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Kaplan QBank for Step 1? 4 Criteria to Help You Decide 

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by Dr. Mera in Reviews

 

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QBanks are a great resource to help you prepare for the USMLE Step 1. Keep reading to know if the Kaplan QBank is worth your time.

To do well on anything, you have to practice it. For USMLE questions, the practice involves question banks. Simple, right? Except that you browse the internet and find many you can choose from Kaplan QBank, UWorld, USMLERx, Medbullets, AMBOSS, and so on.

Don’t stress! We’re the crash test dummies of question banks. We go through the most popular QBanks in detail so you don’t have to. We prefer you invest your time and money in learning rather than trying to decide on which QBank to use.

For this review, we will assess and rank the Kaplan QBank based on four criteria:

  • Depth – how well can you gain mastery
  • Breadth – how well does it cover the range of topics on the USMLEs
  • Retention – how well the resource helps you remember the material, and
  • Application – how well you can learn how to use the information in a clinical setting (e.g., not regurgitate facts)

Summary:

  • Kaplan QBank is very similar to other QBanks for Step 1 prep.
  • It’s great for learning the material for the first time, and it covers most topics in-depth.
  • All QBanks benefit from the “testing effect,” but they are weak on retention unless you combine them with active learning methods like Anki.
  • It’s weak, relative to UWorld, in its ability to help you apply the information.
  • Its questions tend to be longer and “noisier” than other QBanks.
  • Kaplan Step 1 QBank Rating:
    • Overall: 3.6/5
    • Depth – 4/5
    • Breadth – 5/5
    • Retention – 2.5/5
    • Application – 3/5

Table of Contents

 

What is a QBank and Why Is It Critical?

The first thing you should do before starting Step 1 prep, is understand the principles of effective studying. We don’t want you putting a ton of effort into it only to get results that are not proportional.

When it comes to studying techniques, instead of asking ourselves what can bring us ANY results, why not ask what would give us the BEST results?

Let’s focus on the things with the most substantial evidence and the highest effect size. I don’t care if I can memorize a list 50% faster if it won’t help me on an important exam or help patients.

Here’s a summary of decades of research findings, showing which they deemed the most and least useful:

Evidence-Based Techniques to Maximize Learning

TechniqueDescriptionUtility
SummarizationWriting summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned textsLow
Highlighting/underliningMarking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while readingLow
Keyword mnemonicUsing keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materialsLow
Imagery for textAttempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listeningLow
RereadingRestudying text material again after an initial readingLow
Elaborative interrogationGenerating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is trueModerate
Self-explanationExplaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solvingModerate
Interleaved practiceImplementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study sessionModerate
Practice testingSelf-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned materialHigh
Distributed practiceImplementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over timeHigh
Adapted from: Dunlosky, John et al. “Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological science in the public interest: a journal of the American Psychological Society 14 1 (2013): 4-58.

For more on the best ways to study for medical school, see this article.

As you can see, practice testing is highly useful and for Step 1, this means using Question Banks, also known as QBanks.

There are many QBanks available that aim to mimic the questions and interface of the USMLE Step 1.

Step 1 QBanks help students build a solid foundation of pre-clinical knowledge. Also, the best ones help with test-taking skills, such as technique, endurance, and accuracy.

Another great feature of most QBanks is that students can personalize their learning by creating customized tests from specific questions. Common settings include things like timed vs. untimed, as well as “tutor mode,” which shows you the answer immediately after doing the question.

Kaplan’s Step 1 QBank 

Quick facts:

  • ~3,300 questions as of October 2022
  • Kaplan was, in fact, the first major commercial QBank (even before UWorld)
  • Unlike many other QBanks, it includes short explainer videos and BioDigital 3D interactive anatomical models for select topics
  • Many people use it to study the material for the first time

Kaplan QBank Depth: 4/5 

  • Pros:
    • In-depth coverage of most topics
    • Some videos are fantastic for learning
    • Re-Kap summarizes the big-picture points
    • Sorting questions by difficulty helps with new Step 1 Pass/Fail
    • First Aid page references
  • Cons:
    • Some video explanations are a bit dated and not very useful
    • Overemphasis of facts > concepts

Because the Kaplan QBank has a test-like interface, you might be tempted to use it to assess your readiness for Step 1. Yet, it’s quite the opposite. When using Kaplan QBank, you should think of it mainly as a learning resource, not as an assessment tool. NBME practice exams are for assessments of progress.

Kaplan’s QBank has an enormous number of questions on each topic, allowing you to identify and master your biggest weaknesses. It also gives explanations in written or video form after answering each question. But, some video explanations are a bit dated and not very useful.

Moreover, what many students like about Kaplan QBank answer explanations, is that they start with a brief Re-Kap, to establish the main learning objective or the fact that should be understood by the student, and then they broaden this to include more details and information on the answers.

Other QBanks do the opposite: they tend to start with verbose explanations, distilling them down to a learning objective.

Streamlined explanations might be better for some students, but in the end, it comes down to personal preference.

Sort Questions by Difficulty for Streamlined Review

It’s no secret that with the change of USMLE Step 1 to pass or fail, the incentive for students to prepare as intensively as in prior years has dropped. Students have developed a very different mindset, one that reduces the importance of a comprehensive review of QBanks.

In this regard, Kaplan QBank can be helpful because it adapts well to this change. Although it’s not a new feature, this QBank is relatively unique in its sorting of questions by difficulty.

Initially, it was intended to help students build confidence and solidify their knowledge by starting them with easier questions before moving on to more difficult material. But, now, it is also great for students who don’t wish to complete an entire QBank, since it can allow better targeting of completed questions toward the high-yield material most students should dominate.

