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The speed myth

“I just need to go faster”

Students preparing for the LSAT, GRE, bar exam, or other standardized test often assert that they “just need to go faster.”  Students believe that speed is their main obstacle because, when the clock runs out, they still have several questions left unanswered.  Their inability to “race against the clock” successfully is, in their view, what prevents them from answering those questions and attaining a higher score.

But this emphasis on “speed” mischaracterizes what’s really happening, and that mischaracterization can cause a student to develop bad study habits, thereby decreasing her return on investment or “ROI” for study time.  This article seeks to dispel the “speed” myth.

You can’t go faster than you can go

Analogizing to other performance settings can be very beneficial when preparing for a test.  That’s because the process involved in other performance settings, such as the “performing arts” (e.g., music, theater, dance) and sports (e.g., soccer, swimming, fencing), are much more readily apparent to the external eye or ear than are the internal workings of a test-taker’s mind.

Imagine a music student who is just beginning to read music and to play piano.  The student is, understandably, struggling to read and to play the simplest material.  She plunks one note on the piano keyboard, then looks at the sheet music, deciphers what is written there, looks back to the keyboard, counts around to find the right key, looks at her fingers, and then plunks another note.  This one-note-at-a-time phase is something through which almost all piano players must pass.  Even the greatest piano players in the world had to start somewhere.

If we were to hand this one-note-at-a-time beginner a page of sheet music from, say, West Side Story and command the student to “play this piece at the intended tempo [speed]—now,”  what would be the result?  A big mess.  The student simply can’t play the piece yet at anything close to resembling the intended tempo of the song.  If the student attempts to play much faster than she is currently capable of playing, the result will only be noise, a cacophony of wrong notes banged out on a piano with virtually no resemblance to the piece nominally being “played.”  Moreover, the student will gain almost nothing from such a practice session (unless the student’s goal is to become better at making noise).  Worse, in attempting something far beyond her capacity, the student may develop bad habits or lose heart, focus, and commitment to the task of learning piano altogether.  She may even conclude “I can’t play piano,” give up music, and move on to some other activity.

The above discussion applies equally to test-takers:  a student who attempts to go faster than her current skill level allows will soon just be doing little more than guessing at each answer—and developing bad habits and a bad attitude in the process.

To summarize, speed cannot be increased independently: if one attempts to go faster than one can go, nominal “speed” will increase at the expense of other aspects of performance, resulting in nothing but literal or figurative “noise.”

This discussion will be continued in a separate article.

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Bar Exam Prep: Augmented Reading

Maximizing the “return on investment” of solitary study time

While time spent in passive activities, such as attending a bar review class or meeting with your bar exam tutor, is beneficial, the reality is that most of your bar prep time will be spent alone.  This alone time will, for the most part, comprise reading, writing, and test-taking.  Maximizing the return on investment—the “ROI”—of this time calls for, among other things, creating the right study environment.

Disrupted reading

Reading comprehension can get derailed when a person encounters a word that she doesn’t fully understand, even with respect to the words in the given passage that she does understand.  It’s as though that one gap disrupts the entire mental apparatus required for effective reading comprehension.  This disruption may occur because the reader loses concentration, or experiences an increased sense of anxiety, or doesn’t feel certain about how to mentally “file” the remainder of the passage in the absence of the missing information.  Whatever the reason, this disruption is bad for one’s ROI.

Augmented reading

In order to avoid such disruption, LEX recommends that all bar exam study be performed in an “augmented reading” environment.  Some aspects of an augmented reading environment—good lighting, for example—are covered elsewhere; the present article focuses on the presence of other materials in one’s environment during the reading process.

In particular, when a person is reading bar exam materials, such as bar review books pertaining to torts or contracts, one should always have the following items within arm’s length, i.e., literally “within reach” so that you can stretch out your arm and pick them up:

  • a recent hard copy of Black’s Law Dictionary, or equivalent
  • a recent hard copy of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, or equivalent

Presence and proper usage of these resources will allow you to offset the reading-comprehension disruption discussed above while also allowing you to move boldly through the material in confidence that you’ve “got backup” when you need it.

NOTE:  a physical copy (“hard copy”) of the above two dictionaries is highly preferable.  Electronic, and particularly web-based, dictionaries are much less desirable. Reading comprehension for electronic publications is lower generally, and looking up something in such a resource is itself disruptive, particularly if the given resource also includes a bunch of clutter (advertisements, etc.).

Process for Augmented Reading

When reading your bar review materials, each time you encounter a “regular” word—i.e., one that has no special meaning in law, is not a “term of art” for law—that you do not fully recognize, stop right then and there (at the end of the given sentence) and look that word up in your Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Even if you just feel a little “shaky” on the meaning of that word, look it up.  Study the definition until you’ve “got it” and then return to reading, either at the beginning of the sentence that included the word, or, if you’ve lost the context, at the beginning of the paragraph in which that word appeared.

Similarly, any time you encounter a legal word—one that does have a special meaning in or occurs exclusively in law—that you don’t fully recognize, look it up in your Black’s Law Dictionary and follow the process as described above.

