Lately, as I’ve been discussing test questions with people on the forums, I’ve realized that a lot of students aren’t using the forums to discuss those test questions in the optimal way. I’m defining the “optimal way” to mean the way in which students will learn in order to boost their scores the most. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that most people do have a goal of learning in the way that boosts their scores the most. : )
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach in terms of the best way to learn; different things work best for different people. But there are certain principles that are universal – and we can use those principles to devise a “best practice” method for using the forums to maximize our learning.
What DON’T we use forums to learn?
First, let’s talk about how we’re NOT going to use the forums. We don’t use the forums as a starting point to learn all about some particular topic or question type. We use our books (physical or electronic), classes, or tutors for that (or some combination of the above). First, we try to learn what we can, and then we test ourselves using practice questions. Those practice questions, again, don’t typically come from the forums. They come from books or online banks of questions provided either by the official test makers or by test prep companies.
Some students do use the forums to find practice questions; I actually think that’s a bad use of the forums. I have that opinion because of what I’ve witnessed over the past few years, as I’ve been discussing practice questions on various forums. First, if the source is not cited, it’s difficult to judge whether the question is valid – there are a lot of bad practice questions floating around out there. (To be accurate, it’s not terribly hard for me to judge; I’ve been teaching the GMAT for 15 years. But it’s very hard for my students to judge.) Second, even if the source is a valid one, whoever typed it in might have transcribed the question incorrectly. I’ve seen this happen too many times to count, and then students are going crazy trying to learn from a GMATPrep question, for example, only to find out that the right answer is B, not A, or that what was typed for right answer A wasn’t actually what the test itself said! Third, if you “troll” for practice questions on the forums, you may expose yourself to practice CAT questions before you take the CAT yourself. (I just spoke with a Beat The GMAT & ManhattanGMAT student yesterday who has been doing this. When he took his next MGMAT CAT, he saw questions that he’d seen already on the forums!)
Finally, I want to address the most common way in which I see people misuse the forums. They post a problem by itself, with minimal or no commentary or discussion of their own, and ask others to comment. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do! (For more on why, read the next section.)
How DO we best use the forums?
The forums are great for getting strategic advice from experts – validation on your study plan, a discussion of what to do about strengths and weaknesses, how to fix timing problems, and so on. I’m not going to discuss those kinds of uses in today’s article, though.
The other great use of the forums is to discuss problems that you’ve already done. Let’s say you just did ten Official Guide (OG) problems. You read the explanations, you understand the basics, but you want more. Maybe you don’t understand the right answer. Maybe you do understand it, but you want an easier way to do the problem. Maybe you want to know how to make an educated guess. Maybe you got the right answer and think you understand it, but you want to check your reasoning. Now, you go to the forums.
First, do a search to see whether that problem has already been posted before. If so, read the existing discussion. If not, post the problem yourself. (Note: if you post the problem yourself, PROOF the problem before you submit it. Make sure that every last word and punctuation mark is exactly correct!)
Next, post your own dissection of the problem. Write out what you thought when you first read it, how you did any work associated with the problem, what your reasoning was, what difficulties you had (if any), how you tried (or would try) to make an educated guess, and so on. Summarize whatever you were able to do or figure out, and formulate very explicit questions about anything you want to discuss. Try to push yourself to go as far as you can with the problem before you ask for help, and prove it to yourself by posting your analysis of and your very specific questions about the problem.
Ideally, an expert will respond and answer only the very explicit questions that you asked – and, even then, possibly they won’t answer fully. Ideally, an instructor would give you just enough information to “get over the hump” of whatever issue is giving you trouble, allowing you to continue forward and figure out the rest on your own.
Why is it so important for you to push yourself to do as much of the hard thinking as possible? Because your goal here is NOT to learn how to do this one particular problem in the way that the expert would choose to do it. You are not going to see this one particular problem on the test. The way some expert might choose to do it is not necessarily the best way for you to do it. And, of course, the instructor is not going to be sitting next to you while you take the test. : ) Your goal is to learn how to think about new GMAT problems, ones that you’ve never seen before, in the way that works best for you. Your goal is to Train Your Brain!
Why is it so important for you to explain your thinking for the things that you did understand? Because it’s important to validate your thinking. You eliminated A. You had a reason for eliminating A. You check the solution and A is, in fact, an incorrect answer. So you’re done with that one, right? Wrong! Did you actually use valid reasoning, something that you could reuse on another, similar question in the future? If you’re even the slightest bit unsure, then you’d better check your reasoning. (And there’s even a bonus effect: you’re not only helping yourself, you’re also helping your fellow students when you post a thorough dissection of a problem!)
Let’s try that again. You did the calculation and you came up with C as the answer. You check the solution and C is, in fact, the correct answer. Did you do the problem in a valid way? (Sometimes we get lucky!) If you’re not 100% positive, check with an instructor. Or, if you know you made a mistake with the calculation, but you don’t know why, don’t just ask someone else to show you how to do it. Show them what you did and ask where you went wrong. Then, try to correct the mistake yourself.
So, if you haven’t been doing what I describe above already (and most people aren’t, from what I see on the forums), make a new resolution today to start using the forums in the best way. Make a resolution to Train Your Brain. An old article, How To Analyze A Practice Problem, will tell you the kinds of things you should be analyzing when you review a problem; these are the kinds of things you might want to include when you post the problem.