Combining Content in Context: USMLE thinking

Standard

The thought processes required on the USMLE are different than those required on most medical school exams. The content you need to know is the same. But the way you need to think about that content, and how you will use that content in your exam, requires some mental reprogramming.

On medical school exams, recognition and paired association are the keys. A typical exam item presents a concept in the question stem and asks you to select the proper association from the presented choices. If you have studied sufficiently so that seeing a particular symptom reminds you of a disease diagnosis, or seeing a particular disease reminds you of the commonly used pharmacology, you will get the question correct. When you see “butterfly rash: you think “Lupus”.

You train yourself for these association questions by repeated exposure and memorization—going over the pairs and patterns over and over until you are programmed with the appropriate responses. In essence, questions on medical school exams are mostly are free association exercises. You get them right when you have trained yourself to have the associations your professors want you to have. As long as your associations are those of the faculty, you will do very, very well. You prove to the professor that you have mastered the required content by giving the required responses.

The USMLE wants more out of you. For the most part USMLE questions writers assume that you already possess the basic mental associations. They assume that the medical school has done its job. Their task is to see if you are ready for the next level. USMLE questions are not aimed at what you know, but are framed to see if you can apply what you know in a series of presented problem scenarios. Knowing is not enough, you have to be able to DO SOMETHING with your knowledge.

Few physicians would argue with this goal. The job of the medical practitioner is not to serve as a human reference book, but to make decisions, to take actions based on what they observe combined with what they know. This is what the USMLE tests: how you take in information and how you are able to reason with the information you collect.

Context is the key to understanding the information presented to you in a USMLE question. Particular facts mean different things in different circumstances. Meaning comes as much from surrounding data as from the presented detail itself. Fatigue, reported by a patient, may be an important symptom or merely the result of too little sleep. The meaning rests with the full set of symptoms and life circumstances presented. Single symptoms are ambiguous. Context provides the pieces to let you see the essential presented patterns.

Combination is the key process for the problem-solving required on USMLE questions. You must combine the information presented in the question with the information in your own head. The patterns you see plus the patterns you remember give you the insight to reason though to the best answer. If the question presents a symptom constellation, you must have the knowledge in you head to recognize the disease that this signifies. Recognizing a pattern in the question, but not remembering what it signifies means that you will not get the question correct.

Answer each USMLE question by first deciding, “What is given in the question?” and the deciding, “How does that relate to what you know?” This process, not simple association is the solution you seek. Content and combination result in the clarity you need to pick the best answer.

A detailed walk thought this process can be found in an article I posted in cooperation with Dr. Philip Tisdall on www.usmlethought.com. Look under the heading “Handling USMLE Questions.” Learning the mental steps to understanding USMLE questions is as important as mastering content details.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

Judgment and Choices: On Becoming a Physician

Standard

Students excel by memorizing information and being able to recall that information in the right circumstance. The best students are the ones who can remember the most facts. On a multiple-choice exam, students make their choices based on what they can remember.

Physicians excel based on their judgment and their capacity to make the right choices in complex situations. Although physicians must have a solid knowledge base, the best physicians are those that can apply that knowledge in appropriate ways and circumstances. On a multiple-choice exam, physicians make their choices based on the application of their best judgment.

This capacity for judgment is what separates a student from a physician. This capacity for judgment is also what separates high USMLE scores from low ones. Seen simplistically, USMLE questions are actually different based on whether you read them with the expectations of a student or the perspective of a physician. For students, the essential theme for each question is, “What do I remember?” For a physician, the essential theme for each question is, “What is going on here?” The student, above all, seeks an answer. The physician, at his best, seeks a clear understanding of the presented problem. A student knows because he remembers; a physician knows because he reaches a conclusion.

Getting that top USMLE score depends on changing your thinking from that of a student, to that of a physician. The sooner you make this mental transition, the easier your USMLE experience will be and the better your results. So how does one make this transition?

