The Secret to Becoming a Master at Studying

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Session 541

Let’s speak with Doug McLemore, test prep specialist and founder of IcosaPrep, on what premeds can do to be better prepared.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[00:42] The MCAT Minute

The MCAT Minute is brought to you by Blueprint MCAT.

One of the best times to take the MCAT is January to March or maybe April timeframe of the year that you are applying. That’s a year before you want to start medical school. Taking it during that kind of early spring will allow you to retake it if you need to and not really mess up your application timeline.

The best way to get on track with your studying and with your plan is with a free study planner tool by Blueprint MCAT. Sign up for a free account now to make sure that your study plan will hopefully work. So then you can take it during that recommended timeframe of January to March or even April.

And if it doesn’t work, it’s okay to push it back a little bit. You just need to make sure you take the test when you are ready.

[04:01] Passive vs. Active Studying

Doug believes that the number one struggle or mistake that premeds make when it comes to studying is relying too heavily on passive study skills. He explains that passive methods, such as reading books, taking notes, or watching videos, are not as effective in truly engaging with and understanding the material.

Doug emphasizes the importance of active learning techniques for premeds. These include working through practice problems, creating their own practice problems, making personalized study guides, or teaching others. While these active methods may come with challenges and the fear of being wrong, they promote deeper understanding and better retention of information.

Why Students Tend to Lean into the Passive Style of Studying

Doug acknowledges that relying on passive techniques may feel comfortable because they are familiar and have seemingly worked in the past. However, it’s different when preparing for comprehensive exams like the MCAT, which cover multiple scientific areas. They require strong reading comprehension skills, so a more engaged and active approach is necessary for optimal success.

'When you're on taking a test over five or six different scientific areas plus reading comprehension… like the MCAT, then you need to have more engagement across the board with your memory.”Click To Tweet

Doug acknowledges that it can be difficult to make major changes to study styles during a 10 or 15-week course, as these techniques often require more time and repetition.

The Art of Making Mistakes

Doug highlights the importance of making mistakes as a way of active learning. Making errors helps identify areas of weakness and enhances memory recall. However, this process takes time and repetition, which may not align with the fast-paced structure of many academic institutions.

Click To Tweet one of the most active ways one can learn.”” quote=”“Making mistakes is [probably] one of the most active ways one can learn.””]

Due to the constraints of the school system, students often resort to passive study methods like reading notes and watching videos repeatedly. These techniques provide quicker and easier repetition, making them more appealing within the limited time frame of a semester. While active learning may require more time and effort, it ultimately promotes deeper understanding and better retention of information.

[08:38] Training the Faculty

The need for pedagogical training for faculty in higher education is a concerning issue. Many instructors are simply given a book and told what to cover without being provided guidance on effective teaching methods.

This lack of support can result in inexperienced teachers who may struggle to deliver quality education. It is crucial for institutions to prioritize pedagogical training to ensure students receive the best possible learning experience.

[10:23] Steps to Improve Your Study Skills

The Pitfall of Content Binging

Binge studying for specific tests can be detrimental to effective learning. It creates a cycle where we cram information for one test, only to forget it shortly after. This constant repetition hinders our ability to retain knowledge and makes it harder to perform well on cumulative tests.

Shifting Focus to Long-Term Learning

To improve study skills, it is essential to shift our mindset away from individual tests and prioritize the incorporation of knowledge over the long term.

Instead of studying to regurgitate information, we should aim to remember and understand it for future use. This requires stepping back from the immediate demands of each test and focusing on the bigger picture.

Embracing a Longer-Term Perspective

Adopting a longer-term perspective is challenging but crucial. Recognize that studying is not just about acing a particular class, but about building a foundation for future growth, helps foster a more meaningful and sustainable approach to learning.

'The overall incorporation of the knowledge, which is the important thing.'Click To Tweet

By studying with the goal of comprehensive knowledge acquisition, we can enhance our understanding and retain information more effectively.

[12:29] Embracing Cumulative Learning and Building Good Study Habits

In organic chemistry, for instance, even if exams are not explicitly cumulative, the concepts and knowledge build upon each other. Failing to retain and apply earlier learning can hinder success in later exams.

Many students experience a downward trend in their performance, starting strong but struggling as new material is introduced. To overcome this challenge, it is crucial to actively reinforce and challenge our memory of previous concepts as we progress.

Building repetitive memories through regular review and practice is key. While some may argue that they lack time for consistent review, dedicating just an hour or two each day to every subject can make a significant difference. It is essential to create a routine and habit of studying all subjects regularly, rather than focusing on one at a time.

