If you’ve ever wondered how certain students crush every course and get straight A’s, then today is your lucky day. We’ll explore the three intellectual attributes that dictate your school performance, and how you can optimize each one independently.
To perform well in school, you have to put in the work. Assuming you are applying yourself and are using intelligent study strategies, there are three intellectual attributes that dictate your overall academic performance. These three domains are memorization, critical thinking, and test-taking, and they are all interconnected. Top-level performance requires maximizing all three.
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that every person’s competence in each domain can vary significantly. The good news is that you can improve in any one of them with deliberate practice. But first, you must objectively assess your strengths and weaknesses, and that’s something only you can do. After several years in school, studying with others, and reflecting on your own academic performance, you should have a good idea of your relative strengths and weaknesses.
For me, natural memorization is my Achilles’ heel. Therefore, deliberate practice in this domain has yielded the biggest returns and improvements in my academic performance. On the other hand, my critical thinking and test-taking skills are better developed, thereby not requiring as much deliberate practice.
How did I come to these conclusions for myself? In college, conceptually challenging courses and professors that were known for writing difficult tests were relatively easier for me. I was fortunate to set the curve in the majority of my upper-division neuroscience courses, biochemistry, biology, and several others that relied on either complex thinking or long-form essay responses. However, the supposed “easy” courses, like an introduction to psychology, were heavy on memorizing facts, and it took much more effort for me to swing an A.
Now that you’ve assessed your relative strengths and weaknesses, let’s determine how to systematically improve each one.
First, memorization. If you don’t have naturally gifted memory, fear not. I don’t either. This is the easiest deficiency to make up for out of the three key attributes. This is also the one domain I have seen the largest improvements in, and you can too by following these principles.
The first foundational principle to effective memorization is that you first must understand the information before you attempt to commit it to memory. Memorizing without the layer of understanding will yield weaker connections and a shaky foundation that is more likely to crumble as you are required to memorize additional overlapping facts that may cause confusion. To solidify your comprehension, visit your professor during office hours, practice the Feynman technique with your friends, or seek additional online resources to address holes in your understanding.
While prioritizing understanding is key, don’t fall for the hype that by simply understanding, you’ll never have to memorize another fact again. No matter how deeply you understand the concept of breast ptosis causes, physiology, and occurrence in the context of plastic surgery, you still have to memorize how each level is classified.
There are three main memorization techniques you should be using — method of loci, mnemonics, and flashcards utilizing active recall with spaced repetition. It isn’t enough to simply know the tools you should be using, but also how to use them. I cover the nuances and the common pitfalls you should avoid in my recent Guide to Medical School Memorization post.
Critical thinking can be categorized as subject-specific or general, the former of which is usually more relevant to performing well on exams. Luckily, this is also easier to measure, easier to improve, and has been the focus of the scientific literature on learning.
Higher-order questions are the difficult and complex question types that require students to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information rather than simply recalling facts. There are four main components of critical thinking, each of which can be demonstrated with its respective question type. Application questions require students to transfer knowledge learned in one context to another. Analysis questions require the separation of a concept into component parts. Synthesis questions require the use of old ideas to create new ones using information from multiple sources. And lastly, evaluation questions require judgment about the value of arguments.
Effective critical thinking requires clarity of thought. It’s not simply a matter of having facts memorized, but also understanding the interplay and relationships between facts, and how they would be relevant or altered in various scenarios. Think of this deeper understanding as your mental scaffolding in a subject area, whereby you fill in the scaffolding with details through memorization.
Not all subjects will test critical thinking equally. Neuroscience, biochemistry, bioengineering, and mathematics will be much heavier than, say, biology or psychology. You’ll find that courses with a high degree of essay-based exam questions tend to be more critical thinking heavy.
To improve critical thinking, active learning is key, and the process should feel difficult, especially at the beginning. It’s a higher-order skill that builds upon lower-level skills, and it’s not something that will be touched on by passively reading your notes.
In terms of scientific evidence on improving your critical thinking, the literature suggests there are four main strategies you should employ.
1 | Self-Reflection Techniques
Austin and colleagues in 2008 found that structured reflection and self-assessment improved test performance and critical thinking in a group of pharmacy students. The self-assessment and reflection was conducted in real-time, in the middle of test-taking. Additionally, explicit self-reflection techniques after the fact, such as asking students to judge their performance on a recent assignment, can increase the ability to understand where they need to improve and develop moving forward.
