, “Well you need to change it, you need to focus on concepts, you can’t just memorize information.” But I didn’t realize that if I didn’t give them something very specific that they could do to change, they didn’t know how not to memorize and how to focus on concepts. And that’s what I find the beauty in this information is it gives students very specific strategies that they can implement, and then they see what the difference is between what they were doing before and what they’re doing now.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. Can we dig in a little bit between what you call study mode and learn mode?

Study Mode Versus Learn Mode

Dr. Maguire: Yes, absolutely. So when I speak with students I like to- basically what I’m trying to do is effect a paradigm shift in students. So I want them to change from what they’re doing that is making them unsuccessful into something that will make them successful, and I want them to do an about-face immediately. And so the way I do that is to ask two reflection questions, and so I will ask, “What’s the difference- how would you describe the difference between studying and learning?” And nobody’s ever asked them that before but they really think, they get into it, and the most common answer I get from students is they’ll say, “Ah studying is just memorizing information for a test or a quiz. But learning is when I understand the information, when I can apply it, when I can analyze it.” Sometimes they’ll say, “Ah studying is short term, learning is long term.” Or they’ll say, “Studying is tedious, learning is fun.” And so I said, “Absolutely.” So if we take that to be the difference between studying and learning, up to this point- no then they’ll say, “Learning is I’ve really mastered the information.” In fact one young lady actually told me, she said, “Studying is what I do the night before the test to make an A. But learning is what I do if I know I have to use that information later.” And so I said, “Absolutely.” So if we take that as the difference, up to this point in time would you say you have been more often in study mode or in learn mode? And 99% of students say they’ve been in study mode, and so I said, “Absolutely. So now I can teach you how to be in learn mode,” and that’s when I teach them the problem solving strategy, I teach them the reading strategy, we talk about metacognition. And then the other question I ask is, “I’m going to give you two tasks and I want to know if you would work harder for one of these than the other. And the first task is-” I say, “Two weeks from now we’re going to have the second test in this course and you have to make an A on that test because you didn’t do so well on the first test. So you know how hard you would work for that.” The second scenario is I say, “Two weeks from now we’re going to have the next test in this course, and because the class didn’t do so well on the first test I’ve decided I’m going to give a review session for this test that’s coming up, and I’ve decided that you are going to teach that review session. I’m going to have you come up to the front of the class, you’re going to explain all the concepts, paying more attention to the more difficult concepts to make sure everybody is prepared for the test the next day. Would you work harder for one of those tasks than the other, and if so, which one?” And would you work harder for one than the other, and if so, which one?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Of course. Oh to teach it in front of a class.

Dr. Maguire: Absolutely and that’s what most of the students say, 90% of the students say. Now some of the ones that say, “I’d work harder if I had to make an A on the test,” because they say, “I’m concerned about my grade, I need to make an A.” But it doesn’t take long to the other folks when I ask them, “Well why would you work harder if you had to teach it?” They’ll say, “Well I have to really know it if I have to teach it.” Or they’ll say, “I want to make sure that I can explain it in more than one way to make sure that everybody understands since everybody’s grade is dependent upon me.” Sometimes they say, “I don’t want to look stupid in front of a class,” so they say, “so I’m anticipating questions that will come from the class. So I want to make sure I can answer those questions.” And so they realize that they’re going to delve deeper into it if they pretend that they’re teaching it. In fact just last week there was a young man, he had to take a licensure exam, and I talked to him about teaching the material, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Baby Groot. Did you see Guardians of the Galaxy?

Dr. Ryan Gray: I have, Baby Groot is the little tree.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly, yes. So he started teaching the information to Baby Groot. And so he emailed me, he passed the licensure test with a much higher score even that he needed to, and he said, “And I’m sure that if Baby Groot had to take the test he would have passed it too.” And so that’s what I mean by the difference being in study mode versus learn mode; study mode is you’re just focusing on what do I need to do to make an A on the test? And you can memorize information, not understand anything, do a brain dump the next day on the test, get your little A, but if they test you on that material three weeks from now you’re probably not going to do very well. But if you’re learning the information, you’re going to do well on the test and three weeks from now you’re still going to know that information because you didn’t just memorize it for the test.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. That’s awesome. And it seems like common sense because we always say that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. And so just it makes sense.

Dr. Maguire: It does but I think the big problem is that students don’t allocate enough time to learn. And when we talked about problem solving earlier you said, “Isn’t that the way everybody gets through homework?” Well yes if- most people start the homework- when do most people start their homework?

Dr. Ryan Gray: The day before it’s due.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly. And when you start it the day before it’s due, what is your major goal at that point?

Dr. Ryan Gray: Finish it.

Dr. Maguire: Exactly and I tell students- and students tell me this, ‘to finish it,’ and I said yes. And so that’s what I call being in ‘get er done’ mode. So if you’re in ‘get er done’ mode you’re not going to be able to make yourself use the process that we just talked about because there’s not going to be enough time. And so I think the same thing, it takes more time to pretend that you’re teaching the information to make sure you understand all the concepts than it is to just sit down and try to memorize a bunch of stuff. And so that’s why that’s another really, really important strategy; time management, you’ve got to allocate enough time for this. And we tell students that you should really count on spending about two hours out of class for every hour in class that you spend. And now students know what to do with that two hours because without telling them how to spend that two hours, they’re thinking, ‘It doesn’t take me two hours to read over one set of lecture notes from one lecture. What am I going to do with two hours?’ But now when they understand what they’re doing, they’re doing the problems differently, they’re pretending they’re teaching it, then they will allocate the time, put in the effort, and the results are nothing short of miraculous.

