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When was the last time you read a solution to a problem, thought to yourself, “Yep, that makes total sense,” set it aside…and then realized a week (or 3 days!) later that you had no idea what you’d read or that you couldn’t replicate that solution yourself?
I’d guess most of us have had that happen within the past week. 😁 (Maybe I should give that a frustrated-face instead of a smiley!) What’s going on? How come I understand it when I read it but I can’t later remember / recall / reuse what I (thought I) understood? And, more important, how do I get to the point where I can remember / recall / reuse that information?
That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today.
Why do I forget half of what I’m studying?
It’s easy to read something and feel that you understand it, but there are two caveats:
(1) You may not really understand all of the nuances, or
(2) You may really understand but not be encoding the information into your brain in such a way that you can recall it again later.
These two things both come from the same source: You didn’t figure this out for yourself. It’s much harder to understand, remember, and be able to recall something when you’re just passively listening to or reading that information. When you’re actively involved in figuring stuff out, you’re embedding the memories much more solidly into your brain.
But do you see the contradiction here when you’re working on problems? If you already knew how to figure it out for yourself… then you wouldn’t have needed to look at the solution in the first place. ☹
So what do I do?
You’re going to turn solutions into your own private tutor.
A good tutor doesn’t just tell you what to do. A good tutor figures out how to give you exactly the hint you need exactly when you need it—enough to get you “unstuck” but not so much as to give away anything that you really can figure out for yourself.
You’re going to use the solutions as your own private tutor: a series of hints to help you figure out everything you can on that problem. Also, you’ve probably already noticed that the official solution is always perfectly correct, but not necessarily all that… approachable. So you’re going to crowdsource solutions to official GMAT problems. You can Google the thing, you can look it up on various study forums, and you can use test prep company solutions (for example, Manhattan Prep’s GMAT Navigator platform, which provides written or video solutions for Official Guide problems).
Before we dive into how to use those resources to learn from these official GMAT problems, I want to talk about one other thing: doing the problems in the first place. (After all, you have to do them before you can learn from them!)
There are a few principles to follow when doing problem sets:
(1) Do a block of questions, not just one at a time.
(2) Mix them up! The real test mixes everything up, too.
(3) Time yourself.
(4) Make decisions as though it’s the real test.
(a) Don’t pause your timer or allow yourself to spend way longer than you’d want to on the real test because you’re “just studying.” Make the decision you would want to make on the real test. If needed, guess and move on.
(b) You do have to pick a specific answer in order to move to your next question—as on the real test. Don’t let yourself skip this step because you’re “just studying.”
Follow this link for more on creating problem sets.
Okay, I’m ready. How do I make the solutions give me “hints”?
When you finish the problem set, first look back over the official GMAT problems. Were there any that drove you crazy because you felt like you should know how to do them, but you couldn’t quite remember?
Right now, before you look at the solution (or even the correct answer!), feel free to try any problem again, untimed, and to look up anything you like in your study resources. It’s like an open-book test! If you had an idea but it didn’t quite work out, see whether you can figure out why.
When you get stuck and need a more directed hint, look up the correct answer. Don’t do any more than that! Now, look back at the problem again. Does knowing the correct answer give you any ideas? If so, again, take whatever time you need to explore that idea and look up anything you like in your study materials. (If the correct answer doesn’t give you any ideas, that’s okay—it doesn’t always work.)
Got stuck again? Start to review the solution—but STOP the moment you find yourself thinking “Oh, there’s a good idea that I hadn’t thought of!” Use that idea to push yourself as far as you can (again untimed and again open-book). When you get stuck again, pick up where you left off in the solution, but stop again whenever you see something that gives you an idea. (We call that moment an “aha!” moment, by the way. Something suddenly clicks in your brain: Aha!)
I’ve gone back to a single solution 4 or 5 times before I reach the end. This takes a lot longer than just reading / watching the solution—but, by the time I reach the end, I’ve taken the necessary action to really understand what I’m doing and I’ve created the necessary memories to be able to recall the material later on. That’s the entire point of studying, so the extra time is well spent!
What if the solution gives me no ideas?
This definitely happens—and it’s a really good clue of a different kind. We’re going to discuss this in the second half of this series. For now, try the above. Set aside any solutions that aren’t “clicking” and join us next time to learn what to do about those.
Good luck and happy studying! 📝
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Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.