2 | Answering and Generating Higher-Order Thinking Questions
Both answering and generating higher-order thinking questions have been demonstrated to improve critical reasoning. There are two ways to approach this. First, you should seek out practice problems that are specifically high quality. More on that shortly. Second, you can generate higher-order thinking questions most effectively through making your own synthesis questions after attending a lecture. These questions should force you to exercise higher-order thinking. One of my favorite methods is to change a variable or assumption — what downstream effects and changes would you expect? I’ve outlined how to create these questions in further detail in my recent note-taking post.
3 | Spaced Repetition
Kapler et al. in 2015 found that when reviewing lecture material in a spaced repetition manner, versus cramming, students performed better not only in factual recall but also higher-order thinking questions. We’ve known cramming is suboptimal for factual memorization, and now we also know it’s bad for critical thinking and performance on higher-order level questions.
4 | Retrieval Practice
Agarwal in 2019 found that quizzing factual information only improved factual knowledge, but not critical thinking. Retrieval practice only improves critical thinking when higher-order questions are incorporated. Therefore, including higher-order thinking questions into your Anki flashcards or practice problems is advised.
Test Taking Skills
No matter how well you understand the information and have it memorized, you won’t score well in class or on the MCAT unless you have adequate test-taking skills.
The most straightforward way to improve your test-taking skills would be to simply take more tests in the form of practice tests or practice questions. When studying for standardized exams like the MCAT or USMLE, proper use of practice questions is hands down the most effective way to study. The problem is that most students fail to use this valuable resource to its full potential.
1 | Replicate Testing Conditions
First, you should replicate your test-taking environment when doing the practice tests. What time of day is the real exam? What time constraints will you face? Will you be wearing earplugs? What is the environment like? Seek to recreate these factors as closely as possible.
2 | Not All Practice Questions are Created Equal
Next, are the practice questions of high quality? Ideally, they should be representative of the real test. For the MCAT, question from AAMC and UWorld are the highest quality. For USMLE Step 1, 2, and 3, NBME and UWorld questions should be your go-to. If you need additional practice questions, seek out the practice tests which are harder than the real test, not easier.
If you’re preparing for a class exam, try to get your hands on previous year’s tests or quizzes. If you’re studying for the final, refer to your midterm or previous quizzes to understand the professor’s testing style which should guide your study approach.
3 | Review Properly
The most common mistake students make is not properly reviewing their answers. I recommend you review all the questions, even if you got the question right. If you got lucky and guessed, there’s tremendous utility in reviewing the question properly so you won’t have to guess next time you see the concept. If you knew the answer, spend less time reviewing the explanation but ensure you hit all the major points. If you got the question wrong, make sure you both understand the underlying concept that is being tested but also see if you made any mistakes in the application of said concept to the question.
4 | Get a Handle on Your Nerves
One of my strongest assets in performing optimally academically was enjoying the experience of taking exams. The mild adrenaline rush helped me focus, and taking tests became enjoyable in an almost meditative way, as I would focus on the question at hand without distraction. I call this test-taking flow.
Unfortunately, most students experience the opposite — test-taking anxiety. After conducting thousands of hours of tutoring since 2007, there are a few techniques that I’ve found consistently helpful for my clients. First, get your foundations in order. That means proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep before the exam. Positive self-talk is also key. Second, slow deep breathing. Your belly should be rising, not your chest. Third, when doing practice problems, seek to recreate the adrenaline and tension you will feel on test day by consuming caffeine to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system. That way, come test day, your nerves and jitteriness are more familiar and you can mitigate any detrimental effects on your performance.
Optimal test-taking skills also require proper planning. How much time will you allocate to each question? How do you decide when to skip a question and come back, or when to guess and move on? How can you guess intelligently and hedge your answer choices to come out ahead with the highest possible score?
Which domain is your strongest, and which is your weakest requiring the most attention? Let me know with a comment down below. If you liked this video, hit that thumbs up to keep the YouTube gods happy, and subscribe with the notification bell enabled if you want to see more content like this. Much love to you all, and I will see you guys in that next one.