Through augmented reading, you will improve the return on investment of your study time: better reading comprehension, better retention of what you’ve learned. You’ll also decrease any anxiety you may experience while studying.  And you’ll also increase your vocabulary along the way—always a good thing for people entering a word-intensive profession like law.

 

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Test-Taking Mandatory “Tip”: Do Not Count on Time Warnings

Original posting date: August 3rd, 2011

The Dangers of Time Warnings

Many test preparation companies—whether for the LSAT, bar exam, or other standardized test—provide proctors who call out or write on the board how much time is left in a given section of the test. These proctors are a pretty standard part of the landscape for diagnostic tests and timed practice exams. Unfortunately, students tend to learn to rely on these warnings, and that’s dangerous, because there might be no such warning on test day.

Thus, while professionalism may argue in favor of test prep companies providing this service, students must heed the following advice.

On the actual day of the test—LSAT, bar exam, MPRE, SAT, or whatever—, you cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot rely upon the test proctors to keep track of time for you.

If these employees of the given test-maker make a mistake and forget to warn you that there are “five minutes remaining” or “thirty seconds remaining,” you will get no sympathy from the test-makers themselves. In other words, you will not be able to get additional points on the test for this oversight.

The Bottom Line

If you lose points that you could have gotten if you’d been apprised of the time remaining, those points are lost for good. Don’t take that risk. ALWAYS keep track of the time yourself, and be sure to get in the habit of doing so by practicing accordingly.

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Testing Centers: Some Warnings

Original posting date: August 11th, 2011

Things Go Wrong that Are Not within a Student’s Control

As discussed in a recent article about LSAT time warnings and bar exam time warnings, test preparation companies have a commercial incentive to ensure that things go smoothly for students. But this admirable work by test prep companies can be misleading for LSAT students, bar exam students, and other people preparing for standardized tests. Many things can and do go wrong on test day that have nothing to do with the test-takers themselves, and shielding students from these difficulties may give students a false sense of security.

Test Centers

Just as proctors can have issues, the physical testing facilities and the providers of these facilities can also give rise to extra-test problems. Such difficulties include:

  • test center is too hot, too cold
  • test center has bad desks or chairs (e.g., unstable, too small)
  • test center has to change rooms and relocate students at last minute
  • test center is very close to an external noise source (e.g., nearby construction, a noisy convention event)
  • test center causes other ambient distractions and discomforts (e.g., mildewy)

The Answer: Practice Being Unflappable

Taking the bar exam, LSAT, MPRE, or a law school exam is tough enough without the addition of such external obstacles. Such obstacles are particularly disturbing when they are unique to one test-taker or a small group of test-takers rather than presented to everyone.

But getting upset doesn’t do any good. No one gets extra credit for having had to endure unfortunate testing conditions.

Part of effective preparation is, therefore, developing an unflappable mindset. Resolve that, no matter what surprises come your way on test day, you will waste no mental cycles on or offer any emotional resistance to these difficulties. Treat all such distractions as part of the test itself.

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The “Rage to Master”

Original posting date: August 23rd, 2011

The Development of Mastery

Psychologists report that some children have an innate, self-driven desire to learn and know all there is to know about a field.  These children lock onto and pursue a topic with unusual tenacity, pouring hours of unbroken concentration into exploring this topic.  The results of this kind of concentration are not surprising:  a very high competency in the chosen field.

One phrase that is apparently in current usage as a label for this type of drive is the “rage to master.”

Not Just for Kids

While “child prodigies” appear to have attracted the most study so far, the “rage to master” is not something that is unique to children—or child prodigies.  College and law students can also catch fire with an internal desire to know, dominate, master a field.  These students are, of course, great at test preparation.

Finding the “rage to master” within oneself for a topic such as the logical reasoning or reading comprehension that is tested on the LSAT or the contracts, torts, evidence, or other law topics that are tested on the bar exam may require some soul-searching.  But it’s worth going on this journey, because that fire—the rage to master—is an incredibly powerful mechanism for improvement.  More discussion on the rage to master coming soon. . . .

 

Bar Exam: Performance Test

1.  PRACTICE.  While studying the substantive law is crucial for the essays and MBE, the performance test is all about doing.  By the time test day rolls around, the doing — performing — of the performance test should feel like old hat to you.

2.  ANSWER THE QUESTION.  This is more than half the battle on the PT.  Simply stick to what they ask you to do, doing everything they require and no more.

3.  JUST DO THE BEST THAT YOU CAN DO, ONE STEP AT A TIME.  It’s interesting how widely the model answers can vary from one another; some model answers even contain some significant false statements of law.  This variation demonstrates that, as long as you just do the tasks like a competent and thoughtful professional and present your work product in the right package, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the “right” answer.

4.  STAY COOL; DON’T FREAK OUT.  The essence of what the PT is testing is how well you can handle uncertainty.  If you can simply carve out a reasonable response to uncertainty, you are going to pass.  While the other portions call for mastery of the law, the PT is there basically to weed out people who can’t master themselves.

5.  KEEP IT SIMPLE.  The easiest way to adhere to all of these rules is to adhere to this one.  Just be very simple in your approach.  If you can’t see the big picture, do a good job on the parts that you can see.  If you don’t know what the whole thing should look like, simply do whatever step you do see needs to be done.