Law school and bar exam tutoring

Bar Exam Prep: Downtime Remains Important

Seemingly every day, another study is published confirming the effectiveness of test-taking techniques that LEX has been teaching for decades.  This confirmation is worth revisiting periodically so that students can feel confident that are preparing with America’s best law and logic teaching company.

Anxiety-driven studying

Students preparing for the bar exam naturally tend to feel a need to put a good effort into their studies.  After all, passing the bar exam is a necessary step on the path toward which most law students have been working for three years or more:  practicing law.  They feel that it would be a mistake, financially and otherwise, to slack off at this crucial moment.  This understandable feeling can give rise to a desire to “burn the candle at both ends,” to spend every waking hour memorizing rules of law—and to minimize the sleep they get at night or the breaks they taking during the day.

This give-it-all-you’ve-got attitude may feel comforting in that it may serve as a shield against anxiety.  The bar prep student may say to herself, “I’m feeling anxious about the approach of the bar exam, so I need to study right now and can’t afford to take a break.”  When she concentrates on that task, the anxiety disappears for a while, which feels good and confirms the feeling that she is doing the right thing by staying glued to her chair.

Reminder: what does—and does not—get you points on test day

However, it’s important to remember that the bar exam does not award you any points whatsoever for how hard you studied.  If you spend eighteen hours per day memorizing bar exam law, that fact, by itself, is worth exactly 0.0 points on test day.  The bar exam doesn’t care how you prepare; it only gives you credit for what you actually deliver.

Again, the bar exam doesn’t care how you prepare; it only gives you credit for what you actually deliver.

And delivering the goods—right answers—on test day depends on many factors. Study time is one factor in test-day performance, to be sure, but it is just one of many.  For instance, maintaining self-awareness and remaining resilient are hallmark abilities of a great test-taker.  But racking up 18-hour days of memorization may or may not help you cultivate these test-taking abilities at all.

Effective recall

Another hallmark trait of a great test-taker is the ability to recall the right information at the right time.  Effective recall partly relies upon storing the information in the first place, of course.  But mere data storage is definitely not enough to bring about effective recall when the test-day clock is running.  Effective recall is affected by one’s energy level, the will to bring up that information rather than curl up and go to sleep.  It is also impacted by one’s state of mind; anxiety interferes with recall.  And it is also impacted by how one stored the information in the first place, e.g., whether the information was learned in isolation or in connection with other information.

Downtime

Downtime—taking breaks from one’s bar exam study—plays an important role in setting oneself up to deliver on test day.  That topic will be specifically addressed in this second part of this article.  Coming soon!

"Ramp-up" performance curve

LSAT performance curve #1: the “ramp-up”

Test-taking performance on the LSAT sometimes adheres to certain common patterns that can be generally graphed on a timeline, with performance being the vertical axis and time being the horizontal.  This series of articles aims to provide an overview of the most common patterns and some guidance regarding how we can avoid the bad patterns.

The “ramp-up” curve

The ramp-up pattern occurs when the LSAT-taker gets off to a slow start.  Here’s what the pattern looks like.

"Ramp-up" performance curve

“Ramp-up” performance curve

As shown, the test-taker who exhibits the “ramp-up” pattern doesn’t really hit her stride until the second section of the LSAT.  This is not good, of course, because those points that have been missed in the first section—while the test-taker was still “ramping up”—cannot be gotten back.  Those points are gone forever, regardless of how well she performs on the later sections of the test.

It could be that the given test-taker hasn’t settled into the testing environment.  It could be that the test-taker is distracted by test anxiety or just hasn’t fully “woken up” yet that day.  But whatever the reason, it’s important that we avoid the ramp-up pattern, i.e., that we are performing at the very best of our ability from the very first question of the LSAT.

Avoiding the ramp-up pattern on LSAT day

To avoid falling into the ramp-up pattern, here are some tips.  First, familiarize yourself with the test environment before test day. Visit the testing center a few days prior to the day on which you will be taking the LSAT and get comfortable with the environment (e.g., know where the bathrooms are, how bright it is).

Second, be aware that anything can go wrong on test day; bad proctors, technical difficulties, uncomfortable temperatures, a last-minute change—all of these things can happen. Reconcile yourself to these risks ahead of time, and prepare to roll with the punches, to take everything in stride without getting flustered.

Third, if you are at all susceptible to falling into the ramp-up pattern—you know yourself to be, for instance, a “slow-starter”—then do a little warm-up routine on test day.  Before you leave home and head for the testing center, take a couple of logical reasoning questions, read a reading comprehension passage and answer the main point question, and set up one game.  That exposure to the types of material you’ll be seeing on the actual LSAT will get your wheels turning.

The next article will discuss the “dead-battery” performance curve.

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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.