Blog: Writing Tests vs. Mastery

Last week, I did something pretty awesome.  I scored 100% on my second comprehensive test for the biology course I’m taking.  Comprehensive Test 2 covered the five chapters on the nervous system, the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, special senses, and blood.  Thus far, each of the tests I’ve written follow a predictable pattern, where the first half of the test is some version of true-false, fill in the blank, multiple choice, and matching questions, then the second half of the test is split usually between short answer and labeling a diagram.  Understanding this format allows me to structure my studying to answer these questions.  I know that the bulk of the points will be found in the diagram and short answer, so if I can memorize the structural components (from my diagramming study cards) and their functions (from my development of mental schemas), I can usually work out the rest through context, associations, etc.  With this approach, I don’t have to memorize every tiny bit of information because I can make educated guesses based on available information.  This is the same approach that is coached when you are preparing for intensive exams, like SATs and GREs.  You don’t need to know everything; you just need to know enough to eliminate the impossible and approximate the answer enough to make a choice.

On one level, this has yielded huge dividends for me in studying.  Thus far, I’ve completed two-thirds of the tests, and in 13 tests, I’ve only scored below 90 on three tests (86, 87, and 89).  Everything else has been 90% and above.  It’s a lot like the pareto 80/20 rule – I focus on the smallest batch of material that creates the greatest value.  It’s efficient – I don’t need hours upon hours of work invested into the project.

Yet, I have a huge nagging problem with this approach.  If I’m being honest, the conclusion I wrestle with is that while I’m doing great in this biology course, the only thing I can be sure of is that I’m really good at writing tests.  But, does that mean I’m gaining any level of mastery over my material?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of mastery and apprenticeship.  I intent to read Mastery by Robert Greene over the summer, and I’ve read So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work by Cal Newport, all of which tackle the concept of learning and mastery of material.  I value going beyond superficial understanding and reaching towards mastery.  In paramedicine, I see this as the bridge that allows you to adapt in the field beyond doing first aid.  You connect ideas and have a deeper understanding of the situation.  You are more adept at observation and can digest more details and facts; you can make better diagnoses because you can acquire and process more information.  At least, this is what I believe at this point.  I could be horribly off the mark.

If my goal is to be House but in an ambulance, then I feel like being good at writing tests gives me a false sense of accomplishments.  It’s too early to determine if I’m “getting it,” but it’s something I need to be mindful of.  One problem with my undergraduate and graduate experience is that I lack the discipline to do truly deep thinking and work.  I am very clever, and have thus far skated by on having a good memory for facts and connecting ideas.  But I also feel like a bit of a fraud, or more charitably, a dilettante.  Being clever won’t be enough to help save lives.  To do that, I’ll need something more than wit.

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