‘Teach Students How to Learn’

Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s awesome. Now you wrote a book on all of this. Where can students find the book and what’s it called?

Dr. Maguire: Oh thanks for asking. It is on Amazon and the name of it is just ‘Teach Students how to Learn.’ And I actually wrote the book for college faculty because most college faculty are in the same position that I was before I got to LSU, and I’d been teaching chemistry thirty years before I got to LSU. But I didn’t know how to teach students how to read, just as we’ve talked about. Or teach students exactly how to do the problems differently. And so these are strategies that I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve found that most faculty were in the same position I was. And so I put this book together to teach faculty the strategies, but then I had students who read it and they said, “Students need to read this book.” And in fact one of the reviews on Amazon says, ‘Every student ought to read this book.’ And then it dawned on me, well yeah I guess it makes sense that if I’m teaching faculty the strategies to teach students, if students read the book and find out the strategies then they can directly implement them. And so I’ve gotten very, very good feedback from students that it’s been very helpful.

Advice to the Struggling Premed

Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s great. What is- as we finish up here, what is one thing that you would tell a student that is taking their intro chemistry class, or is struggling through organic chemistry? What do you tell them to motivate them to keep going?

Dr. Maguire: Okay the first thing that I do is I show them before and after scores, and I have about twenty in the book. We call them the Miracle Portfolio. I co-wrote the book with our younger daughter. But the first thing I want them to understand is that their performance in the course to date has absolutely nothing to do with how smart they are. It has everything to do with their behaviors up to this point, what you called the course that they’ve been on. If they change their behaviors, they can change the result. Because so many students are pretty demoralized if they flunk the first test, and so I want them to get past thinking that that score has anything to do with their future prognosis, because it doesn’t. And then the second thing I want them to understand is that if they put in the time, they will see the results. And I also don’t want them to get focused on what happened in the past. And I think a great example- I don’t know, did you watch the game last night? The NBA?

Dr. Ryan Gray: I watched the last couple minutes.

Dr. Maguire: Okay yeah, so Cleveland was down one game to three, and they could have very easily felt that, ‘Well it’s pretty much over now.’ And this is what I see with so many students when they don’t do well on the first few tests, and they kind of give up. But I want them to know, “No you don’t have to ever give up. Change the strategies, you do this, and if you do very well on the final there are many faculty members who’ll say, ‘If you ace my final exam, then I will drop the lowest score before.’ So it really is not over until it’s over.” And I want students to recognize that you can do this. You can absolutely do this. Have confidence in yourself, implement the strategies and you will see that you will excel in this course.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright I hope that was extremely beneficial for you. I know from everything that I was listening to, I wish I had this information back when I was a student and even moving forward even outside of school, I can utilize some of these same techniques to help me learn things better, learn things faster. So hopefully you listen to this, re-listen to this, and listen one more time, and hopefully it sinks in. Hopefully you utilize these techniques to help better your grades and better your ability to understand what you’re doing wrong or what you’re doing well in your classes so that as you move forward through your premed years, and even through your medical student years, that you take these and you prosper with this information. So thank you Dr. Maguire for joining us here and sharing all that information. Again you can find her book, ‘Teach Students how to Learn’ over on Amazon, and I’ll have a link to that in our show notes page which you can find at I want to remind you, every time you shop at Amazon, if you go through one my links I get a little commission from Amazon. It doesn’t cost you any more and it helps support us here at the Medical School Headquarters. So if you want to buy her book, go through my link over at that website and I would greatly appreciate it. Or you can just go to Amazon yourself. Either way, as long as you’re getting the book and learning from it, that’s all that matters.

I want to thank this week’s podcast sponsor, Elite Medical Scribes. You can find out a lot more about Elite Medical Scribes over at where you can learn about careers available to you. For this week I wanted to speak with a former scribe turned project manager. So I reached out and talked to Alyssa, and she told me about some of the best benefits for premed students as scribes.

Alyssa: The biggest draw for us is the experience. The ability to watch a physician and see what they do on a daily basis. You get a really good glimpse of what kind of issues providers actually deal with on a regular basis, and what their actual duties are. It’s more than just the stuff that you see on TV. I think it gives people a really good glimpse of the field that they’re going to go into and you learn immense amounts of information because you are responsible for documenting that medical decision making. You have to be able to think like a physician, you have to have the solid foundation of knowledge that a physician would use when making those medical decisions.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Now after listening to that, I don’t know how you can argue that being a scribe isn’t one of the best things that you can do on your journey to becoming a physician. Getting that experience is amazing, and I wish I would have had that before I started medical school, before I started my clinical years; having that exposure to how physicians work, and how everything relates and just how all the operations move together. All of that information is amazing to have as you begin your journey in medical school and on your journey to being a physician. So go check them out, will take you to the career availability in an area near you. If you don’t see anything, there’s an option to submit where you are and hopefully when something opens up they’ll let you know. Again that’s Elite Medical Scribes at

I hope you got a ton of great information out of the podcast today. If you would like to leave us a rating and review based on this information, you can go to and leave a rating and review. One of the things that you can also do, I forgot to mention earlier, to find some more resources about learning and what you can do to help better your ability to learn, is go to LSU’s website which is at and that is the Center for Academic Success. And at that website there are more resources to help better guide you in your ability to take tests, and to learn better, and hopefully let that information sink in so that you’re a better student and ultimately a better physician.

Alright that’s it for today. I hope you got a ton of great information out of it, and as always I hope you join us next week here at the Medical School Headquarters, and The Premed Years Podcast.

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