While studying from the privately-produced MCAT study guides that I bought, I’ve noticed some differences between the way material is presented in the study guides as opposed to most academic material that I’ve consumed over the years.
I suppose that the Kaplan study guides are the product of different sorts of pressures than the textbooks and course notes produced by academia, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Academia is designed to produce freedom of thought and allow discourse at the highest level. It is supposed to be a no-holds-barred intellectual brawl. That’s why universities have the institution of tenure. It’s so that professors can pursue their research along whatever lines it takes them, without worrying that they’ll lose their job if they discover something that their employer doesn’t like. (This is a massive idealization and simplification of course.)
The Kaplan study guides, on the other hand, were designed for one purpose: to make profit for Kaplan’s shareholders. The Kaplan company thinks it can make money by producing MCAT prep materials and services and selling them. The pressure for the Kaplan guides to be good is so that they don’t get sued for publishing misleading MCAT guides, and so that they have customers with good experiences, who will recommend Kaplan study guides and prep courses to others.
Both academia and the commercial preparatory systems are set up such that they (generally) produce good curriculum, but I’ve noticed some differences between the two, which I think demonstrate some characteristic features of each one.
For example, the Kaplan study guides are written with mnemonics in the margins, silly analogies that are intentionally carried too far so as to be memorable, and the guide’s text is written with humour.
Academics are often guilty of making the material difficult to learn, or at the least, there isn’t nearly the same emphasis on trying to help the student pass the test.
The Kaplan guides are written engagingly, even soothingly. They are specifically trying not to scare you with the amount of material you need to know.
I had a physiology prof who stood at the front of the lecture theatre, held up the course package on the first day of the course, and actually did try to scare us with the sheer size of the volume.
I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that the Kaplan guides are entertaining, but they are certainly better to read than that physiology course package was.
The Kaplan guides have each of the articles rated out of six stars. The higher the number of stars, the more frequently it is examined on the MCAT, and the easier it is to learn. So a one-star concept would be one that is tested very infrequently, and that is difficult to master. This is to help students focus on the pieces of information that will best help them score well on the exam.
I have had courses (and textbooks) where the most insignificant detail is dwelt upon ad nauseum, because it is the professor’s favourite subject. This sort of thinking is encouraged in the academic world, since new developments in science and philosophy often come about because of attention to the details of seemingly insignificant problems.
Such ways of thinking do not help students pass exams, though, so the Kaplan guides are very focussed.
In some ways, academia could learn something from the focus that the corporate world brings to their prep materials. I mean, really, who in their right mind (except an academic philosopher) would recommend studying the works of Immanuel Kant in an attempt to learn the discipline of rigourous thought?