Every physician begins as a student. You must first master the core content knowledge. But while students stop there, physicians go one step further. The transition to being a physician comes at the point where knowledge is, for the most part assumed, and the challenge shifts to the understanding of how to use that knowledge in the situation at hand. This means an ever more critical focus on the details of the situation and the application of judgment to determine the best course of action. The question, not the answer choices becomes the main focus. By carefully digesting the key elements of the question, the problem to be solved becomes clear and the right answer, obvious.

If you find your scores on practice questions stuck in the 50% to 60% range, then you are stuck thinking like a student and need to master the art of clinical reasoning. Clinical reasoning begins by recognizing that not everything matters, but some things are critical. You need to make the transition from trying to grab on to every detail to the point where you have the judgment to know the details which make the difference.

Here are some simple techniques you may find useful to help you with this transition:

  1. Practice honing your judgment by being clear why something matters. When studying, tell yourself why each fact is relevant and in what circumstances it might be of value. Keep asking yourself, “So what?” or “Why does this matter?” If you can’t answer the question, then the content is likely too esoteric to matter for the USMLE.
  2. Put together a short lecture on some content with which you are struggling. Nothing organizes your understanding better then having to talk about it.
  3. Write some questions. Not the simple recall questions, but the longer USMLE clinical case items. By thinking about what to include, or leave out of your questions, you are helping yourself focus on the details that matter.
  4. After answering a question, go back over the content and tell yourself how you would need to change the question to make every one of the options correct.

Judgment is not the same as memorization. There is a big difference between knowing what a hammer is, and knowing the right occasions for using one. Work on your knowledge base, and then, work on using that knowledge. The transition from student to physician is one of the most important moments of your career. Remember, the USMLE is not testing if you are a good student, but if you will be a good physician.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

Who is in Charge on Your Exam?

Standard

Who is in charge when you take you exam?  Do you control you exam, or does the exam control you?

The USMLE is not only testing your content knowledge, but also your ability to problem-solve on your feet. In spite of distractions, are you able to contain your anxiety and focus on the pertinent issues before you? Do you approach each question with a confident curiosity? Or are you hoping that things will be easy; that you have seen the problem before; that you will get lucky and see a question focused on content you recently studied? Do you approach each question with quiet confidence or uneasy hope?

Success on the USMLE depends on identifying issues and thinking clearly. Yes, you must have memorized essential content. But, the exam wants more from you than a demonstration of what you have memorized. The exam wants you to show that you know how to use what you have learned.

To accomplish this you must be more than a recoding and playback device. You must be more than a machine. You must be a person who can assess, think and decide. In short, you are being tested on who you are as much as what you know. The USMLE expects you to be in control of yourself and to demonstrate that by your control of the exam.

Gaining the control you need for the exam begins with your preparation strategy. In the long process of exam preparation it is easy to lose perspective. Over the course of weeks and months it is easy to feel overwhelmed and buried under the material you must master. Once lost, you feel like you are playing catch-up, and you never quite catch up. To avoid playing continual catch-up, take charge of your USMLE preparation from the very beginning.

Begin by making decisions and taking action based on those decisions. Decide what is essential and what is lower yield. Decide what study material resonates with you and helps the content to make coherent sense. And then, plan your study to cover the material you have selected. Avoid the temptation of asking everybody else what you should do. Yes, listen to advice, but then make your own decisions as to what works for you. Be especially skeptical of advice from parents and family members who do not have first-hand knowledge of the USMLE. Family usually advises you to work hard and spend long hours at study, but they rarely can give you the critical insight about what to do with that study time.

You have to live with your exam results, so you need to take responsibility for deciding how you should proceed. Make a study plan that maps our how much time you will study each day, and then follow it! Avoid studying “every waking minute.” Treat study time like a job. Put in your time, mentally clock out at the end of the day and give yourself a chance to rest each evening. Tomorrow you must get up and do it all again. Make sure your strategy is one you can maintain long term, not just over a couple of days.

