“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.