I can’t tell you how many students say something like this during our first tutoring session together, “I have been studying for months and months, and I haven’t seen any improvement. I’ve studied every single MCAT resource out there and am simply not improving.” As the session goes on, and I have the chance to quiz them on a few key MCAT concepts, I quickly come to realize that the student has learned a lot of stuff, but they don’t truly, deeply understand it. I have found that these students, despite all their hard work and effort, are not making progress because they are stuck in habits of passive learning. Passive learning is when you simply skim over information without actually engaging with it. When these students start actively learning, engaging with the material in a way that is meaningful and leads to true understanding, their scores start to steadily improving. In this MCAT Study Tip, I want to share with you three ways that you can start engaging in true active learning:
- Have a goal in mind as you study content. While watching videos or reading content review books, your goal is not to simply hear or see the information. Your goal is to search through all the information that they are throwing at you for key concepts that you think you will forget before test day. And when you find a key concept, you need to STOP! Seriously, pause the video or put down the book! Don’t just think to yourself, “Oh yah, that makes sense,” and then continue on. That would be like finding gold and then leaving it right where you found it! You need to pick up that precious content and put it where it belongs — in your brain!
- Translate what you learned into everyday language. Now, that you’ve found that precious concept, you need to engage with it in some way, and the very best way to engage with it is to put it into your own words. When writing notes, too many students simply copy down what they heard or read word for word. This is a very bad idea because you are not engaging with the material in a way that’s meaningful. So, how do you put it into your own words? Here’s my favorite exercise — pretend like you are teaching that concept to a 6-year-old. For instance, if you had to teach the photoelectric effect to a 6-year-old, you would not be able to use fancy lingo like “kinetic energy” or “photon.” You’d have to use simple words like “energy” and “light.” By translating these high-level terms into simple, understandable ones, you are engaging with the material in the most meaningful way possible.
- Hold on to what you learned by converting it into a testable format. If you simply write down what you are learning in a notebook, you are setting yourself up for failure when it comes time to thoroughly review your notes. Why? Because skimming notes is a passive learning activity! During your final month of MCAT studying (what I call “MCAT Bootcamp”), you should thoroughly review every single concept that you studied during the content review phase of your studying. If you waste your final month on passive learning via the skimming of notes, you are setting yourself up for sure and definite disaster when test day comes. To take full advantage of this final (and most important) period of studying, you need to have notes in a format that allows you to quiz yourself. My preferred format for this is high-quality flashcards with a question on the front, and your simple “6-year-old-worthy” explanation on the back. When MCAT Bootcamp arrives, you won’t have any regrets about the time you spent making flashcards.
Following these tips sounds easy, but it can be terribly tempting to simply continue watching or reading, when you really need to stop and take the time to truly learn. Why waste hours and hours learning passively when you can make every minute count by engaging in active learning? Your MCAT score will thank you.
I hope you enjoyed this MCAT Study Tip, and if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I am here to help!
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