Scott Woodbury-Stewart

How to Learn More, Learn Faster, and Retain More Knowledge While Preparing for the GMAT

There is a lot to learn for the GMAT, in terms of both content and skills, and most people are preparing under a deadline. To compound matters, as time passes, it’s easy to forget some of what you’ve learned. In an ideal GMAT preparation scenario, you’d maximize your rate of learning and minimize your rate of information loss.

In this article, I’ll go over some simple yet effective strategies to help you learn more, learn faster, and forget less while preparing for the GMAT.

Let’s begin by discussing how active forms of learning are much better than passive forms of learning.

When Preparing for the GMAT, Your Goal is Active Learning

Some forms of learning, if not accompanied by other strategies, are quite passive. These include reading, reviewing PowerPoint slides and notes, and watching videos. How many times have you read a chapter only to realize that you couldn’t remember 80% of what you read? The same could be said for watching videos. How many GMAT videos have you dutifully watched on YouTube only to have little or no memory of the material they covered?

Reading or watching a video is not taxing on the mind or the brain. These activities can provide you with an illusory confidence that you are actually learning. So, because you may feel that you are mastering the material, whether you actually are or not, you may use reading and watching videos as your default forms of learning.

Unfortunately, reading and watching videos, without engaging in other forms of concurrent learning, are weak learning tactics for the vast majority of people. The reason that these are weak learning tactics is that they are passive forms of study. That is, your brain doesn’t have to work very hard to do either. When the brain doesn’t have to work very hard during learning, relatively little knowledge is gained and even less knowledge is retained. So, unfortunately, when we only read or watch a video, we learn far less than we have the potential to learn, and we’ll probably remember very little of what we have read or watched.

So are reading and watching videos poor methods of study? Not exactly. Reading a chapter and watching videos that relate to the material can be powerful mechanisms for learning if you become an active participant in your learning instead of a passive bystander letting the information wash over you.

In fact, on all learning fronts, the more active you can make your learning, the faster you’ll learn, the more you’ll learn, and the less you’ll forget. But, how exactly do you make your learning more active? There are a number of research-supported strategies.

Let’s start with the most basic of these strategies: accountability.

Hold Yourself Accountable While Studying (and After)

It’s very easy to read or hear something and tell yourself the false story that you’ll remember it. For example, how many times have you looked at your weekly schedule to find the time of a meeting that will occur the next day. Say you see that you wrote down 5 p.m. for the meeting time. If as soon as you close your calendar and go on to a new task you forget the time, you are a victim of passive reading; the meeting time seemed simple to remember, but you did nothing active to help yourself remember what you read.

So, instead of just looking at the meeting time, you could read it and then ask yourself what time the meeting is as you close your schedule. If you can recall that the meeting is at 5 p.m., then you can conclude that you understood what you read and you’ll remember the meeting time later on. As an added layer of protection, 30 seconds after you close your book, you could ask yourself again, “What time is the meeting?” By again recalling, “The meeting is at 5 p.m.,” you maximize the chances that you’ll remember the meeting time. You must take as active an approach as possible to your learning; you cannot be a passive participant.

You can apply this technique to your GMAT prep. When you read something, don’t let the information simply wash over you. Remember that just reading some material will result in a very poor knowledge retention rate. Instead, check in with yourself regularly to ensure that you’re understanding and retaining what you’re reading. Imagine that you have just read the definition of the least common multiple for the first time. Before you continue reading, take a mental step back and ask yourself to recite the definition from memory. Then, some time later, recite the definition again. Such a strategy will keep you honest and help ensure you’re actually learning and not just reading.

Now let’s discuss the importance of taking notes.

Taking Notes Can Improve Your GMAT Study

When you read or watch videos, take notes on the important information presented. Taking notes will allow you to become a more active participant in your learning because the simple action of writing down a concept or principle, which requires that you state it in your own words, will make you think more about the meaning of that concept. The more you have to think about what you are learning, the better your learning will be.

For example, let’s say you are learning about the difference of squares: x2 – y2 = (x + y)(x – y). Don’t just read about the difference of squares and be done with it. Reading math formulas or concepts is much too passive for most students. Instead, engage your brain by taking meaningful notes. Write down the difference of squares formula. Color-code your notes by writing the formula in red. Show an example in blue and note any special cautions or issues in green, for example. Make the notes your own.

