Meet the Kaplan Experts: James Barger, Instructor & Tutor

by James Barger, Instructor & Tutor | June 29, 2021

The Kaplan Team is often cited as why schools stay with Kaplan, year after year. At Kaplan, there’s an expert at the heart of everything we do, whether it’s leading a class or developing innovative tools to help your students achieve their career goals. With our “Meet the Kaplan Experts” blog series, we introduce you to Kaplan’s extensive network of faculty, medical, and educational experts and delve into their diverse areas of expertise so that you can learn even more about your Kaplan team. This week, we're pleased to introduce you to James Barger, Instructor & Tutor.

MCAT: 40 – Pre 2015, or what would be about a 524 now

LSAT: 168

GRE: Quantitative 785, Verbal 750

Tell Us About Yourself

I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as a “traditional student.” That was definitely true in my case. I began my education at the University of Michigan studying Aerospace Engineering. I did and still do love aerospace. I had tunnel vision, though. I visited two schools. I applied to one. I loved it there, but it turns out that aerospace wasn’t what I wanted to do for a career.  

I took some time off to explore my interests and options. Among other things, I spent several years working for a local outfitter/athletic shop. I met a girl there, and we’re now married with six kids, so I guess that was the biggest takeaway. Professionally, though, I got really into the technical side of the gear and developed a passion for teaching the other staff about it and helping customers understand it. I also ended up as the assistant cross-country coach at the local high school.  

Given all of this, I decided that Exercise Physiology was my calling. With my engineering experience, I had studied a huge amount of physics and mathematics, but I hadn’t taken any biology since my freshman year of high school, so I had several prerequisites to take care of. Those pre-reqs opened my eyes to the field of Molecular Biology, which led me to Michigan State University and a degree in Biochemistry and Human Physiology. I remained at MSU for my masters and PhD programs specializing in the biophysics of membrane electric fields and ion channel architecture. I also had the opportunity to teach Physiology and Biophysics to many hundreds of students.  

My path was not linear, and it definitely took longer than I would have anticipated coming out of high school, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m a better scientist and teacher now because of what I learned along the way.

What are your particular areas of expertise?

I like to stress to my students that I’m not just their teacher―I’m their guide. It’s my job to do everything I can to get them to the top of the mountain. I like to think of myself as being very good at test prep, but I really find that it’s all of the “other stuff” that most enables me to help my students.

I’m a translator: I love helping students figure out what their test is really trying to do, and how their test will communicate those goals. A student who doesn’t align their efforts with what the test is trying to do will never be as successful as the student who truly understands it. Translation isn’t a one way street, though. I also love figuring out how to “speak test” in a way that each student will best understand.  

I’m a reverse engineer: I love dismantling things down to their smallest components, figuring out how they work, and then building them back up again. It’s exactly how I approach testing. Sections get broken down into passages and questions, so I can think about how the section has been laid out. Passages get broken down into sentences, clauses, or even words so I can find the most important clues. Questions get broken down into stems and answer choices, so I can find the patterns that will guide us most quickly to the right answers. I know patterns and trends really well.

I’m goal focused: Students often get fixated on the hurdle that is their test. I help them see beyond that. The goal is to become an amazing physician or attorney. That’s what will pull us through the tough days of test prep. More than that, though, keeping the ultimate goal in mind puts the test into context. It’s not just a “hard test”. It’s not even like a normal university test. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate the skill set that successful professionals at the next level will need.

I’m a future Jeopardy champion: I’ve had a long-time goal to appear on Jeopardy.  Fortunately, a successful approach to test prep is very analogous to successful Jeopardy prep. I’ve made it to the final contestant pool several times but, unfortunately, my latest window exactly overlapped with the 2020 Covid shutdown. Oh well, more time to keep prepping!

Tell Us About Your Experience in Medical Education

Who or what experience inspired you to pursue a career in medical education? 

I had two of the most amazing graduate advisors. They had an incredible ability to connect with their students. They didn’t have to show off what they knew. They never talked down to anyone. And they were inspirational and entertaining. My advisors really drove home for me that you have to connect with your students before you can teach them. One of the best compliments I ever got from a student was the observation that, “I can tell that you’ve worked with Dr. [X]”

How long have you worked for Kaplan and what drew you to your current role?