When your study turns to questions, stay in charge by avoiding excessive focus on you percentage correct. Each question is a chance to test what you know and how you think. If you get a question right, congratulate yourself on your progress. But never forget that it is the questions you get wrong that will really improve your performance on the actual USMLE. When you get a question wrong you have uncovered a deficit. Use this knowledge by taking direct action to resolve the deficit. Diagnose why you missed the question. Was it because you missed something when reading the question or because you did not know the content? If you missed something when reading, pay attention to what you miss and you will discover patterns of errors you can correct. If you did not know the content, go back to your study material and go over it again.

Don’t just react to questions, act on them. Don’t simply feel good or bad about your question results. Make use of the information you have gained and do something about it!

By making decisions all the way though your study preparation, you are not only going to do a better job of learning, you will also be teaching yourself the mental set and the self control the USMLE requires. You know how to take charge because you have learned to take change of yourself. We want doctors who have the self-control and the aplomb to handle whatever patient care issues with which they are confronted. Your final USMLE score is a much a reflection of you control of the exam as it is your memorized knowledge. Take charge of your preparation and you will take charge of your exam.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

The Question is the Problem

Standard

What we find in life depends on what we are looking for. What we are looking for determines what will grab our attention. Nowhere is this more true than when taking the USMLE.

Many of those who have trouble with the USMLE are obsessed with “getting the right answer”. This focus is misplaced. An excessive focus on the answer misses an essential point. The key to getting the right answer is to be found in the question. The question stem presents the essential problem that you are called upon to solve, and gives you all the necessary information to solve that problem. In short, the question stem, not the options are the key to the exam.

Think of each item on the exam, not as a question to be answered, but as a problem to be solved. You are looking, not so much for an answer, as a solution. The correct mental headset for the exam is not a student trying to please an imagined professor by giving the correct answer, but a physician trying to resolve the problem presented by a patient. Sometimes you can solve the patient’s problem because you have seen it before. More commonly, you will need to think though the information presented to derive a solution that you may never have considered before.

You can look at every option and understand every detail they provide, but unless you have gathered the appropriate clues from the question stem, you will not get the question correct. Trying to answer the question without first collecting the available clues is like shooting at a target without first taking aim.

Learn to recognize your true friends and allies during the exam. The options are the enemy. The question is your friend. The purpose of the options is to fool you, to con you, to trick you into picking the wrong answer. The question stem is your ally. Only the question stem offers the key details you need to separate the wheat from the chaff and bring the best answer into clear focus.

The source of our obsession with the answers stems from our emotional response to the exam situation. Questions are aversive stimuli. We do not like questions and want to get past each one as soon as we can. In our heads our emotions scream for us to pick an answer, to get out, to escape the pain of the question. The problem is that our emotional instincts urging escape cause us to pick an option simply to exit the question, rather than have the patience to figure out the right answer. Questions are pain. Preparing for the USMLE is in part about learning to tolerate the pain of the question long enough to do the mental processes required sort out the best of the presented options.

Success comes from learning to love the question. Dive in and revel in the presented case. Read carefully. Collect the clues. Think about the problem before you. And then select the option that offers the best chance of providing a solution. Mastering this sequence is the ladder that leads to a great score and a successful exam performance.

The real challenge on the USMLE is not coming up with the correct answer, but understanding what the issues presented in the question. USMLE questions do not just ask you something, they also give you the clues you need to come converge on the best answer. Success goes, not to those who can guess the best, but to those who have the patience and mental discipline to collect the presented clues, identify the essential problem, and then reason though to the best possible solution. Look to the question and the answer will come to you. Once you fully understand the problem presented by the question stem, choosing the best answer is the easy part.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

Memorization Is Not Enough

Standard

One of the most common questions I hear when advising people preparing for the USMLE is how to memorize and remember all the details required for their exam.  The short answer is that if you are at the level of memorizing, you are simply not ready to take any of the Steps of the USMLE. Yes, the USMLE requires you to know essential medical knowledge. But, doing well on the exam comes from being able to apply that knowledge, not from the mastery of rote memorization.