In addition to helping you learn more, taking notes will give you something to review at a later date, creating the opportunity for repetition of learning, which is another important strategy that we’ll discuss shortly.

Say, for example, that you have just completed the chapter in which you learned about the difference of squares. You have correctly answered a number of quadratic equation questions, but you missed this one:

What is the value of (5552 – 552)/500 = ?

Let’s say you answered this question incorrectly because you did not recognize that a difference of squares is a key component of the question. Add this problem to your notes, in green, as a “case study,” highlighting this particular application of the difference of squares formula.

In short, note-taking makes you a more active learner, allows you to capture key points and examples, and customizes your learning, thus making the material easier to retain over a longer period of time.

Just remember that if you only read, engaging in no other forms of concurrent study, you probably won’t retain too much. To retain a larger amount of material, you want to create memories that stick. Taking notes is one way to make memories stick.

Visualization Can Improve the Way You Study for the GMAT

We’ve already discussed the value of active learning. Another way to be more engaged is to visualize what you’re learning. In other words, when you are learning new material, seek to create images in your brain. For example, if you just learned that rate = distance / time, instead of merely reading that formula, try to create a photograph of it in your brain. Creating an image — a snapshot — will engage more of your brain, helping you better retain what you learn. Visualization turns what would otherwise be passive reading into a more active form of learning. Remember that anything you can do to make your studying more active will help you learn more and forget less over time.

Another method of effective learning is to use flash cards strategically.

Making and Strategically Using Flash Cards Can Make Your GMAT Preparation More Effective

After you’ve taken notes, consider using your notes to create a set of flash cards. Making flash cards will provide you with another opportunity to think about the material and again put the information in your own words, reinforcing what you’ve learned.

In addition, flash cards will allow you to consistently and quickly review a concept and better retain the information. Flash cards are recommended because you can use them just about anywhere. If you have ten minutes on the subway, run through your flash cards. If you’re on a flight and you don’t have Internet access, quiz yourself using your flash cards. Some students prefer “old-fashioned” paper flash cards, while others prefer the digital version. Whichever format you choose, just be sure to flip through your flash cards often. To challenge yourself even more, shuffle the deck before each use. By reordering the cards each time you review them, you will make the material unpredictable. Your brain will have to work a bit harder, and your retention will increase.

As you dive deeper into your prep, the number of flash cards you’re using will likely grow. So, to help yourself review efficiently, separate your flash cards into piles: one pile for concepts that you have mastered and another pile for concepts you have not mastered. Clearly, you would want to flip through the “not mastered” pile more frequently than the “mastered” pile.

Go Beyond Memorizing to Understanding Underlying Concepts to Improve Your GMAT Study

Concepts such as the relationship between the length of a side of an equilateral triangle and the triangle’s height, the slots method for answering a combinations question, and parallelism in correlative constructions can be somewhat tricky to remember, and preparing for the GMAT can involve learning many such concepts. How do you remember them and keep them all straight? Yes, an approach may seem clear the week you learn about it, but what about a month later?

One answer is to go beyond memorizing concepts, formulas, and strategies, to seeking to fully understand what underlies them. For instance, if you understand that the height of an equilateral triangle is also the long leg of a 30-60-90 triangle, and that’s why the height of an equilateral triangle is always √3/2 times the length of a side of the equilateral triangle, you will remember the relationship much more easily than you would were you to simply memorize it. When you understand what underlies concepts, the concepts become almost unforgettable.

In fact, if you forgot something, such as the formula for the height of an equilateral triangle, but understood how to derive it, you could simply derive it yourself rather than looking up the formula. After a while, derivation and recitation would become practically one and the same; if you were not quite sure of some detail of a formula or approach, within seconds you could confirm what is correct.

Generally speaking, the more deeply you understand something, the more its details will be clear in your mind and the more your memory of it will be self-supporting. So, as much as is practical, seek to understand what underlies any GMAT-related idea that you want to remember.

Reflecting on What You’ve Learned Can Improve Your GMAT Study

Research shows that reflecting on what you’ve learned can help strengthen your learning. For example, after you’ve read about a GMAT topic and watched some videos on that topic, take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned. This process doesn’t have to be a formal one. You could reflect while walking, while on the subway, while taking a break from work. Try to revisit, in your mind, what you learned. What was the essence of what you learned? Why was it important? What connections can you make to other concepts that you’ve learned?

