Japan’s method of reducing error: the point-and-call system

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so Orion, you just recently returned from about a month in Japan. As you know, since we’ve conversed outside of the podcast, I have a special place in my heart for Japan and its culture. I’ve traveled there many times in the past and have even taken a group of students there as part of my education initiatives.

One thing anyone familiar with riding on Japanese trains might notice, especially when sitting near the conductor’s car (and there are videos online which we’ll link to in the description below), is a method called “Point and Call.” The conductor, or the director of the train, will point to different instruments or indicators and verbally confirm whatever he’s observing or the direction they’re heading, as he physically points to it. Japan is renowned for its reduction in accidents across its extensive railroad and public transit systems. It’s a fascinating concept.

Orion, as a psychologist and an educator, and specifically with reference to the GRE, can you explain how this “Point and Call” method can be a powerful tool in test-taking?

Orion: Absolutely, I love Japan. It’s my favorite culture in the world. I also adore the trains. If you’re into trains, Japan boasts one of the best train cultures in the world. The network of trains, both national and local, is unparalleled, and the integration is phenomenal. Taking the Shinkansen, or the bullet trains that reach speeds of about 250 miles an hour, is like flying without leaving the ground. It’s an exhilarating experience. These trains quickly connect people from various parts of the country. Despite operating for at least three decades, they’ve never had a serious accident. They’ve never derailed or collided with another train, which is truly astounding. Especially when you consider that these trains run every three minutes, on the dot. The logistical operations behind this are incredible.

And obviously, if there are accidents, it’s not only a terrible thing, but it also slows everything down. It messes with people’s ability to get to where they need to go, and many different lives are disrupted as a result. So Point and Call is really cool. They implemented this system a decade or so ago, and they saw an 85% reduction in carelessness. As a consequence of using this, it takes some getting used to because you kind of look like a maniac when you’re doing it. You’re pointing at everything in this really exaggerated fashion. You’re stating the obvious, basically saying out loud what you’re looking at and describing it. It took a bit to overcome the resistance of some of the operators, but I think they cottoned on to it pretty quickly because of the obvious benefits it provided for themselves and for others. As a person riding on the train, I’m glad they’re doing it.

It’s like the Checklist Manifesto with doctors. Some doctors say that if surgeons just followed these 15 steps and checked that they did them, it would significantly reduce iatrogenic episodes. However, many surgeons think, “I don’t need to follow a checklist.” If I were having open-heart surgery, I would want my surgeon to follow that checklist and ensure that he’s doing these things.

So, it’s the little things that tend to make a big difference, especially when you’re working at those speeds. These are 250 miles an hour and at that frequency, every three minutes. In that way, it’s very much like the GRE. You do have to answer these questions in 90 seconds or less. And you have to do them one after the other. It’s not enough to just get it right once; you have to get it right consistently, over and over again, at very high speeds. For that to occur, you need help. Everyone needs help because we all have cognitive blind spots, and attention can waver. The reality is we can be very unfocused; a person’s attention can waver for just a split second and create, unfortunately, lifelong consequences for themselves and others. The disparity between the consequences of not paying attention and the rewards for paying attention is not balanced. So, what we’re trying to do is avoid accidents. We’re trying to avoid careless responding on the GRE.

Davis: So, just to map this out and paint the picture for everybody: as you mentioned, Orion, like an exaggerated gesture where you’re pointing at your instruments and reading out something as simple as a compass heading or how fast you’re going, or identifying the next station with an exaggerated arm movement and speaking it out loud while looking at the instrument and hearing yourself speak. It provides opportunities for cognitive dissonance. If you accidentally have an attention slip, you now have both a physiological response — you’re moving your body in space — and you’re saying it out loud.

So, you’re activating muscles and brain pathways to speak the information. You’re also hearing yourself speak while you’re looking at it. This means you have all your different sensory systems engaged. It might seem obvious, but this approach provides you with five different ways to catch mistakes. By doing this habitually as part of a general protocol, you enhance your chances of catching errors. I loved your point about doctors. I don’t want to send anyone down a YouTube rabbit hole, but there’s a concerning number of surgeons who leave instruments inside patients after performing surgery. I can’t help but wonder if a point-and-call system, like checking the tray for missing instruments, would help.

On a less serious note, but still vital for a student taking the GRE, it’s beneficial to get into the habit of using these cues. This includes protocols like visualizing, pointing with the pencil, looking from the screen to your page where you’re doing your scratch work and back, subvocalizing (so you’re not disrupting the testing environment), and still activating mouth movements. These steps create opportunities for safeguards and checks.

Orion: We do a lot of that. Yes, sub-vocal self-talk is the master key when it comes to reducing carelessness on the GRE. It’s also a vital component of the “point and call” method we discussed in a previous podcast about reducing transfer errors. This method involves creating an unbroken loop: you point to the question on your scratch paper, answer on that same paper, and then point to its corresponding answer choice on the screen. This creates an analog continuity from your paper to the screen to minimize errors.

When I take the test, I might seem like a maniac — talking to myself and gesturing wildly — but I do that because I recognize that I am the most likely reason for getting a question wrong. At this point, I have my strategy down and I know the formulas. If I miss a question, it’s usually because I’m moving too quickly or I’m not using some of these fail-safes. The key is to use them even when you think you don’t need to. Train conductors do that — they’re professionals, not amateurs. Many have been driving trains for years, if not decades. Just because you don’t use a fail-safe doesn’t guarantee there will be an accident. However, when there is an accident, it’s often because someone didn’t use their fail-safes.

So, the fail-safes are only useful if you use them. The idea here is that when you think you don’t need to use them, that’s when you’re most vulnerable and when you most need to use them. The idea is to get into the habit of doing them, whether you think you need to or not. The question of “Do I need to do that?” should be removed from your consciousness. It’s not a useful question for you; it’s just wasting time. You should do them anyway, regardless of the answer.

Davis: Thank you, Orion, for that contextual application to the GRE and also for addressing the psychological resistance some people have to engaging in these things.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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