Let me repeat, the USMLE is not about memorization. The examiners assume that you already know the required medical content. Your medical school success certifies that you have the basic knowledge already. The USMLE is not testing you on what you know, but problem-solving, whether you know what to do with what you know.

Focused repetition is the key to memorization. Anything that you read two or three time, if you are really paying attention, is recorded in the cortical regions of your brain. Your brain functions to retain what recurs. But, the USMLE requires more than this. You have to be able to recall and use the information within the time constraints of the exam. Remember, the USMLE is not seeing if you are a good student and able to digest all of the necessary information. Rather, the exams are checking whether you have a practical grasp of that information and understand the implication it has for medical practice.

You do not get to this level of mastery required for medical practice all at once, but by increasing levels of involvement and understanding over time. These levels can be conceptualized as pyramid in which one learning task supports the next. Recognition, being familiar enough with material to know it when you see it, is the bottom level of the pyramid. Next comes Memorization, being able to call content to mind when needed. Problem-solving, the third level, is achieved when you can combine remembered content and apply it to find the best response to presented situations. At the top of the pyramid comes Innovation, being able to create a new knowledge, new understanding, and new responses.

In medical school you are tested primarily on Recognition and Memorization. The USMLE test you primarily on Problem-solving. The amount of problem-solving required increases as you move from Step 1 to Step 3. The Clinical Case Simulations of Step 3 push problem-solving right up to the border of Innovative thought.

All of which means that at some point your preparation for the USMLE must move beyond brute memory and accelerate to the level of application and problem-solving. Sitting by yourself, reading and re-reading your study material simply will not get you to this higher level. You need to do something with the material. Outlines help. So does making diagrams. But, nothing speeds up the process like talking about the material. Interacting with peers and professors is the quickest way to boost your mastery beyond the level to recall, to being able to use the material you have learned.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of good sources of study material out there, but none of it will get you where you need to be unless you use it the right way.  Before you take your USMLE, you must move beyond memorization to application and problem-solving. The USMLE does not want to see what you know, but whether you can use that knowledge like a physician.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

Combining Content in Context

Standard

The thought processes required on the USMLE are different than those required on most medical school exams. The content you need to know is the same. But the way you need to think about that content, and how you will use that content in your exam, requires some mental reprogramming.

On medical school exams, recognition and paired association are the keys. A typical exam item presents a concept in the question stem and asks you to select the proper association from the presented choices. If you have studied sufficiently so that seeing a particular symptom reminds you of a disease diagnosis, or seeing a particular disease reminds you of the commonly used pharmacology, you will get the question correct. When you see “butterfly rash: you think “Lupus”.

You train yourself for these association questions by repeated exposure and memorization—going over the pairs and patterns over and over until you are programmed with the appropriate responses. In essence, questions on medical school exams are mostly are free association exercises. You get them right when you have trained yourself to have the associations your professors want you to have. As long as your associations are those of the faculty, you will do very, very well. You prove to the professor that you have mastered the required content by giving the required responses.

The USMLE wants more out of you. For the most part USMLE questions writers assume that you already possess the basic mental associations. They assume that the medical school has done its job. Their task is to see if you are ready for the next level. USMLE questions are not aimed at what you know, but are framed to see if you can apply what you know in a series of presented problem scenarios. Knowing is not enough, you have to be able to DO SOMETHING with your knowledge.

Few physicians would argue with this goal. The job of the medical practitioner is not to serve as a human reference book, but to make decisions, to take actions based on what they observe combined with what they know. This is what the USMLE tests: how you take in information and how you are able to reason with the information you collect.

Context is the key to understanding the information presented to you in a USMLE question. Particular facts mean different things in different circumstances. Meaning comes as much from surrounding data as from the presented detail itself. Fatigue, reported by a patient, may be an important symptom or merely the result of too little sleep. The meaning rests with the full set of symptoms and life circumstances presented. Single symptoms are ambiguous. Context provides the pieces to let you see the essential presented patterns. 