I’ve always been a strong, tenacious test taker. If they’re going to make me take it, I’m going to bring max effort and try to crush it. That’s what got me through prep for my GRE, which is the test that first brought me to Kaplan in 2008. Only a short time after working with Kaplan, it dawned on me that, while I did fine, I had worked so much harder than I needed to. Tests weren’t about sheer force; tests were about efficiency.  

While continuing with GRE teaching, I began self-prepping with Kaplan’s LSAT materials, passed the LSAT, and began teaching LSATs about a year later. This really drove home to me the power of approaching any test with an extreme focus on strategy and technique.  

Shortly thereafter, our test center manager asked about my non-Kaplan expertise, and when I told her what I studied, she suggested I prep for and start teaching MCATs. The rest is, as they say, history.  

Since that time, the MCAT has become about 70% of my teaching load. Approximately five years ago I began teaching more and more online. It was a bit of an adjustment. I had to learn how to express myself, and even how to organize a class, differently in a digital classroom. I love the fact, though, that this medium allows me to reach so many different students.

I love all of my teaching, but I love teaching the MCAT and LSAT most of all because so many students view these tests as a nearly insurmountable barrier to achieving their goals. I love empowering them and helping them achieve their potential. 

What are your thoughts on the value of standardized tests?

I love the current iteration of the MCAT. Of all the standardized tests out there, it is, in my opinion, the one most aligned with the skill set of the end user. This may not be apparent, though, to someone who views it as a “hard science test.”  Instead, it is a test of doctorly skill. 

It tests our abilities to focus, to be adaptable, to find clues, to manage multiple pieces of information, to solve problems, and even to keep our cool under pressure―just like a successful doctor needs to. Med schools want students that have the potential to be successful doctors. Therefore, the MCAT tests for students who have the potential to be successful doctors.  

What is the most pressing issue facing students today and how can Kaplan help solve those problems?

There is a LOT of dubious information about standardized tests on college campuses and the internet. Someone knows someone or heard from a friend of a friend... Taken out of context, this information could make students feel that their goal is unachievable.  Too many students sell themselves short. Further, a lot of this information misrepresents what each test is really trying to do and the best way to prepare. Without appropriate context or technique, even a very hard working student may achieve only limited success.

What will the future of education be like for students and faculty? 

As we progress, I predict that education will become more adaptive and customizable in real time. From a teacher’s standpoint, I envision being able to quickly modify resources to match particular student needs. Each student is different, and even a single student’s needs differ from time to time.  

I also envision a scenario where materials can adapt beyond just notions of right or wrong, hard or easy. A neural net-like scenario may consider how long a student has taken on a given question, which answers they strike out, the order they approach passages, etc, to identify mistakes or inefficiencies in a student’s knowledge base or strategic approach.  This is something we do intuitively now, because even the best teachers miss or misinterpret information.

What is your most unique experience when it comes to teaching?

About two years ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon tutoring. One of my go-to passages with new students involves kidney stones. It has all sorts of great patterns and opportunities. In fact, I went through that passage with two different students on that Saturday.  

Sunday morning, I was experiencing some right lower abdominal pain. I thought maybe appendicitis (you can see where this is going,) so I went into urgent care. By that afternoon, I was in the hospital with kidney stones. It was a very surreal moment having just taught that subject the day before. I kept waiting for the hidden cameras to jump out. Plus, it was also the first time that I had gotten to experience medicine from that side of the room.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve received from a teacher? 

The following came up in a very early conversation with my grad advisor.  We were laying out the plans for a doctoral program, and my advisor said:  "It doesn’t matter which way the results go. Either result tells us something.”  

He was telling me that there was no pressure, and that it was okay to aim for something big. All I needed to do was be methodical, focused, and careful.  

Is there a quote or saying that you live by?

“Find one thing. Make it better. Repeat.”

And finally, is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

I find that a lot of students sell themselves short. They don’t want to hope for “too much.” I push my students to aim for lofty goals. After all, you never hit the target you don’t aim for. Aiming high excites them, which inspires them to buy into Kaplan’s methods and work harder. It also demands that we as teachers and tutors be even more involved with them along the journey. They’re not prepping on their own. They’re prepping with us.  

I like to stress to my students that I’m not just their teacher―I’m their guide. It’s my job to do everything I can to get them to the top of the mountain. I like to think of myself as being very good at test prep, but I really find that it’s all of the “other stuff” that most enables me to help my students. My path was not linear, and it definitely took longer than I would have anticipated coming out of high school, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m a better scientist and teacher now because of what I learned along the way.

See more posts by James Barger, Instructor & Tutor