Taking some time to reflect on what you’ve learned. This reflection can help strengthen your GMAT-specific learning.

Let’s now discuss the importance of repetition in learning.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition To Improve Your GMAT Preparation

Humans learn through exposure and repetition, so the more time you spend with a GMAT topic and the more often you study it, the better versed in that topic you’ll become and the better you’ll remember it. Therefore, as you prepare, it’s important to regularly re-expose yourself to previously learned GMAT material.

For example, if you learn about number properties on day one of your prep, it would not be wise to wait until day 60 to again review number properties. Instead, spend some time reviewing number properties on day three, day eight, and so on. When you expose yourself to a topic over and over, you’re basically telling your brain, “Hey, this stuff is important!” You reactivate neural pathways to that part of the brain where the information is stored (and weaken competing pathways), making the information more easily accessible. That neural reactivation is a key to retaining previously learned material and keeping it fresh.

Keep this fact in mind: your brain is not designed to remember everything. In fact, it’s not designed to remember most things. Can you imagine how overwhelming it would be to remember everything you saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt each day? Furthermore, can you imagine how much energy it would require to remember all those details? So, by design, your brain remembers only the important stuff. But you must teach it what is important, and one way to do that is to study a topic multiple times, over multiple sittings, thereby making that topic memorable.

There is an important hack that you can use to make your learning even stronger through repetition. This hack is referred to as spaced-repetition.

Using Spaced-Repetition to Accelerate Your GMAT Study

It turns out that we learn more effectively when we give our brains a little time to forget what we just learned and then review and/or recall the material at a point in the near future. This process is referred to as “spaced-repetition,” and it has been shown to improve learning considerably.

Let’s use the topic of units digit patterns as an example. Study units digit patterns for a preset time, say, one hour. Then, after the hour, move on to a new topic, for example, subject verb agreement. Continue to move through a few dissimilar GMAT topics during that study session. Over the course of a day or so, you’ll start to forget some things that you learned about units digit patterns. Now is the perfect time to restudy that topic. Sit down for a study session and work again on units digit patterns. You’ll find that you more quickly and easily attain the same level of competence that you attained in your earlier session. In fact, you’ll probably get some new insights that you didn’t get in your previous session, as you add to your knowledge base. You can continue to use spaced-repetition throughout the course of your preparation. You could study units digit patterns five, six, or even seven different times, utilizing the process of spaced-repetition to enhance your learning.

Alternate Working on Quant, Verbal, and IR to Improve Your GMAT Preparation

You know that spaced-repetition is helpful for memory and retention. Research shows that it’s also helpful to alternate between studying dissimilar topics and/or concepts.

So, you could alternate among a few different math topics, or, if you wanted to mix things up further, you could alternate between studying quant, verbal, and IR. For example, do an hour of quant and then take a break. Then do an hour of verbal and take a break. Then do 15 minutes of IR. Or, you may find that you better retain information if you do 30 minutes of quant, take a break, and then do 30 minutes of verbal, followed by IR practice. Over time, you’ll get to know what time intervals suit you best. The key is to avoid study fatigue; keep your brain fresh, and you’ll be at max efficiency.

Solve a Wide-Range of Realistic Practice Problems to Improve Your GMAT Preparation

After you’ve read, watched some videos, taken good notes, quizzed yourself on the concepts with flash cards, and used spaced-repetition to enhance your learning, it’s critical to put your new knowledge to use. In putting your knowledge to use, your goal is to develop skill in correctly answering questions. The way to build this skill is to practice with a wide range of realistic GMAT practice questions. To answer practice questions, you must call upon what you know, and there is a strong relationship between the act of retrieving knowledge and the ability to recall that information at a later date.

The more variation of a topic you see and practice with, the more you’ll retain and the better prepared you’ll be to handle questions based on that topic in the future. For example, you might be able to easily use the slope-intercept form of a line, y = mx + b, to answer any question involving slopes or y-intercepts, but if you have not also practiced with questions that use the (equivalent) formula for the standard form of a line, Ax + By + C = 0, you might find yourself tripped up by a simple question about lines. Additionally, you will want to practice other question types that deal with lines: parallel lines, lines that intersect, word problems using linear equations, linear growth problems, and so forth. You see that a single topic can have a breadth that goes beyond the basics, and you need skill in answering a wide variety of questions dealing with the topic. This practice reaps an additional benefit: Not only do you significantly widen your scope and knowledge about a particular topic, but also you see the many ways in which a GMAT question might involve that topic.

Keep in mind, too, that when you practice answering GMAT questions, failure is the rule, not the exception. You will get questions wrong; there is no way around this fact. However, through getting questions wrong, you can learn from your mistakes, thereby enhancing your knowledge and skill. Each time you practice, you should feel a little bit better about the material. When you practice, instead of practicing until you get questions right, practice until you can’t get questions wrong.

After you’ve spent some time preparing, you’ll want to regularly practice with questions involving past topics.

Regularly Answer Questions Involving Past Topics To Improve Your GMAT Preparation

Most of the problem-solving skills you learn while preparing for the GMAT are perishable. In other words, if you don’t regularly use those skills, you’ll lose them. Thus, it’s a good idea to regularly answer questions involving previously studied topics. Let’s say in the first month of your prep you learned about linear and quadratic equations, number properties, exponents and roots, and inequalities and absolute values. You’ve dutifully reviewed your flash cards, but you also need to periodically use that flash card information to solve GMAT-type questions. Therefore, on a regular basis, you will want to answer and review questions based on those topics so that you can determine whether you have forgotten any vital information or developed any weaknesses in those topics.

Each student has a different capacity for information retention and you will want to assess yours. A wise move would be to spend about one third of each preparation session reviewing prior material by solving problems from past topics. Also, I think that you’ll find that the more exposure you have to practice problems, the better you’ll become at solving them. Proper practice will help you improve both your accuracy and your speed.

Quiz and Test Yourself Regularly To Improve Your GMAT Preparation

You’ve been actively reading, watching videos, taking notes, making and reviewing flashcards, and practicing with realistic GMAT questions. All of these activities will help improve your knowledge retention, and most students know about the value of these activities. But there is a secret weapon that you can use in the fight against knowledge loss: regularly quizzing and testing yourself.

As you now know, the act of retrieving information (when solving practice GMAT questions, for example) helps to strengthen learning. By raising the stakes during your practice, you can further strengthen what you know. You can raise the stakes by sitting down to take quizzes and tests, which tend to evoke greater stress than problem sets do.

For example, to simulate the quant section of the GMAT, once a week you could sit down and take a 37-question GMAT quant quiz under realistic conditions. Or you could take a 41-question GMAT verbal quiz. Because either of these quizzes would be more like test day than just answering sets of questions is, your brain would have the opportunity to further strengthen what it has learned and you will get valuable practice recalling information under stress, which is a skill all its own.

Eventually, of course, you should sit for full-length practice GMAT tests, which are as close to the real GMAT as you can get.

Regular testing and quizzing are powerful ways to strengthen your GMAT skills.

Do One-Minute GMAT Exercises at Every Opportunity

Think of all the minutes each day that you waste or spend engaging in mindless activity such as waiting in line at the grocery store, filling your car with gas, walking the dog, waiting for the server to bring your lunch, or brushing your teeth. Make a habit of quizzing yourself during these moments. You don’t necessarily have to bring out the flash cards; just mentally review some items that require quick recall, such as the quadratic formula, the 7 FANBOYS conjunctions, or the volume of a right circular cylinder. A friend of mine memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) during waiting time over a period of two weeks. Don’t underestimate the power of these free moments, which produce opportunities for strengthening your knowledge and aiding in your overall retention of pesky formulas and important details.

Form Connections Between New and Old GMAT Material

Another great way to retain information is to connect it to what you already know. Let’s say you learned about patterns in units digits a week ago and today you’re learning about patterns in remainders. It would be very helpful to pause for a moment or two and reflect on the similarities in the way we solve both types of problems. Making such a connection between GMAT topics will help both topics stick better in your mind.

Use Mnemonics

A mnemonic is a memory device that utilizes a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations to help you remember information. For example, when I taught physics, my students often had a hard time remembering the colors of visible light in the proper order (by wavelength). So, I introduced them to my good friend “ROY G BIV.”

ROY G BIV is not an actual person. It’s a mnemonic to help one remember the wavelength-ordered colors of visible light: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. ROY G BIV helps make the order of these colors easy to recall.