Often, students prioritize certain subjects over others, leading to neglected knowledge and a drop-off in the learning curve. By establishing a consistent study routine, allocating time for each subject every day, and avoiding a cycle of neglecting one subject for another, a positive shift occurs. This approach helps break free from the repetitive cycle of neglecting and relearning subjects, enabling comprehensive understanding and improved performance.

Creating habits and committing to a routine for several weeks allows for sustained progress and prevents the detrimental effects of neglecting crucial knowledge. By embracing cumulative learning and maintaining consistency in studying, students can overcome these challenges and enhance their performance in organic chemistry.

'This is all about creating habits.'Click To Tweet

[14:58] The Pancake Analogy of Med School: Balancing Studying and Life

The All-or-Nothing Mentality in Studying and Application Prep

The pancake analogy of med school is a relatable way to understand the challenges of studying and staying on top of multiple subjects. Imagine needing to eat 10 pancakes a day. Some days, you can only manage to eat two, leaving you with eight leftover pancakes. The next day, you have to eat 18 pancakes to catch up.

This analogy reflects the struggle of trying to balance multiple subjects in med school. When you focus too much on one subject and neglect the others, the pancakes start to add up, and you can quickly fall behind.

For example, if you’re studying four subjects, and you only eat two pancakes per subject per day, you’ll end up with a backlog of pancakes. Instead of eating the intended 10 pancakes per day, you’ll find yourself having to scarf down 100 pancakes across a week to catch up. This situation emphasizes the importance of not ignoring other subjects in favor of one.

Avoiding the “MCAT Hibernation” Phenomenon

One common trend among students is what I call “MCAT hibernation.” Many students prioritize studying for the MCAT to the point where they completely abandon other activities like shadowing, clinical experience, and research.

This all-or-nothing mentality can be detrimental to their overall preparation for med school. Instead of going into hibernation mode, it’s important to continue engaging in other experiences alongside MCAT preparation.

The Need for Distractions and Breaks

Treating MCAT preparation as a full-time job for three months can lead to resentment and burnout. It’s crucial to have distractions and take regular breaks to maintain a healthy balance.

Engaging in discussions, having a job, or volunteering can provide much-needed relief from the intensity of MCAT preparation. Constantly studying for long hours without breaks is mentally taxing and can negatively impact performance.

The Importance of Self-Care and Breaks Even During the Test

Even during the actual MCAT exam, breaks are essential. Taking the allotted breaks of 10 and three minutes is important for mental well-being and maintaining focus. No one can sustain peak performance for extended periods without breaks, regardless of their abilities.

'You have to take breaks. It's a requirement.'Click To Tweet

It’s crucial to prioritize self-care and create opportunities for rest and rejuvenation throughout the studying journey.

[18:58] Shadowing and the Practical Application of Science in Healthcare

Shadowing is a fantastic way for students to witness the practical application of the scientific concepts they study. It brings the science to life and allows them to see how it is implemented in real-world scenarios.

By observing professionals in clinics or other settings, students can connect what they’ve learned in their studies to the actual healthcare environment.

When students see the direct relevance of their knowledge in action, it helps them understand why certain concepts are important. It goes beyond the isolated examples they may encounter in textbooks or lectures. Through shadowing, they can witness how physics principles are used in medical equipment or procedures, allowing them to appreciate the significance of their studies.

By experiencing the practical application of their knowledge, students gain a deeper understanding and motivation for learning. They can connect the dots between theory and practice, realizing the value of their education in a tangible way. Shadowing provides a bridge between classroom learning and real-world application, enhancing the overall learning experience.

Shadowing offers invaluable opportunities for students to witness the practical application of the subjects they study. It helps them make connections, reinforces their learning, and gives them a clearer understanding of why certain concepts matter in their future careers.

[20:03] The Power of Making Connections: Unleashing Your Brain’s Percolating Potential

Embracing Breaks as Catalysts for Insight and Clarity

In the pursuit of knowledge, making connections plays a crucial role. Equally important, however, is allowing your brain the time it needs to percolate. Taking breaks is not just a luxury; it is an essential component of effective problem-solving.

When we fixate on a challenge for too long, we often reach a point of frustration. But by stepping away and engaging in unrelated activities, we give our brains the opportunity to work behind the scenes.

Unleashing the Subconscious Mind’s Processing Powers

Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of getting stuck on a problem, only to find the solution when you least expect it? It’s a common occurrence that highlights the relentless processing abilities of our subconscious minds.

Sometimes, after hours of fruitless struggle, a breakthrough arrives when we divert our attention to something completely unrelated. An example is when you’re cooking yourself lunch. In those moments, our brains are still hard at work, quietly processing information and making connections.

[22:02] Getting Into a Growth Mindset

Doug shares insightful thoughts on the importance of embracing a growth mindset while navigating the challenges of med school. He emphasizes the need to push through self-doubt and tune into oneself, realizing that success is achievable once we get out of our own way.