First Aid Integration Facilitates Targeted Review

Some test-takers swear by the First Aid (FA) book and say that it’s a must for scoring high on the test. But if sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover makes you sleepy, Kaplan’s QBank helps you out by pointing out the page from the FA where you can find the information. These First Aid page references are an interactive and more dynamic way of using this book.

Shows First Aid page reference at the end of a Kaplan QBank question.

Easily check the First Aid page reference at the end of the Kaplan QBank question. This image is from the Kaplan Medicine website.

Kaplan Step 1 QBank Downside: Overemphasis of Details > Concepts

We know that the medical education system is far from perfect. To this day, many schools in the US and abroad still emphasize the memorization of details in learning rather than the application of their underlying fundamental concepts.

It’s no surprise that many students, especially IMGs, struggle with Step 1 since it mainly tests the integration and application of basic concepts for question-solving.

In this regard, Kaplan QBank can help you understand and apply the most basic concepts. Yet, many users agree that it can also confuse students by emphasizing details for them to memorize that might not be helpful to achieve this.

The USMLEs have always emphasized concepts, at least for the past couple of decades. But, there have always been some details you had to memorize if you wanted to go from a good to a great score. That said, given the test’s new pass/fail nature, it might not be worth your time anymore.

Kaplan QBank Breadth: 5/5 

  • Pros:
    • Covers about every topic you need for Step 1
    • Multiple questions for important topics
    • Excellent coverage of behavioral science, micro, and anatomy

Almost every QBank you find will cover the foundational sciences evaluated in USMLE Step 1, but Kaplan’s QBank seems to cover some topics better than others.

For example, behavioral science is a topic that it covers extremely well, having a vast amount of “Which of the following has the most appropriate response?” questions. This is especially important because it’s one of the topics that has been most updated by USMLE in the past couple of years.

Molecular biology and microbiology are also very well covered in this QBank, and given this QBank’s reputation for their minutiae, this comes in handy for such detail-oriented subjects.

A lot of users applaud the physiology questions and explanations since they include a variety of diagrams and arrow questions, which helps better recall and visualize the information.

Many also agree that Kaplan books and QBank are useful resources to understand anatomy and neuroanatomy for Step 1.

Kaplan QBank Retention: 2.5/5

  • Pros:
    • “Testing Effect” offers good improvement in retention over passive learning
    • You can repeat questions, including incorrect ones to help solidify weak topics
  • Cons:
    • Like most QBanks, there are minimal other means of supporting long retention (e.g., spaced repetition)

Kaplan’s QBank goes all-out when it comes to resources to help you understand and retain information. But even though testing yourself is a type of active recall, it still lacks a proper learning method to retain all the information, like spaced repetition. Try combining it with an active learning method like Anki to improve retention.

Kaplan’s strategy is based on giving you all the information you need to understand the question and the correct answer. You can then decide if you want to repeat the questions once you finish all 3,300 of them, or you can go to the specific question you want to revise. But it will not repeat the questions if you already answered them.

Kaplan QBank Application: 3/5

  • Pros:
    • Some “noise” can help with learning better test-taking skills
  • Cons:
    • Sometimes distracting details are added which is not like the actual Step 1 questions

As we mentioned, applying the knowledge you acquire in med school and during your prep is the way to go for Step 1. Not to mention understanding the material will make you a better physician. Yay!

Truly mastering the material is much more efficient than rote learning, even if you’re short on time. If you need reassurance on this just check out our article on The Worst Mistakes Students Make with First Aid for The USMLE STEP 1.

Like most QBanks, Kaplan QBank is an excellent way of applying your knowledge to clinical vignettes. Although, once in a while you may see buzzwords in questions that might “help”, this QBank pushes you to understand and interpret each question well to get to the right answer.

Signal vs Noise: Are They Trying to Trick You?

When reading the questions, you must always keep in mind the concepts of signal and noise explained well in our article How are UWorld, UWSA, Step 1, and Step 2 CK Different?

In short, the signal is the information in the question that leads you directly to the answer/diagnosis. On the other hand, the noise would be anything that does NOT lead you to the correct diagnosis/answer.

For instance:

A 24-year-old girl is brought to the emergency department because of a 7-hour history of severe abdominal pain. She is sexually active and her last period was eight weeks ago. She has a history of endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. Test results show elevated serum β-hCG (≥ 1500 mIU/mL) with no signs of uterine gestational sac on ultrasound.

So this woman probably has a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. How do we know? Well, almost everything in the vignette points to that diagnosis – her symptoms, history, and test results. This vignette has mostly “signal” and barely any “noise.” Can you figure out what the noise is?

That’s right, there is an element added in the vignette, like a history of endometriosis, that is not relevant and might distract you.

Kaplan’s Step 1 QBank Has More Noise Than Typical Step 1 Questions

Step 1 questions are usually noise-free, but QBanks sometimes include noise in their questions to allow for more critical thinking. Just like in real clinical scenarios, not all the data you receive are relevant.

The Kaplan QBank is no different. It does include a little more noise in its Step 1 questions than other QBanks. Some would say they go overboard with irrelevant details, making the questions unnecessarily long.

Conclusion – Overall Rating: 3.6/5

The Kaplan QBank is a good tool to use for studying for Step 1. It covers all the subjects you will be tested on in-depth and it can help you identify your weaknesses and master the material.

However, be mindful that it can test you on details that won’t necessarily pop up in the real exam or help you truly understand and apply the material for Step 1. Also, its questions tend to be longer and “noisier” than other QBanks.

So, what would we say to someone looking for a high-quality QBank for their prep? Is Kaplan QBank the one?

The answer could be yes. After all, it scores 3.6/5 in our rating. But it’s not that simple. You can use any high-quality QBank as long as you use it WELL! If you want to know more, check out our article on How to Review Uworld or Other QBank Questions.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

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Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.

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