Reducing MCAT Passages to their Key Ideas - Interview w/ Don Osborne of INQUARTA

Don: Well hello and welcome again to the MCAT Club. This is a special bonus call for all you guys who are thinking about and struggling with the MCAT, especially in regard to MCAT Verbal. My name is Don Osbourne and I am the host of the MCAT Club. In case you haven’t heard about it before, the MCAT Club is the place to go for up-to-date information about studying for the MCAT, MCAT prep, and I even answer your MCAT questions live here on the call. Today, I’m very excited to be inviting back my special guest, Leonardo Radomile of the Cambridge Learning Center. Hi Leo, how are you?

Leonardo: Good to be with you Don.

Don: Thanks very much for taking the time. I know we’re probably going to do a 3-part video series today, so this is part 1 of a 3-part video sequence that you’ve been nice enough to let me record with you for MCAT Club members so I really want to acknowledge you and thank you very much for doing that. I really appreciate it.

Leonardo: Happy to do it.

Don: So today what I want to start with is, can you just give me like a 30-second breakdown of exactly what is the Cambridge Learning Center.

Leonardo: Sure. The Cambridge Learning Center started as a field education project and research project at Harvard. We then spun-off as an independent foundation, although we do keep very close relationships with the university. And our primary focus in increasing verbal skills and reducing test anxiety. And we do a lot of work in languages and literature, cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Don: Oh ok. Huh, that’s very, very cool. Okay, so let’s get right into it and specifically talk about verbal reasoning and critical thinking. As you know, we’re either in the revised MCAT or just about to be into the revised MCAT, and so I can see it, and I’m sure you do as well, that these kind of tools are only going to become more and more important as the MCAT continues to evolve.

Leonardo: That’s right.

Don: So let’s start a little bit with perhaps rhetoric. What do you say about the importance of understanding the process of rhetoric relative to a standardized test like the MCAT?

Leonardo: Sure. Well in any critical reading test you’re going to have a number of components that you really have to master; rhetoric being among them. There’s grammar, rhetoric, reflective intelligence, questions and answers. And what we know about cognitive psychology can improve performance.

Don: Okay.

Leonardo: Rhetoric is the ability to really pick out what the argument is in an essay, to know what the main point is the author is going to make. You know, what’s the big idea that holds everything together. Once you know that, you’ve got a key to understanding the entire essay. Having mastered that in the thesis or first paragraph, rhetoric then allows you to pick out the key sentences, where the key ideas are because you may have a text of 750 to 1,000 words but there’s only really between 12 to 15 key ideas. And that’s where 80% of the questions come from. So, knowing the argument and then identifying the key sentences is really the key to knowing what the argument is so you can really figure out what the questions and answers are asking for.

Don: Okay, so if I’m a science-oriented applicant, and maybe I’m a Biology or Chemistry major, I really haven’t had to filter too much and, you know, rank - you know in the table of elements there’s not really one more important element than another; you know no element has like a tone of voice; there’s no style differences. So can you give me a little bit of a hint about maybe what you mean about understanding these elements that you’re talking about relative to rhetoric.

Leonardo: Sure. The interesting thing about it is, it’s a whole different domain of learning. When students study science, they’re focused on details and formulas. With regard to critical reading, it’s a very, very different type of reasoning. It involves seeing the relationship between key ideas, how those things relate to each other and what they suggest, what they imply, and what you can infer. Rather than focusing on details, it’s getting those key ideas and reducing them to the essentials. And that’s where grammar comes in. Once rhetoric allows you to see what the key sentences are, grammar allows you to take a very long sentence, something as long as 60 or 70 words, and reduce it down to a five word concept so that you have real clarity. And that allows you to get a huge essay down to about 75 words of key ideas, which is really the key to understanding.

Don: Awesome. So, I’m putting you on the spot here but could you give me an example sentence that could be distilled down to something simple?

Leonardo: Sure. “In the nineteenth century, the Congress of Vienna formed in order to make Europe a safer place.” Okay, so, I mean it’s a pretty long sentence. “Congress of Vienna formed to make Europe safer.” That’s it.

Don: So you’re just, you’re pulling apart the pieces of the sentence literally in order to get to, what I learned, which is: the subject, just a very simple subject; the verb; and then the object or the action.

Leonardo: Exactly. So, subject, verb, complement and then you’ve got a whole bunch of modifiers.

Don: Right. (laughs)

Leonardo: And there are rules for figuring out which ones are relevant. The only ones that you include are modifiers that limit or show cause and effect or what we have, what we call, a rhetorical cue in them. And that’s it. And it really allows you to simplify sentences.

Don: Awesome, okay I got it. How does this relate to reflective intelligence.

Leonardo: Ah, that’s the key. Remember, the first thing that you’re going to do is identify the key sentences, then reduce them. Now reflective intelligence, which is the most important part, focuses on what is the relationship of ideas, how do they come together, how is the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Now this is - I can’t overemphasize how important it is because one of the main reasons that medical schools weigh the MCAT Verbal higher than the other sections is this is precisely the type of reasoning that a physician uses in differential diagnosis. So what they’re really testing is, not so much your ability to read but your ability to understand the relationships and make diagnoses. Because none of your patients, very few of your patients, are going to come to you with textbook symptoms. They’re going to have symptoms, conter indications, and it’s like watching a segment of House on TV. You know they put up all those things on the blackboard and they keep on looking: well what’s the relationship, what are the underlying principles - that’s the art of medicine as opposed to the science of medicine and that’s what they’re really testing. I mean even now there are MD medical schools in Canada that are only looking at the MCAT Verbal for admissions. McMaster and a couple of others are doing that and it looks like they may even start doing that in the United States.

Don: Wow, okay got it. So I want to talk some more about this, perhaps in another video. Can we come back and perhaps talk some more about neuroscience and cognitive psychology in another video?

Leonardo: Sure.

Don: I’d really be grateful about that and, you know, I know my audience is going to be interested in learning more about this so I think, don’t you have a way for people to get into a free class where they can learn more about you?

Leonardo: Ya, we usually offer a free class; it’s usually on Tuesday evenings, for an hour where we really go into depth on everything that they need to know. So if they decide they need to study on their own, they’ll have something that’ll really help them.

Don: Okay, so I’ll put the link to that in the description below and I’ll also try to put it here in the video itself so people can get access to that.

Leonardo: That’s great.

Don: Leo, thanks very much for the time, I really appreciate it and I look forward to talking to you in the next video.

Leonardo: It’s my pleasure Don. And it’s always good talking to you.