Listening my way to success in the NCCAOM acupuncture board exam

chinese medicine study music

Update : I passed!  :)

As I said before, I’ve been spending a significant amount of time studying for and taking my NCCAOM acupuncture board exams.  As I said in my last post…

“…I’ve successfully completed the foundations and biomedicine exams already.  I found them to be much different from what I was expecting. I know I am not allowed to share much about my experience – but I’ll just say that I don’t think any commercially available study aid helped me…”

This includes the much lauded  Don’t get me wrong, I think they offer a great service.  If nothing else, they allow you to have some degree of comfort with the format and general content of the test.  However, the specific topics covered in the real test were not touched on much by the practice tests on that site or on the official NCCAOM site.  Others may not share my experience, I know.

As an alternative, I recommend you go through the list offered by NCCAOM (content outline) and read through the texts they indicate as sources for question writing.  I found that these outlines were quite accurate, and I would pay attention even to those topics that seem less important.  While some of the more minor subjects may not come up often, one really unexpected question can really throw you off your rhythm.

Also, it will help you to be a good test taker and – perhaps most importantly – to be lucky.  ;)

Now, I’m studying for the “big one,” the exam about acupuncture and point location.  I actually postponed the test once, because as I dove into studying the material I really found out how unprepared I am – at least by my reckoning.  Why?  Certainly not because my education has lacked quality.  It doesn’t reflect on my ability to treat patients.  It doesn’t reflect on some lack of scholarly rigor on my part.  Quite the reverse is true, I think.  Why?

Simply,  NCNM doesn’t teach to the test.  We don’t read Maciocia as a textbook.  We learn TCM pattern differentiation, sure, but we learn so much more that is (in my opinion) far more compelling.  So, as students, most of us choose not to focus much on the TCM stuff we are taught.  Even those professors who might be thought of as “more TCM” on our faculty have a wealth of Classical information and clinical pearls they are constantly divulging – so the TCM stuff tends to get swept under the rug a bit.  So, what’s a guy to do?

Ironically, now at the end of my education, I feel that I’ve finally settled on some winning learning strategies.  As I studied for this test, I started to use every trick in the book to get the stuff to stick.  I had huge pieces of easel pad paper taped up all over my house, I was using innovative mindmapping software, I was making flashcards, I was making diagrams… All of these strategies were definitely helping, but then I ran across an article discussing multiple intelligences, then through some web searching another one about the VARK learning styles theory.  The particulars aren’t super important, but it got me thinking about how I learn most effectively.

For me, it’s all about the auditory.  I learn very well from lectures – even better if I record them and listen to them a hundred times.  I learn well from music, from silly songs, and also from speaking things aloud.  It was a small insight, but when I really realized this – I went to town with it.  I’d like to share some of the strategies I am using that appeal to my auditory learning style.  I should mention that I feel that I learn quite well from reading and writing things as well – but I wanted to talk particularly about the auditory aspects today.

1.  I am a big fan of Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks.  Among a lot of other great advice, he recommends that students use a method called “quiz and recall.”  Using this method, you collapse lecture notes (or other material) into “big ideas” with one sentence prompts.  You then move through those one sentence prompts and give a pretend lecture to nobody in particular.  I do this in the backyard, pacing through my living room and on my daily walks.  You can follow the link above to learn more.

With the material I’m studying now, I’ve had to alter the method a little bit.  Because I’m not really working off of any notes, I simply let my prompt be the name of a channel or TCM syndrome.  With the latter, I actually break it down a bit – working off of a list of diseases and their differentiations.  So, I might come to a prompt that says Gan Mao due to Wind-cold.  Then I lecture passionately concerning the points involved, their categories and locations, the needling method employed and so on.  This has been incredibly powerful.

2.  There are a couple of commercially available audio products designed to help you learn and review Chinese medicine related information.  I’ve tried Tunes for Tangs and Songs for Sans as well as the product I review below.  I’ll talk about Tunes for Tangs in another blog post in the future. offers a set of MP3’s called AcutherapeuticA that are meant to be used in learning and reviewing the acupuncture points by channel.  These recordings include a soothing female voice speaking over some repetitive trip-hop style electronic music.  The voice lists the point designator (HT1, etc), the Chinese name and an English translation, any pertinent categories (Yuan source, etc) and finally some basic TCM actions.  Sometimes, they will offer a little more – such as a particular contraindication (like LI-4 being contraindicated in pregnancy).  They also include a two-file set of the 100 most popular acupuncture points set against more upbeat music.  I have not tried the second product, but I own several of the channels set over the more soothing music.

It’s undeniable that this product has helped jog my memory about some of the less used points.  Because I’m largely an auditory learner, the stuff goes in my head with the music and sticks there.  There is something quite compelling about the ability to go on a walk in the dawning summer sun and be studying at the same time.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, and doubtless will again, I’m a huge fan of audio learning for that very reason.  However, I’m very disappointed that Radioqi has not included location information!  I also feel that the voice speaks a little too quickly through the action information.  Because of these shortcomings, and also because I can’t afford the ~$100 it takes to buy all the channels, I hit on one final (and my favorite) acupuncture audio learning solution.

3.  I have a MacBook, which has a great built-in microphone.  I also own the excellent free audio editing program Audacity.  Sitting here, frustrated with my limited choices as far as audio learning of acupuncture goes, I hit on a natural solution.  Make my own MP3’s!  I simply recorded myself reading out of my favorite text for studying for the acupuncture exam (link broken – no longer available online), adding commentary as I thought of it.  For instance, when talking about a Yuan source point, I might mention e
verything I know about that category of point.  In a couple of instances, I played the excellent Yi Ching Music for the Health CDs, in the background, using the element corresponding to the channel I was studying.  I then exported these as WAV files from Audacity, and added them to my iTunes library, converting them to MP3s in the process.  Finally, I loaded these onto my iPhone for listening to on the go.

While it’s a bit weird listening to myself talking about acupuncture channels, it has been very helpful.  The points are sticking in a way they haven’t before.  I’m going to try this technique for syndrome differentiation as well.  After this exam, when my time opens up a bit, I plan to use some version of this technique to continue learning about formulas.

If you know of other audio learning techniques – let us know in the comments!


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About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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