What Cognitive Research Can Tell You About Studying for the LSAT

If you’re preparing for the LSAT, you can do yourself a favor by reading the recent New York Times’ article, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.”  It summarizes a lot of useful research about how people learn most effectively.

I do have a beef with the article—its title.  While the title promises something radically new, what the article in fact does is summarize things that experienced educators have long known and excellent ones implement consciously.

Among the article’s claims about current cognitive research are that people learn better if they space study sessions, mix content and alternate study environments.  All of these are relevant to how you are preparing for the LSAT.  They’re also integral to how I design Advise-In’s LSAT prep program for each of my clients (taking into account variations in each client’s specific learning style).

Let’s start with the first: spacing study sessions.  What Benedict Carey, the article’s author, means is simply that people don’t learn very well by cramming.  Not news.  It’s why stuffing a lot of studying into the last few weeks before you take an exam such as the LSAT doesn’t produce optimal results—and yet that’s the way most LSAT courses operate.  Per-hour tutoring generally leaves it to the student to decide when he or she has a problem worth addressing, and that often means that issues are left to fester until it’s too late to solve them productively (in the increasingly competitive law school admissions environment, there is no problem to small to be worth trying to fix).  And of course no large classroom program can monitor its students’ progress carefully to ensure that each individual student is building momentum, confidence and comfort with individually-effective techniques on the way to exam day.  When I took the LSAT, I didn’t take a commercial course or hire a tutor because I thought none addressed this problem, and I believed (correctly, it turned out) that I’d get my best LSAT score by designing a program for myself that did.

Of course, a specific test date imposes another requirement: that you not spend too long preparing.  For the vast majority of LSAT takers, nine to eleven weeks is the right amount of time to prepare—neither too short (so that you haven’t comfortably absorbed what you need to by LSAT day) nor too long (so that you’re tired and past your peak).  We’ve talked about this in previous blog posts as “The Goldilocks Problem.”

The second result of learning research presented by Carey is that it’s best to mix content.  It’s even more important to do that in your LSAT preparation, since by definition you’ll have to switch from one mental gear to another every 35 minutes on the actual exam.  Now, to be clear, mixing content isn’t always right all the time for all preparers.  Sometimes, it’s better on any given day to focus on one gear—logical reasoning, reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, or a particular type of question.  But part of training for the LSAT is gaining facility with quick transitions between types of questions, so on non-exam days, I generally give my clients questions of various types and difficulty.  It takes time and thought to design that on a daily basis but it pays off in multiples for my clients.  It’s like a little brain stretch each day and makes exam day less taxing.

Finally, mixing study environments.  It’s important to distinguish taking the LSAT (and practice exams) from studying for it.  During the LSAT you must, and during each practice test you should, sit in one place, taking only prescribed breaks.  But when my clients do their non-exam preparatory work, they sometimes ask if they should follow such a strict regimen.  The answer is no.  Everyone has had the experience of getting up from work and walking around and, suddenly, something you’ve been struggling with becomes clear or really sinks in.  According to Carey, people grasp more completely if a piece of learning isn’t place-specific.  I’m not sure I’m down with that explanation (although I don’t have another) but the basic fact that “alternating the room where a person studies improves retention” is known to pretty much everyone who reflects on their own learning.

You don’t need to “forget what you know” about learning.  Rather, the research results presented by Carey are known, explicitly or implicitly, by excellent teachers and learners alike.  To obtain your best LSAT score, thinking about how you learn most effectively is crucial—then you need to design or sign up for a study program that takes those findings seriously and integrates them into the best educational program rather than the easiest dollar.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on September 9, 2010.

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