'We've got to get into a growth mindset.'Click To Tweet

Doug expresses confidence that overcoming these obstacles won’t be a problem for anyone willing to adopt a growth mindset.

Doug also critiques the idea of compartmentalization in science, lamenting the loss of the Renaissance person. He believes that all sciences are interconnected and that the boundaries between different disciplines can be limiting. He encourages seeking out overlaps and connections between topics, highlighting the power of studying a little bit of everything every day.

The Concept of Interleaving

Doug introduces the concept of interleaving, the practice of studying different topics in a mixed manner. This approach allows us to recognize the connections between subjects and enhances memory retention.

'There are so many places where all of these sciences overlap.' Click To Tweet

By creating multiple access and retrieval points for knowledge, we can remember information for longer periods and improve our understanding.

Doug notes that the MCAT exam exemplifies this approach by combining multiple subjects within the same passage, forcing test-takers to recognize and comprehend the interconnectedness of different topics.

[26:39] Not Really a Science Test

Recognizing the Interconnectedness of Topics on the MCAT

On the MCAT, it’s crucial to understand that the exam isn’t solely testing knowledge of individual subjects like general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology. Instead, it combines multiple subjects within its passages, requiring test-takers to recognize connections between different topics.

The breadth of information covered in class is vast. However, for the MCAT, one must focus on understanding the provided information rather than mastering every aspect of each subject.

'You just have to know enough to understand what they're giving you.' Click To Tweet

The MCAT as a Reading Comprehension Test

While some may view the MCAT primarily as a science test, it actually places significant emphasis on reading comprehension. While a solid foundation in scientific concepts is necessary, the exam does not require mastery of every detail. Rather, it tests the ability to comprehend passages and apply knowledge in specific contexts.

Familiarity with scientific vocabulary plays a critical role in navigating the exam. This allows test-takers to identify key information and make connections.

The Power of Retaining Vocabulary and Key Concepts

One key takeaway from the MCAT is the importance of retaining vocabulary from various subjects. Being fluent in organic chemistry, physics, and other disciplines involves understanding the relationships between terms and concepts. While equations are essential, it’s more crucial to grasp the context in which they are applied. 

By remembering the vocabulary and fundamental relationships, test-takers can decipher complex problems and solve them effectively.

[31:11] Mastering the CARS Section

The Importance of Vocabulary Acquisition

Doug highlights the significance of vocabulary acquisition, particularly for students who are non-native English speakers or ESL learners. He notes that a smaller vocabulary can make the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT more challenging. Strengthening one’s vocabulary is essential to understanding and analyzing the passages effectively.

The Misconception of “Deeper Reading” and Reading Comprehension

Doug challenges the common misconception that “deeper reading” means reading every word meticulously. Instead, he suggests that understanding the meaning and context of groups of words is key. 

He emphasizes the importance of properly chunking sentences. Recognize the significance of different parts, such as prepositional phrases, in order to grasp the main ideas and effectively comprehend the passages.

The Role of Grammar in Chunking Sentences

Doug suggests that an understanding of grammar can aid in properly chunking sentences and identifying the key components. Recognize prepositional phrases and other grammatical structures. This helps test-takers to focus on the essential parts of a sentence, improving their overall reading comprehension skills.

Parsing Sentences for Core Meaning

Doug suggests that some individuals have a natural ability to ignore irrelevant details and focus on the core of a sentence. However, others may struggle and combine unrelated parts of a sentence, leading to confusion.

Doug recommends spending time learning how to parse a sentence and identify its core. By focusing on the subject and the verb, test-takers can establish a starting point and build comprehension from there.

'Get down to that core meaning, and then you can start asking those questions, and you're going to understand the writing better.'Click To Tweet

Asking Reading Comprehension Questions

Once the core meaning of a sentence is identified, Doug encourages test-takers to ask themselves reading comprehension questions. These questions can help unravel the additional information in the sentence, such as why, when, or how.

By understanding the core meaning and asking these questions, individuals can enhance their understanding of the passage and improve their reading comprehension skills.

Ignoring Irrelevant Information in Science Passages

Similarly, Doug highlights the importance of ignoring irrelevant information in science passages. Many students get caught up in complex details, such as page numbers, abbreviations, and specific references, losing sight of the main idea.

Doug advises students to focus on understanding the sentence’s core before incorporating additional information. By doing so, they can navigate science passages more effectively and discern what is truly important.

Doug recommends the books, How We Learn by Benedict Carey and Outsmart Your Brain by Daniel T. Willingham.



How We Learn by Benedict Carey

Outsmart Your Brain by Daniel T. Willingham.

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