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MCAT2015 Flashcard Study Options Review

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With the new, longer MCAT2015 here, we’re all looking for new ways to practice the skills and memorize the considerable information necessary to excel.

As you know, we’ve been doing exhaustive reviews of the materials that are out there. Today, I’m reviewing some of the major offerings as far as ready-made and easily portable study options go.

Each of these show promise, and I hope that their creators update and improve on them.

Below is a quick recap of my “best of’s”.  I’ve also gone into more detail on each set — including the cost — and included examples where possible. (Click on the blue hyperlinks to jump ahead to the reviews further down):

Best to use right now: Kaplan

I’d probably get Kaplan at this point if I had to choose from these players as they are currently. I’d miss out on spaced repetition, but it’s pretty inexpensive, and the questions and explanations are solid.

Best “Flash” card contentKaplan

This is a big reason I chose Kaplan as best to use right now. This post and the one I wrote recently about flashcards focus on “flash” cards, and not the rolodex type of card, as these are better for memorization, especially of the type required for this new test. Kaplan’s questions and answers are clear, concise, and connect well to one another.

Best “Rolodex” content: Firecracker

These aren’t so great as “flash” cards because the answers are long and often not so tailored to the question, so they don’t work well for making of quick associations. However, the explanations are a great learning tool, and the format/functionality are pretty solid.

Most promising functionality: Memorang

This company has solid functionality and a very active team of developers who are creating new functions as we speak. Already, they have an innovative way of organizing their content into categories to aid review of related information when reading the prompt of the card. The cards are also very affordable. I’m eager to see what the company does going forward, but have far too many misgivings with the content to recommend them now.

Most promising content: Brainscape

If the remainder of their cards are as good and as comprehensive as the ones that are out, they will be the clear content leader. Their functionality could use some work, e.g. an Android app, the ability to mix cards online with these sets.

Best for use with your own flashcards: Memorang

I still use cram.com with the Flashcards app on my phone for my own studying (as this is a quick and dirty solution that has plenty of functionality), but I’m considering switching to Memorang, and you should too. It’s free, so you benefit from whatever developments are in the pipeline. And they have this helpful blog post explaining how to make good flashcards and specifically how to use their nifty “tag” feature. If they had followed their own advice more with their MCAT card sets, I’d recommend them unreservedly above all others.

Here is more in-depth feedback on Firecracker, Memorang, Kaplan, Scrub Ninjas, McGraw-Hill BenchPrep, and Brainscape:


Firecracker:

(+) Positives

+
Variety of styles of questions

· Simple associations
· True MCQs (not assembled from the responses of a number of cards, as Memorang does)

+ Good use of the format

Example:
Q: “Which of the following would definitely indicate that resistors were not wired in series?”
A: A wire branching out from between two resistors
· This did not have any pictures, but involved answers that described bends, multiple resistors in closed loops, etc., forcing the user to really picture and understand these concepts.
· The explanation gives a rationale and an approach to take going forward that simplifies the concept.

+ Solid explanations

· Especially in psych/sociology
· With added background/related information
· Also gives users the ability to write notes

+ Some flexibility

· You can adjust how many questions you do each day and which to go over separately, if desired

+ Spaced Repetition

+ Email summaries of progress and reminders of what’s to be done

(–) Negatives

–
 Answers often don’t correspond to questions

· Essentially, a large amount of information is associated with the prompt, and some of it is highlighted as the answer while the rest is available if additional background info is desired.
· This is especially a problem when the question was multiple choice, in which case there is no help with choosing between the answer choices.

– Questions are often vague and don’t serve well for making associations

Examples:
Q: “How do large, bulky groups affect the reactivity of acid derivatives?”
A: Like aldehydes and ketones, sterics alter the reactivity of the molecules

· This is far too vague, both in question and answer. Perhaps the question should have been “Do they affect the reactivity?” Answer: Yes they do.

Q: “What are the major functions of the government as a social institution?”
A: The government is a social institution that creates and enforces the rules of a society, and manages relations with other societies.

· This is far too vague. The related information is a very good, concise, comprehensive exploration of a number of topics in Government and Economy. This whole section should be broken down into many small questions on power, authority, democracy, dictatorship, communism, etc. instead of something so broad and obvious as to be useless.

Q: What changes under thermal expansion?
A: Length

· What about volume, density, temperature (and probably a number of other things)?

– Difficult to decipher equations and/or unnecessarily difficult equations

Example:
Q: What equation gives the voltage on a charging capacitor?
A: A charging capacitor obeys similar equations for voltage and current as a function of time. For a charging capacitor, we have V(t) = Vo*(1 – exp(-t/R*C)) and I(t) = Io*(1 – exp(-t/R*C))

· First, nothing here was necessary except the voltage equation.
· Second, the equation itself should probably have been written out and copied in as an image such as this one (which uses slightly different subscripts to label different voltages): Screen_Shot_2015-06-01_at_3.47.59_PM
· Third, I don’t think I’ve ever used this equation on an MCAT, or anywhere else for that matter.
· All of that is a shame, considering that the explanation of capacitors, with real life examples and such, was very good in the response part of the card.

