Reflection is not what spectators see during a basketball game; spending hours watching game tapes and discussing strategic nuances with a coach does not make the high light reel on Sports Center, but it is essential to continued improvement and success. After every game, athletes and coaches discuss what happened: what went well, what went badly, what could have gone better but didn’t, and generate actionable feedback that the athlete can use to improve their performance.
This exact process can and should be mimicked when preparing for a standardized test. As a taker of many standardized tests and a former professional athlete, I found them to be remarkably similar, particularly because of how reflection enables continual improvement in both domains.
Let’s take the MCAT (one of the tests I tutor) as an example, and look at how reflecting on two common study activities can lead to an optimized performance on the exam.
Reflecting on Study Sessions
When studying for the MCAT, there will be likely at least a hundred hours of pure studying of scientific material. With that much studying, the rate at which one studies, and the quality of the studying is critical, and reflecting on study sessions helps students to optimize their effort.
Example reflection on study session
A student might spend an hour studying the circulatory system. Afterwards, a diligent student should spend a couple minutes reflect on that studying.
- Did I learn the material as well as I could have?
- Do I have an accurate grasp of the general concepts of the circulatory system?
- Do I understand an appropriate level of detail for each concept?
- Do I see the connections between the details and the concepts, particularly how the details explain the concepts?
- Do I see how changes in details cause or don’t cause changes at a larger level?
- Do I see how different concepts are connected?
- Have I learned this information in such a way that I will be able to remember it 1,2, or maybe 4 months from now?
- Did I move to fast during this session? Or did I move too slowly?
The answers to these questions can provide actionable feedback that can guide the student in their next study session. If this improved their speed of studying by just 10%, that would be 6 minutes saved every hour, or over the course of 100 hours, the length of a whole practice test, which means time for an extra practice test (one of the most helpful forms of studying). Furthermore, reflecting becomes even more critical when doing practice problems and tests.
Reflecting on Practice Problems
Whether doing separate practice problems or taking a practice test, reflecting on the outcomes of each question is critical to further improvement. In my experience, the intensity and granularity with which a student goes over their practice problems is an excellent predictor of their eventual score.
- Did I get this wrong because I read the problem incorrectly?
- Did I not conceptualize the question correctly, and as such, didn’t have the right criteria with which to choose an answer choice?
- If yes, what would help me better with conceptualizing of questions? Can I drill this? Do I need special help? Is it just an experience thing that will come with answering more questions?
- Did I choose the wrong concept with which to solve this problem?
- Did I misremember the concept needed for this problem?
- Did I misapply the concept?
- Did I make an execution error?
- Did I use the right strategy?
These questions show the granularity that a student should be going over their answers. By doing this on every question, the student will start to see more prevalent weaknesses that deserve more effort in rectifying. The student will also see when those weaknesses have been rectified, replaced by others in need of attention. The reflection on practice problems early in the studying process can also have a tremendous impact on a student’s studying, allowing them to focus on the correct depth in the material and emphasize the types of connections commonly tested.
Reflecting may seem like a lot of work, but after doing it for a little while, it becomes a quick and effective habit that will help students to do the best they can. Also, studying for a major test can become quite boring. Reflection also provides new study targets regularly, which means avoiding the stale approach of “I must memorize all of biology, then I must do 1000 practice problems, give me a redbull…”
Are you interested in signing up for a free MCAT consultation with a Harvard PhD?
Itching to read more on the MCAT study preparation? Check out some of our previous blog posts on the subject below: