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How do I improve my critical thinking skills?

Discussion in 'Pre-Medical - MD' started by ZaneKaiser, Sep 23, 2014.

  1. ZaneKaiser

    ZaneKaiser 2+ Year Member

    Feb 14, 2013
    How can I prepare myself for those types of questions on test that require you to approach a problem in a novel way? I feel as if I was born with the gift to memorize, I'm good at it. I aced all my biology classes, yet have a huge struggle with physics and organic chemistry.

    The way I approach these classes is to do every single practice problem I can get my hands on (which I feel is just me memorizing the steps to every varying problem), but if the professors puts a question on the test that isn't similar to something I've done before, I am completely lost. I try to understand the concepts really well, I go over them and test myself on them, but I still cannot get these questions correct.

    This has been a problem all my life, I have a friend who is insanely good at riddles and brain teasers, he can work them out very quickly. I approach those same riddles or brain teasers and I can't for the life of me be able to make heads or tails of it, no matter how much time I'm given. But I can remember every single detail of a topic or book and be able to recite it with ease.

    Is this just how my brain is wired? Was I born with the ability to be insanely good at memorization, at the expense of critical thinking and conceptual understanding?
    lamt1220 likes this.
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  3. NoDakDok

    NoDakDok 2+ Year Member

    Jan 20, 2014
    Intellect and recall are very separate entities, but you can use either one to make up for the other. First thing is to not get intimidated. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and in varying amounts. I know of people who just blatantly memorize every little bit of information they're given, and they go on to attend medical school and do very well. I am not that type of person, but each 'type' has their perks.

    The thing I would probably suggest is to memorize the concepts that are used to attack critical thinking types of problems, instead of memorizing the problems themselves. For example, in an Organic Chemistry question involving acid-base reactions. For someone that is a critical thinker, it may be better for them to focus on electron densities, affinities, and ignoring the 'specifics' of the question. But for you, it might be easier to think about what are the different types of acid-base reactions, their typical reactants, intermediate mechanisms, and ultimately their products. You can apply these to every acid-base reaction you come across, regardless of particular structure, and follow the concept map you've made from prior experience to guide you to the right conclusion.

    Not sure this helps, but you should always try to play to your strengths.
  4. ZaneKaiser

    ZaneKaiser 2+ Year Member

    Feb 14, 2013
    So there's really no way for me to rewire my brain to become more of a conceptual thinker? I guess I'll just have to memorize concepts in order to do better
  5. DermViser

    DermViser 5+ Year Member

    Apr 4, 2009
    This can be a problem in medical school bc you have to be able to do both. Rote memorization skills alone won't be enough (assuming you have a photographic memory with the amount of volume you'll be getting of information).
  6. Lucca

    Lucca Will Walk Rope for Sandwich Moderator Rocket Scientist 2+ Year Member

    Oct 22, 2013
    NoDak's advice is good and I'll suggest an alternative since I'm very much a conceptual, think-in-big-chunks kind of person most of the time.

    1. Take physics courses. Calculus based mechanics and e/m at the least and preferably Waves or Modern Physics. This is probably the hardest way to improve your conceptual thinking.

    2. Take math courses where you are required to prove things. Linear algebra, some calc classes, discrete mathematics, real analysis. There's no way you ccan prove something without fundamentally understanding how it works. 2nd hardest.

    3. Take a Formal Logic or Analytic Philosophy course. You will be required to carry out proofs but with far more abstract concepts and much hazier rules. 3rd hardest.

    4. Take a really good literature course that forces you to critically analyze text. I wouldn't recommend this because finding a good lit course at a non-lib arts university is a challenge - generally the honors sections are better about this. Any lit course with more than 50 ppl in it probably isn't worth the effort, imp.

    5. While you are working on problems try to figure out the fundamental question in each problem. For example, describing the overlapping bonds in OChem can be done entirely by memorizing what goes where and when depending on whether its a sigma or pi and given the number of regiona of electron density. However, consider instead how hybrid orbitals form and know that in an SP hybridized orbital only one of the p orbitals combines with the s orbital to form a hybrid orbital (and the s orbital also turns sp) and then that atom is free to make one sigma bond with the sp, one sigma with the other sp, and 2 pi bonds with the p.

    My point is that there are two ways of problem solving:

    1. You understand fully HOW something is.

    2. You understand fully how it could in fact be no other way than the way it is.

    I hope thats not confusing but if you can convince yourself of the latter every time you will be a better conceptual thinker. I tutor everyone I tutor in the latter way and everyone seems to get it after a while even if its a different way to think about things for them so I think everyone is capable.

    Edit: I should add that the way I practice this is just ask myself "why" after answering a question and then just keep asking why until every element of the problem is explained. If i dont know something, look it up. Good way to review gen chem/physics too. Teaching others also helps immensely.

    Edit 2: more edits for clarity.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2014
  7. Aerus

    Aerus Elemental Alchemist 5+ Year Member

    Apr 20, 2012
    hSDN Member
    hSDN Alumni
    You're the opposite of me. I love using critical thinking and am less enthusiastic about memorizing things. I use critical thinking in order to avoid memorizing details because I HATE it. If there is anyway to solve a problem critically without memorizing minutae, I would go for it in a heartbeat.

    Sometimes I do wish that I had an affinity for memorization. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

    Sent from The World Tree using SDN Mobile
    AspiringERMD likes this.
  8. type12

    type12 5+ Year Member

    Jun 12, 2012
    Awesome post, Lucca. I would say this is the hardest, but best way (and same goes for mathematics as second hardest and second best). When you can mathematically demonstrate the concept of a tachyon or a virtual particle, it's mind blown territory. I never did this, but a friend in Atlanta showed me how, and I understood it for such a brief, but amazing moment lol.
  9. ZaneKaiser

    ZaneKaiser 2+ Year Member

    Feb 14, 2013
    Okay, sorry for reviving this thread. But I am having a serious problem with critical thinking now. It seems my streak of A's in biology courses has come to an end. I received a C+ in my upper division molecular genetics class, and the reason is I couldn't memorize my way to an A.

    I studied and made sure I knew the slides inside and out, and memorized every detail of every slide. I ended up getting an 80 on the first midterm, a 52 on the second, and a 70 on the final.

    All his tests emphasized the application of what you learn and your analytical and logical problem solving skills. (i.e. Predict what you think would happen if "this" or that went wrong, explain your reasoning.)

    Memorizing got you no where. I tried very hard to understand the general concepts, but the logical and critical thinking tricks really tripped me up and I wasn't able to figure out how to answer the questions in the limited time we had during the tests.

    It really confirmed that I was a bad thinker, and I really need to find a way to improve it because all the upper division bio classes I'm going to be taking are not going to be memorization based, and will be application based.

    Would appreciate any help in this regard.
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2014
  10. AlteredScale

    AlteredScale Administrator Moderator 2+ Year Member

    May 10, 2013
    A beautiful cubicle space.
    One class does not put the "poor critical thinker" stamp on your forehead. Many professors test in a variety of ways and this one happened to be not your forte. That's OK. Best advice I can do is see if you can receive your tests back and go over what you got wrong and got right and analyze if there were certain applications that you commonly missed. When you can recognize those weaknesses then take not of them, you'll start to recognize those style of questions on future exams.

    Hope that helps!
  11. altblue

    altblue 2+ Year Member

    Feb 11, 2014
    Since you're aware of deficits in your thinking and why the test was difficult (for application reasons and not just reasons like "my professor is unfair"), you're probably not a bad thinker at all. :)

    Unfortunately, biology professors have a habit of testing for understanding of obscure material (for which a "general" understanding is not helpful) or comparing two concepts that don't initially seem related.

    I'd recommend rehearsing the material in front of others (I think there are guides for this), like classmates, to check for understanding and have time for questions too. Or, what i have found helpful, is relating diagrams to each other (if it were say a process or cycle) and connecting diagrams to conceptual text (like a definition or theory), which has often in my experience improved my understanding of the material. But I don't know your exact study habits or what works well for you. :)
  12. Shirafune

    Shirafune 2+ Year Member

    Jan 2, 2014
    For upper division bio courses, analyzing famous historical experiments as well as those in contemporary papers have been great help in becoming a critical thinker. Try to understand why the authors used each particular experiment. What were the controls and why were they used? Usually papers have multiple experiments that compound a single conclusion to be more convincing. What experiments aim to illustrate the same/similar conclusion? Then, how did the authors reach their conclusion? The evidence is in the data; you just need to be able find the relevant points. Going from experiment to the next, why have the authors laid out their paper this way? Why is experiment B the next logical step after experiment A?

    If you can answer all these sorts of questions, then I would say you are pretty golden as a critical thinker.
    altblue and AlteredScale like this.
  13. allojay

    allojay 2+ Year Member

    Nov 14, 2013
    East Coast
    In addition to what was put above, I think you can improve your critical thinking by working yourself through class material. For example, if you're reading about a topic, let's say bacteria. You would read all about it and it's morphology, how to identify it and so on. Then ask yourself, 'if I were going to test this, how would I ask questions about this?' Then think of the different ways you could ask questions about what you just read. One more thing to do is ask questions as you read. For example, why does a gram positive bacteria stain purple but gram negative stain red? Why are some bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics and others susceptible? By doing this, you're actively learning and improving your critical thinking skills. So when exam time comes, your mind is already in the right position to attack questions.
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