Bottom Line:
Between flash and rolodex-type cards. True MCQs. Great reviews. You can mix and match sets of cards. Cards become “due” so you don’t have to go to weaker sections and review them individually.

Cost:
$39 for one month, $99 for four, $299 for twelve.


Memorang

(+) Positives

+
Little words of encouragement about streaks and updated goals

Start at 50% completed/correct for every subject and work up or down, which is a clever way to show trends and to chase perfection

Categories – Flashcards have subjects and then types/categories

· i.e. definition, equation, attributes, components (e.g. Newton’s 2nd Law – Definition. Newton’s 2nd Law – Equation)
· This makes it easier for them to make many flashcards that are then grouped for easy reading and easy review by pressing “eye” button (i.e. when you get a card wrong, you can click the “eye” button to quickly review related cards and information without having to leave current study session). This is a clever system, though it needs work, since all the information does not fit so neatly into these boxes.

Good coverage of Biochem, excellent coverage of concise definitions/examples in behavioral sciences

Can quickly see what areas need more work through % correct and color coding (red-yellow-green)

Many, many cards, much coverage, seems to be appropriate for coverage on MCAT2015

Great coverage of electrolytes – charge and formula

· Other similar questions weren’t as clear, sometimes having a vague prompt of “AKA”

Flexible, with innovative plans for the future

· There is the ability to quiz multiple subjects together. It’s the same as any other application like gmail, drive, dropbox, etc. as there are checkboxes and you can multi-select them.
· The company’s leadership is thoughtful and innovative, and wants to be your go-to resource for all your flashcards going forward, and has a team devoted to creating them for you. I’m intrigued and have high hopes.

(–) Negatives

–
Vague questions

Examples:
Prompt: Velocity and average velocity – Ask for Equation

· In the answer some, but not all, possible (basic) equations were given

Prompt: Pythagorean theorem, with a triangle shown; no question
A: “True for right triangles” (…What?)

Prompt: Ohmmeter (That’s it)
A: Requires circuit to not be active

Prompt: Hypoventilation
A #1: Leads to the acidification of blood (respiratory acidosis)
A #2: When ventilation is inadequate to perform needed gas exchange

· The second card made sense. The first could have used a better prompt, e.g. Effect? Consequence?

– Limitations of the structure of these cards contribute to the vague questions

Example:
Prompt: Pyruvate Dehydrogenase – attributes
A: Stimulated by insulin, inhibited by acetyl-CoA

· It would have been better to ask, “Stimulated by? Inhibited by?” though this would disrupt the structure of the cards
 

– Unhelpful questions
Q: Anaphase II
A: A stage of meiosis

· A better question might have been, “What are the stages of meiosis?”


Overly complex answers

· e.g. compounds in Orgo. An abbreviated structure of Glycogen is shown with no prompts, and the other side has five detailed points. It would have been better to give the details separately and ask to which molecule each refers (e.g. “What is the animal analog of starch?”).
· I think the level of detail in some of these is unnecessary, but there’s potential for helping students to get it down without it being overwhelming through the medium of flashcards if, again, the prompts/responses are clear, specific, and brief.

– Lost potential for explanation of more difficult concepts

Example:
Dielectric constant definition – “the inductive effect caused by having a material between the plates of a capacitor”
· But what does this mean? What’s the significance? How helpful, really, is just knowing this definition?

– Multiple choice option is not made up of true MCQs (they are made of a prompt with multiple responses thrown together as possible answers), so some answers make no sense

Bottom Line:
The interface/structure provide some benefits and some limitations. Though there are many poorly worded questions, the level of detail and structure show much potential as the makers surely improve on the presentation. Update: Since I wrote this review initially, the makers of Memorang have implemented a number of updates to their software, including improved spaced repetition and study algorithms, as well as a way to “compete” against time and against other users, of which I’m an especially big fan. My major complaint, however, remains the quality of prompts and responses in the cards.

Cost:
The pricing is just $29 for lifetime access!!!


Kaplan

(+)Positives
+
Simple, clean interface
+ Ability to reset data
+ Can make decks with many options, including unanswered cards, cards that you knew, didn’t know, or on which you were unsure
+ Concise, useful, accurate answers
+ Clear stats for performance on the major categories of cards
+ Equations are presented in two dimensions, without confusing notation of sub-/superscripts
+ Good help page explaining how to use the app
+ Ability to use paper cards or the app

(–) Negatives
– Some vague questions, e.g. “Current” with no other description/prompt
– Responses, though good, are between simple associations and rolodex format
– Does not seem to be spaced repetition or much ability to change how things are tested
– No ability to just read the cards as a list of information
– No ability to break down the major subjects into smaller ones, e.g. to go over cards of just respiration in biochemistry

Bottom Line:
This is a simple set/app that does not have/give the ability to do things that many other flashcard apps do, but what it does, it does well. The explanations are mostly solid, with much fewer vagaries in questions and answers than in other apps. The style and level of complexity is somewhere between flash and rolodex, but the balance struck is pretty good. I just wish it had spaced repetition.

