Why Your MCAT Score is Stagnating: Passive vs Active Learning

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Over the course of any student’s MCAT studying journey, they might see that their score has stopped improving, or no matter what, they can’t seem to remember certain content areas. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to reevaluate how you’re studying—are you passively or actively learning?

    What is the difference between passive and active learning?

    Simply put, active learning is a form of learning or studying where the learner themselves is doing something while passive learning only involves the source material. For example, a student in a college course might find that they are able to do well by going to class, listening to the lectures, and then studying by reviewing the PowerPoints. In this example, the student is passively learning since they are only listening to the lecture and reading the PowerPoint.

    This might work to succeed in a college course, especially if the course is lighter in content or only assesses broad topics. Translated to the MCAT, passive learning would simply be reading a set of review books and watching online lecture videos.

    The downsides to passive learning are that only a small amount of the material will be remembered, and the material that is remembered won’t be retained for long. Since the MCAT has so much material on it, passive learning simply will not work.

    How to incorporate active learning into your MCAT studying:

    1. Taking Notes

    If it’s your first time learning some material, then it’s a good idea to take notes while reading the chapter or while watching the video.

    Be sure to jot down important concepts or vocabulary that might be important, as this will ensure you are actively thinking about what you’re learning without zoning out.

    2. Reformatting notes

    After taking notes, some students will reformat their notes into a way that makes more sense to them. Usually, the “raw” notes made from the textbook or video will follow the structure of source material. By reformatting notes, not only will the notes become more easier for you to understand, but it will also help you see the connections between concepts you study.

    3. Making flashcards

    Once you’re done making notes, it is a good idea to turn the notes into flashcards. For many students, reviewing flashcards tends to be the part of content review that they spend most of their time on.

    Make flashcards that test discrete topics, and change up how they’re formatted. For example, while one flashcard could say “What is the pKa of arginine’s side chain?”, another flashcard could say “Which amino acids are positively charged at physiological pH?”

    Once you have finished a set of flashcards, be sure to go back to it intermittently; for this, I recommend using Anki.

    Learn more tips for becoming an MCAT flashcard wizard in this post!

    4. Practice, practice, practice

    The next step is the most important—practice, practice, practice! Once you’re finished with a chapter, do practice problems. It’s easy to look at your notes and think to yourself, “yeah, I definitely understand this.” But to really assess comprehension, find a practice passage or a set of questions on the topic.

    No matter how you study for the MCAT, whether that is by reading a set of review books, or by watching the Khan Academy videos, you can incorporate active learning. Which active learning techniques you use will depend on how well you know the material.

    To further conceptualize active vs passive learning, let’s use the nephron as an example. If you are learning the nephron for the first time, it’s probably a good idea to watch a Khan Academy video that covers it, or read a chapter about the renal system.

    After finishing the video, you might have a general understanding of the nephron—you might know that its purpose is to filter and concentrate urine. You might even remember what all of the components of the nephron are called. But do you remember which parts are permeable to water? Do you remember what the GFR means? And more importantly, will you remember all of this one month from now?

    Instead, an active learner would take notes while going over the material, and then make flashcards. One flashcard might just ask “which part of the nephron is permeable to water?” while another flashcard might just be a standard flashcard with a vocabulary word on the front and a definition on the back. Once the student is done with his flashcards, they would find and complete practice questions that cover the renal system.

    By practicing active learning, not only will you gain a better understanding of the material, but you will also be able to remember the content for a much longer time, which will then lead to the MCAT score increases that we all seek.

    Need an extra MCAT study boost? Check out our free 30-day MCAT study schedule.