Cramming and pulling all-nighters may have been effective study methods for exams during your undergraduate education. This is because it is possible to learn a small volume of information in a compressed time frame. However, unlike a physics or biochemistry exam that tested only a month or two of content, the MCAT tests several years of undergraduate knowledge. Thus, cramming should not be your go to method for MCAT prep! Instead, you should plan on spacing your preparation over 3-6 months (potentially longer if you have less time to study on a weekly basis).

With a longer timeframe, the likelihood of forgetting information that you have previously reviewed becomes greater. According to the forgetting hypothesis, we forget 50% of newly learned information within only a few days or weeks of learning it. The most effective way to increase the retention of information is with spaced repetition, where you revisit previously learned information over several study sessions. The diagram below shows a typical forgetting curve.

Notice that the slope is very steep for first learned information, indicating that information is very quickly forgotten. However, with each subsequent review, retention is recovered and the slope becomes flatter, indicating a longer lasting memory. Furthermore, the timeframe between study sessions can become longer as the information starts to migrate from short term to longer term memory. There are many approaches that you can use for spaced repetition, and they have varying degrees of effectiveness.

The two most effective methods of spaced repetition are practice testing and distributed practice.

  1. Practice testing consists of a few different approaches, including taking full length exams at regular intervals. Taking multiple practice tests spaced 1-2 weeks apart allows you to repeatedly apply the content that you have learned and identify the specific content areas that you may have forgotten. This is why we recommend that students take 5 Blueprint exams and all 4 of the AAMC scored exams.

  2. Distributed practice refers to spacing out learning over multiple study sessions, and includes reviewing notes, working through practice questions, and using flashcards. To implement this, you might watch a few modules on a particular content area and make a study sheet, and a week or two later review the study sheet, work through some flashcards, or do some practice questions using Qbank or the end of chapter exam.

If you are interested in reading more about additional learning methods and their degree of effectiveness, check out this study by Dr John Dunlosky. It shows that rereading text and highlighting are two of the least effective study methods, so actively avoid those approaches!

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