Cost:
$22 on Amazon, one time fee


Scrub Ninjas

(+) Positives
+ Fun, if redundant, interface that increases challenge by having time limits for answering
+ Very clear questions with clear multiple choice answers
+ Plenty of details
+ Spaced repetition

(–) Negatives
– In-app purchases for throwing weapons, which essentially give away the answer (I’d rather just get them wrong and learn from it)
– Can’t scroll through questions and answers
– Spaced repetition is for each section. No option to have certain questions “due” each day, or to mix sets (This might be available in the full paid version if that has different menus, though, again, it didn’t seem worth it to me to buy that, and there is no indication of such functionality in the app store or on the website.)

Bottom Line:
This app shows promise, as what it does, it does well. This might end up being a good option for students who would be too bored to use flashcards regularly without a fun graphical interface. 

Cost:

Scrub Ninjas currently has the 3 following MCAT review games:

MCAT Behavioral Sciences (Psychology & Sociology) $19.99

MCAT Biological Sciences (Biochemistry & Physiology) $9.99

MCAT Physical Sciences (Chemistry & Physics) $9.99

MCAT 2016 Review as a bundle of all three for $29.99 that is a database of 3,800 questions
 
Note: All apps have free versions with 50 free questions 

 


McGraw-Hill BenchPrep

(+) Positives
+
Part of a much larger online system available on multiple devices, and with a number of other capabilities (games, practice passage-based questions, the ability to make a study plan, entire books, motivational “achievements”, forums, and progress reports).
+ There’s a sort of spaced repetition. You have the option to choose your confidence level in an answer.
+ Images of amino acid side groups – definitely a new, important, challenge on this new exam that is worth reviewing in this way
+ Free!* (*with purchase and registration of a book in their set. That is, with purchase of each book, you get access to that part of their online platform. Not yet available separately)

(–) Negatives
–
 Vague prompts with rambling responses.
For example, in behavioral sciences:

· One prompt is simply: “Verbal”
· Both GABA and histamine are prompts, but the former’s response is “primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body” and the latter’s response is “affects arousal and attention.” Aside from the issue that GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter found in the CNS only, these cards show a lack of consistency and clarity.

– Though you can denote how confident you felt on a card, it doesn’t get repeated automatically at a certain point based on that rating. You have to go back in and review the cards in that confidence level.

– To choose a confidence level, you have to select a setting in a drop-down menu. That’s an extra 3 step process for every card. Contrast that to the free flashcard app I mentioned in my flashcard post, which allows you to select your confidence level AND switch cards all in one simple swipe. That might seem like a small thing, but the whole point of this, to my mind, is to be able to go through a lot of information quickly and effortlessly. When you could go through several dozen flashcards during a commute, 3 steps per card really slows you down.
– You can’t seem to mix cards from different sections of the test (though you can review ALL the cards within one subject)
– Not enough cards and a not-very-comprehensive coverage of concepts
· Bio/Biochem has 87 cards, one of which is “axon”. If you only have 87 cards in which to cover all of bio/biochem, Axon seems like both a specific and rather obvious/simple fact to test.
· On the other hand, “Kidneys” and “Mitosis” are cards, when each topic could be made into several cards each with much clearer prompts.

Bottom Line:
McGraw-Hill’s heart and vision are in the right place. They want to make a one-stop shop – materials, course, community, games, coach, everything in one. Hopefully, this is a work-in-progress, though there’s no indication that users should expect updates. As it stands, it’s a good idea that is very incomplete. If you purchase and prefer the books anyway, you get everything else for no additional cost, which probably provides some marginal benefit. However, comparing the flashcards on their own to the others on this page, these pale. Even if I had these flashcards for free, I’d not use them over the other purchasing and using the other options. They’re just not very good, and what small benefit they offer can very easily be replaced or produced elsewhere.

Cost:
$149 for their Standard Plan (510 Questions, 2 Tests, 17 Study Units); or $399 for their Ultimate Plan (770 Questions, 2 Tests, 632 Study Units, 230 Flashcards). Both are 12-month subscriptions.


Brainscape

(+) Positives
+
Very clearly worded flashcards and concise, helpful responses
+ Spaced repetition
+ So many flashcards! 500 for Physics, 500 for GChem!
+ You can make and add your own cards
+ You can suggest edits

(–) Negatives
–
 No Android app makes me 🙁
– Can’t seem to study flashcards from multiple sets together, at least not online
– Only GChem and Physics cards available! That’s a small part of this test!

Bottom Line:
Well-worded and thorough questions for the topics it covers and spaced repetition, but as yet very incomplete. Also, no Android app?! If this one day includes all the sciences, maintains its quality, allows for testing of multiple sets at once, is available on non-iOS devices, and costs no more than ~$60, I’d think it worth it. Until then, though, what’s the point? They have a ton of questions on the two most concept-heavy, memorization-light sciences on the test. That’s not where review with flashcards is needed.

Cost: 
$9.99 for either MCAT General Chemistry or MCAT Physics; $17.99 for both.


Final Note:

Again, at least some of these companies claim to be continuously improving their products and reacting to feedback (someone email them this post!), so who knows? Maybe we’ll look back on this in a few months and come to a very different conclusion.