You can use similar mnemonics for the GMAT. For many years, students have been taught the basic order of mathematical operations as “PEMDAS,” which stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. The good news about mnemonics is that no one has to understand them but you. In high school, I could not remember how to solve “catch up and pass” rate questions. I came up with my own mnemonic, “DDDDR,” which stands for Delta Distance Divided by Delta Rate. Take a look at this GMAT rate problem and you’ll see exactly why I used (and still use) that mnemonic to help me remember how to solve such questions.

You can create your own mnemonics to help you better remember the rules and concepts you learn.

Be Cool, Calm, and Collected When Preparing for the GMAT

One of the most valuable skills that a person can master is managing his or her emotions. Stress and anxiety are not what you want to feel while preparing for the GMAT, because it’s very difficult to learn and to retain information when you’re feeling stressed or negative. Enjoy your learning! Approach it with positivity. Don’t get upset if you’re not mastering the GMAT material as quickly as you’d like. Getting upset is only going to further reduce the rate at which you learn and the amount of material you retain. Be as Zen as possible and remember that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning. Each mistake that you make is one small opportunity to improve your knowledge and skills. For instance, when you make a mistake, be sure to determine why. Was it a timing issue? A concept issue? A careless error? Whatever the reason, learn from your mistakes so that you do not repeat them in answering future questions. Put yourself in a positive state of mind while preparing for the GMAT and use whatever relaxation techniques you can to keep yourself there.

Get Some Exercise While Preparing for the GMAT

Research shows that people who engage in physical exercise have better information retention than those who do not. When you’re busy with school or work on top of GMAT preparation, it’s easy to let exercise take a back seat, but resisting that urge will actually help you perform better in your studies. Exercise is also a great way to blow off steam and reduce stress, which is important for remaining motivated and focused throughout your GMAT study. Do your best to keep your brain and your body in top shape. Your memory will thank you for it.

Get Enough Sleep While Preparing for the GMAT

Proper amounts of sleep are critical for brain health and memory. Look to get six to eight hours of sleep each night. Resist the urge to burn the midnight oil. Instead, structure your day so that you can prepare and still get a reasonable amount of sleep.

Don’t Study for the GMAT When You’re Tired

Many people work or go to school full-time while preparing for the GMAT. With a busy schedule, it’s easy to wait until late in the evening to work on GMAT prep. However, it’s tough to learn and retain information when your brain is tired. Try to get some studying done early each morning, when your brain is fresh. Go to bed early on weeknights and wake up early on weekday mornings. Get some coffee or water and spend two hours studying. One great benefit of studying before you start the rest of your day is that your brain and body will be well-rested and ready to absorb new information. There is also something satisfying about beginning the day by doing something for yourself, something that will help you grow and that will have a positive impact on your future. By the time you get to work or school, you’ll have already put in a good amount of preparation time — what a great feeling you’ll have at the start your day!

Form a GMAT Study Group

Research shows that peer learning is powerful. Chances are, there are many people near you who are also preparing for the GMAT. Consider forming a study group. Meet for coffee one day a week and work together. Solve GMAT problems, discuss GMAT-related concepts, and quiz each other. You’ll probably find that you remember much more at the end of the session than you would had you worked on your own. You can also meet online using platforms such as Skype, WebEx, or Google Hangouts, to name a few.

Teach Others What You Know About the GMAT

Research suggests that one of the best ways to learn and retain information is to teach it to others. Find some students who are less skilled than you are and teach them what you know. Teach a family member, or even a pet! Once you’re forced to verbalize a concept, you may find some holes in your learning that need to be filled.

Final Thoughts About How to Learn Better While Preparing for the GMAT

Part of the difficulty of the GMAT is that there is a huge pool of topics on which the questions are based, and you must be well versed in as many of those topics as possible on test day. Learning concepts and developing skills are only part of the battle. During the test, you must be able to both accurately and quickly draw on your memory to answer questions. Upon seeing a question, you won’t have the luxury of thinking, “Hey, I remember studying that about three months ago. Hmmm…what is that fact I learned back then about the height of an equilateral triangle?” Meanwhile, the exam clock is ticking away. Don’t put yourself in the position of having a time-consuming conversation in your head instead of answering the question.

By following the suggestions in this article, you will have learned the material and, just as importantly, you will have retained that learning to put it to use on exam day, when both knowledge and quick recall count the most.

If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me directly and I’ll be happy to help!

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