Studying for The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a marathon, not a sprint. With such a vast amount of information to learn and retain, you need evidence-based study strategies. Evidence-based strategies are tried and true studying tactics that are backed by scientific research.
There are a plethora of evidence-based strategies in education that help students learn efficiently.
When it comes to studying for the MCAT, we’ve found that there are four evidence-based learning strategies that lend themselves well to studying for the MCAT. These strategies maximize the amount of information you retain.
Why are evidence-based learning strategies important?
As an aspiring medical professional, you likely already know the importance of science and evidence. You wouldn’t prescribe a medication to a patient simply because your sister claimed that it worked for her. At best, the medication won’t work and at worst, it will be harmful to the patient. You’re only going to prescribe medication that has been scientifically proven to be effective.
It’s no different when you’re studying for the MCAT. It’s not wise to adopt a study strategy for yourself simply because your roommate said it worked for him. It might work, but it also might be a big waste of your time.
Because evidence-based strategies are so successful, you’re likely to hear anecdotal evidence that supports the strategies. This is good! It means strategies evaluated in scientific studies also work in the real world.
Before you try your roommate’s strategy for yourself, just make sure it is backed by science… if you don’t want to waste your time, that is. As someone studying for the MCAT, we know you don’t have time to spare.
Thankfully, we’ve done the legwork to find evidence-based study strategies that work when it comes to studying for the MCAT. We’ve even taken it a step further and implemented them into our MCAT studying materials.
What evidence-based strategies should I use to study for the MCAT?
A quick search for “evidence-based learning” yields over 10,000 results on PubMed and over 2,000,000 results on Google Scholar. Clearly, there are a lot of evidence-based study strategies out there. The four evidence-based strategies we’ve found are particularly effective when studying for the MCAT are spacing, active recall, interleaving, and desirable difficulties.
1 | Spacing
Imagine this: on February 28th, you study Concept A. From March 1st to May 28th, you study other concepts. When the MCAT rolls around on May 29th, are you going to remember Concept A from all the way back in February? Probably not.
For the vast majority of memories, the more time goes by since we last recalled the memory, the more we tend to forget.
A seemingly logical solution to this is to continually recall information you need to know. This might make sense for small pieces of information, but when it comes to studying for the MCAT, there is way too much information to learn. You simply cannot review every piece of information on a regular basis.
When you use spaced repetition, however, either on your own or via Memm, you strategically space out review and recall. After you first learn something, you’ll review it more frequently in the beginning and gradually increase the length of time between each review.
Spacing information in this manner allows your brain to encode the information into long-term memory. This is essentially the opposite of cramming.
2 | Active recall
Let’s return to our previous example. After you studied Concept A in February, imagine you continually passively reviewed the information according to a good spacing schedule. At increasing intervals, you read over the information for Concept A. This is better than no review. However, with this passive review, you’re not challenging your brain to recall the information.
When it comes time to take the MCAT, your brain might not be able to recall the information because it’s not used to actively recalling the information on its own. Your brain is used to seeing the information, thinking “oh yeah, that’s right,” and moving on.
A better strategy is to use active recall. With this strategy, you use various techniques to test yourself and challenge your brain to recall the information. For example, you might use flashcards, respond to short answer questions, or write down everything you know about a given topic.
One of the keys to active recall is that you need to check your answers. Flip over the flashcard. Check the answer to your short answer question. Cross-reference your brain dump — check for errors and see what information you might be missing.
When you practice recalling information from your memory, it’s hard. But… that’s kind of the point. The MCAT is hard, too. Anything active is generally going to be more challenging than something that is passive.
Studying for the MCAT is a mental workout, just like a physical workout. If you do a physical workout that doesn’t challenge your body, you’re not going to see many results. If you do a mental workout that doesn’t challenge your brain, you’re not going to see many results.
3 | Interleaving
Back to our example. Imagine always reviewing Concept A immediately before reviewing Concept B. When the MCAT gives you a question about Concept B, your brain might get stuck without first seeing concept A.
Our brains are excellent at forming connections and associations. Just think of times when a smell triggers a vivid memory, or when you can remember where in the textbook a definition was written but can’t remember the definition itself. Often, these associations are interesting or helpful, but this isn’t always the case when you’re studying for the MCAT. You don’t want to rely on needing a connection or association in order to recall information.
Enter: interleaving. Interleaving is a study strategy where you alternate the topics that you study, and you don’t stay on any one topic for an extended period of time. This helps your brain avoid burnout from studying the same concept for too long.
When you interleave, your brain is also more equipped to find connections between topics. This can help your studying be more well-rounded and reduce the number of arbitrary associations you form with information. Instead, your brain can find similarities, differences, and logical connections.
One of the most popular ways to facilitate interleaving is the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this technique structures tasks into 25-minute blocks. After each block, you take a small five-minute break. We recommend switching study topics or concepts after every one to two Pomodoro blocks.
4 | Desirable difficulties
If you’ve been reading through all these evidence-based learning strategies thinking, that sounds hard, then you’ve gotten the point. When you put effort into effective studying strategies, you’re going to see results. Think back to the cliché exercising example. If you do a really easy exercise, you won’t see your desired results. The same goes for studying for the MCAT.
Desirable difficulties when studying for the MCAT are tasks that are purposely difficult because they are going to yield results. This makes sense logically, but it’s not always easy to practice.
It’s much easier to passively read a chapter or randomly study topics without creating a spacing schedule. In the long run, however, you’re probably going to spend more time studying without seeing the results you want.
Another reason you might be tempted to give up on these evidence-based strategies is that they take longer upfront. Actively recalling information by answering test questions will take longer than skimming over notes, for example. However, as you practice these strategies and work the information into your long-term memory, your recall will get faster and you’ll need to spend less time on each piece of information. When you get to this point, you’ll be able to extend the time between each review of a specific concept.
If you’ve ever wondered why cramming might help you do well on an exam only to forget the information a day later, this is why. Skimming over your notes is easy, and it does refresh your memory. However, if you want to internalize the information and make it stick into your long-term memory, you have to put forth the effort. With a test like the MCAT, there is simply far too much information to cram into your brain using ineffective study strategies.
Why evidence-based learning can take your MCAT studying to the next level
Just as in medicine, using techniques grounded in scientific evidence will almost always yield better results. How do we know these techniques work? Let’s take a quick look at the literature.
A study that examined long-term retention among students who used active recall showed more long-term retention of the information. This finding was even stronger among students who practiced short answer questions vs. multiple-choice questions.
In another study, a group of researchers set out to determine if the spacing effect holds up in real life. After examining longitudinal data from over 10,000 people, they found that the spacing effect increased long-term retention in real-world scenarios — not just in the lab.
Tracy Linderholm, John Dobson, and Mary Beth Yarbrough examined the effectiveness of interleaving when combined with active recall in the journal Advances in Physiology Education. They found that both strategies were effective, and they were even more effective when combined together. This suggests that combining desirable difficulties creates an extremely successful studying practice.
If you’re studying for the MCAT, you’ve undoubtedly been successful in school up until this point. You’ve likely found success with a variety of study strategies, and perhaps none of your go-to strategies are the ones we suggest here. Studying for the MCAT is a different beast entirely, and you may need a strategy that’s more sound, evidence-based, and efficient.
Switching to any one of these new study strategies will be difficult, and there will be a learning curve to the strategy itself. Try not to let that discourage you, as these strategies are proven to be effective. They are designed with a knowledge of the way our brains work and how we best retain and retrieve information.