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Active Learning Tips for the MCAT

Written by Casey Kuka, Blueprint MCAT Instructor

As a premedical student, you are likely familiar with long hours spent in the library, poring over textbooks and study guides in preparation for final exams. Prepping for the MCAT, however, is a different beast than your undergraduate or post-baccalaureate classes: the volume of information required to know is at an all-time high and requires not just knowing the information, but understanding it well enough to be able to apply it to novel situations as well. Compound this with a schedule already packed with school, work, extracurriculars, friends, and family, and somehow fitting in a bit of time for yourself, and this beast of an exam may morph into what seems to be an insurmountable foe.

Making time to study for the MCAT, though, doesn’t necessarily require locking yourself in a room for hours on end reviewing the Krebs cycle over and over—unless, of course, that sounds like a good time to you! Instead, it requires implementing different study habits to make your learning more effective and reduce the amount of time you have to spend brushing up on topics later on in your MCAT exam preparation.

Enter: active learning! Active learning requires you to fully engage with the material, allowing you to not only better retain what you learn, but also improve your ability to apply that material to any question the MCAT throws at you by ensuring you fully understand the underlying concepts. Active learning can even—dare I say—make studying for the MCAT fun.

What is active learning?

What exactly do we mean by active learning? Let’s say you want to start training for a marathon. You might spend some time reading about training plans, nutrition, and the best types of shoes to wear, but you likely recognize that the majority of your progress towards your goal will depend upon your logging those miles on a consistent basis. Reading about increasing your cardiovascular endurance isn’t going to improve your stamina, but actually going out and running will!

In much the same way, reading or watching MCAT videos will give you an idea of what you need to know and perhaps a preliminary understanding of the information, but it won’t do much in the way of helping you retain that information. Active learning is the mental equivalent of getting up and going for that run! There are many ways to actively engage with MCAT material, so let’s jump into a few here.

Changing up your approach: taking notes to taking questions.

Most likely, you take notes while reading or watching videos on MCAT content much as you did in your undergraduate or post-baccalaureate classes during lectures. If you’re anything like me, that means scrambling to scribble down as much of what was said as possible. Beyond ending up with a dense and nearly unintelligible sprawl of notes at the end, I also never really processed the information since I was too busy trying to write it all down, which meant I spent more time reviewing my notes and trying to make study sheets off of them later. In addition, note-taking on your own can be time-consuming: reading a book chapter or watching videos with the pause function means you can stop at any time to write down what precisely was said in full. Our Blueprint MCAT Online Course students sometimes fall into this trap.

The MCAT, however, does not reward knowing every single testable detail: critical thinking and test-taking strategies are ultimately the name of the game. This is great news. It means you don’t need to get lost in the minutiae of content review.

The next time you review content or watch an MCAT video, instead of taking notes, try taking questions: for each topic, focus on the big picture and key concepts you are not entirely familiar with—don’t worry about writing down information that you already know—and write down the information as a question instead of a statement. For example, let’s say I’m reviewing the respiratory system and I learn that low pH, high partial pressure of carbon dioxide, and increased temperature shift the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve to the right. Instead of writing all of that down, I’d write, “What decreases hemoglobin’s affinity for oxygen?” Once I’ve finished reviewing, I’ll then go through the questions I wrote and try to write an answer to each one. If I’m stuck on a question, I know that’s an area I might need to go back and review more thoroughly.

I recommend doing this on a sheet of paper folded lengthwise down in the middle in which you write the questions on one side and the answers on the other. Then, boom: you have both a handy reference and a study sheet you can use to quiz yourself with later! You could also create MCAT flashcards with this method too!

It makes sense until it doesn’t: reword and apply.

Have you ever read a definition, nodded along and said, “Mmhmm, yup, makes sense”, but then when asked to define the term later, find yourself stammering? I know I certainly have! The next time you put a definition on an MCAT flashcard, instead of copying and pasting the definition from your study source, try to rephrase the definition in your own words. This will encourage you to determine whether you truly understand the term or not, and, by phrasing it in your own way, will help make it more memorable. Bonus points if you can think of a novel example that illustrates the concept: this is especially useful for the MCAT Psychology/Sociology section, since much of what is being tested there is your ability to identify what definition you know applies to new situations presented in the passages or question stems, or vice versa.

I broke it: thinking about the big picture.

Not all information lends itself well to flashcards. Metabolic pathways and big systems with multiple parts working in conjunction like the endocrine system are difficult to understand if you break them down into discrete bits of information. Instead, try to draw these out and look at the overall big picture. Think about what might happen if you tweaked one part of a pathway. What happens if a person eats a high-carbohydrate meal, but can’t secrete insulin? What enzymes might be active in such a person? How might we mitigate this inability to secrete insulin? Asking and attempting to answer such questions puts your knowledge to the test and can even make studying a more enjoyable process by getting a head start on building the clinical reasoning processes you’ll be using as a doctor.

Find gaps in your understanding: teaching the material.

Knowing information is one thing. Understanding it well enough to teach others is an entirely different matter! Even as an MCAT instructor and tutor, there are still times when I begin to explain something and realize my knowledge is built on a shaky foundation of memorized facts rather than comprehensive understanding. Teaching the content you’ve learned is an excellent way to assess your understanding of, and ability to apply, that information.

Having a willing student available to ask you questions and further test your knowledge makes the process even more fun, but inanimate objects also make excellent pupils when your parents just don’t care to hear about the process of DNA replication. If you can break the concepts down to a friend, sibling, cousin, pet dog, stuffed animal, potted plant, or even just yourself by talking through the information out loud, you likely have a firm grasp of the information. Make note of any places where you falter in your explanation or find yourself confused, and try to address those content gaps!

Put your knowledge to work: Practice, review, and then practice some more.

Finally, and most importantly, practice is key. Our Blueprint MCAT Live Online students are assigned homework to do before and after class to really get them engaged with the material.

The paragon of active learning, working through test-like practice problems is the best way to prepare for the MCAT. However, practice itself isn’t the only factor involved here—thorough review is also key. Pounding through endless practice problems without revisiting them afterward to see where you went wrong and why is about as useful as sleeping with your textbook under your pillow and hoping for memorization via osmosis.

Carefully review each problem and try to learn from your mistakes —a quote I’ve heard that has become a mantra of mine is that a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it! Try to make it a goal to not miss the same type of question in the future. Reflect on why you missed the question and try to strategize ways to avoid choosing the wrong answer in the future, whether that means reviewing the content involved again, implementing a new approach to tackling the question type, or simply reminding yourself to highlight keywords in the question stem like “not” and “least”.

Reading and listening, no matter how interested you are in the material, are passive forms of learning: they do not require you to grapple with the information in the way that actively attempting to use that material does. The next time you sit down to study, try using these active learning techniques to help you master the material for the MCAT and give you the edge you need to achieve your goal score!

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