Start with the characteristics of the presented patient. What is the age? Gender? Region of the country? Occupation? All of these things make certain answers more or less likely. Putting this information together with other facts in the question stem along with your own medical knowledge will give you a better shot at the best answer than focusing on some special detail which catches your eye.

Combination is the key process for the problem-solving required on USMLE questions. You must combine the context and the information presented in the question with the knowlwdge in your own head. The patterns you see plus the patterns you remember give you the insight to reason though to the best answer. If the question presents a symptom constellation, you must have the knowledge in you head to recognize the disease that this signifies. Recognizing a pattern in the question, but not remembering what it signifies means that you will not get the question correct.

Answer each USMLE question by first deciding, “What is given in the question?” and the deciding, “How does that relate to what you know?” This process, not simple association is the solution you seek. Content and combination result in the clarity you need to pick the best answer.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

BEYOND ANNOTATED ANSWERS: GETTING THE BIGGER PICTURE

Standard

Questions are the heart and soul of the USMLE. Getting ready for the exam means doing questions as practice to prepare for the questions that count on exam day. Although questions are the target at the end of your preparation process, doing practice questions will not, by itself, get you ready for that big day of the exam.

Doing well on these exam questions requires two things: 1) a sufficient fund of knowledge and 2) a well-honed technique for dealing efficiently with the presented questions of the exam. Just doing as many practice questions as possible will not give you either of these two. Successful preparation depends on the adept blending of activities, not simply doing a lot of one thing. And doing each stage of preparation well, matters much more than how much time you spend preparing.

Doing questions will not give you the fund of knowledge that you need. But using the insight you gain while doing questions can guide you to the knowledge that you need to learn. Questions do not teach you. Questions test you. Questions tell you what you know and do not know. Your job is to take this insight and act on it.

Most practice questions of any merit come with annotated answers. In the best instances, these annotated answers tell you both why the right answer is best, and also why the other options are inferior. Reviewing the annotated answers should help you to grasp the key features and essential logic of the question. This is truly valuable information. But your exam preparation requires more than the nuggets of knowledge embedded in these annotations.

Question annotations give you little bits, atoms, of knowledge. The problem is that each little piece of knowledge floats around free, without any linkage to other important content. Annotations help you learn the knowledge important to the questions, but not how to use that knowledge in a broader context.

To achieve the level of understanding the USMLE demands, your knowledge must not be in atoms, but molecules. Facts must have context. Details must be associated with key ideas. Each individual piece must fit together to reveal the larger patterns. Questions annotations give you the pieces, but do not help you see how the pieces fit together into the frame of a larger puzzle.

To gain this larger perspective, after reading the annotated answer you must open you content study material to the topic featured in the questions and review the content in context once more. If you do not know the content, go back and look at it again. By going back to your basic study material, you will have the chance, not only to learn the specific points tested in the questions, but also related issues which will embed the question in your larger framework of knowledge.

Doing large numbers of questions will not teach you do to questions well. The trick is to learn to do questions well, before you do a lot of questions. If your technique for reading and answering questions is flawed, then doing a lot of questions will simply reinforce these bad habits. You will become highly skilled at bad question answering behavior.

Start doing practice questions slowly. Initially, work on having the right process, and don’t worry so much about whether you get the questions right or wrong. At the start, it is more important that you learn to do the questions the right way than if you select the right answer. When the proper questions answering technique has become a comfortable habit, then, and only then, should you ratchet up the number of questions that you do each day. Once you have the proper technique, practicing it more and more questions will make this good habit second nature. And when you questions habits are second nature, then your mind is free to focus on the content issues of the question.

Doing practice questions is essential and annotated answers are great. But, successful USMLE preparation requires more than these simple resources. Do not neglect the hard work of content study, and learn to do questions right before you do them in volume.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.