Focused LSAT Study Techniques Redux: Why Speculation about Whether the LSAT Tests “Intelligence” Actually Hurts LSAT Takers and What it Means for Your Best LSAT Score

As with many topics among the academically inclined, discussions about the LSAT often turn quickly to theories of what the LSAT “really” measures, and one of the common candidates is that it’s really a modified intelligence test.  That’s a consistent theme at LSAT forums I’ve attended as well.

My reaction has always been (including when I was preparing myself for the LSAT) that, if you’re an LSAT taker, you don’t care—the LSAT measures what it measures, and your objective is to do get your best LSAT score.  I have other objections to the intelligence test theory of the LSAT—I don’t know (and no one has been able to tell me) what “intelligence” means in this context and, if the LSAT is indeed an intelligence test, then I got (and my clients get) a whole lot smarter in a short period of time.  Mostly, though, I’ve been indifferent to the debate because I can’t see how it is of any practical help to people studying for the LSAT.

My view has changed.  I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide.  Among the discussions of dopamine and brain activity, which convince me of the need for Neurology for Dummies book, Lehrer discusses research that shows that emphasizing “intelligence” is damaging to test achievement.

Here’s how the research worked.  Students were given a test (not the LSAT) and were told either that their achievements reflected their disciplined effort or their intelligence.  Those students (of equal achievement on the test) who were told that their scores reflected their efforts were more likely to take harder tests in the future and to do better on them.  Those who were given the “you’re so smart” reinforcement were more risk-averse in taking on harder tasks and, when they did, did worse than those who were given the hard work reinforcement.

That’s point one:  suggesting that the LSAT is an intelligence test is likely to impede takers from obtaining their highest LSAT score, while emphasizing effort is likely to facilitate it.

There’s more.  I talk a fair amount on this blog, with Advise-In’s private and pro bono clients, in our LSAT webinars and in my free white paper about the need for simple, focused LSAT study techniques rather than just repeated practice.  Beyond just talk, each of my clients’ 10-week LSAT programs is designed, adjusted and refined to focus their respective practices to maximum advantage for this person at this moment so that each can achieve her or high highest LSAT score.

Lehrer discusses the importance of feeling or instinct in making the right choice under pressure situations (higher pressure situations than the LSAT, e.g., does a military commander shoot down a blip on a radar screen even though he isn’t sure whether it’s a friendly plane or hostile missile?  how does an NFL quarterback make a split-second decision about where to throw the ball?).  His conclusion is that instincts that are the result of experience and disciplined practice are helpful (though not infallible) guides to the right decision.

Practiced instinct isn’t guessing.  It’s relying on a trove of unconscious but accurate knowledge that enables you to make the right decision faster.  And whatever else the LSAT tests, it clearly tests this—the ability to make the right choice quickly in a pressure situation.  That’s not a theory, that’s just the structure of the exam—a fixed number or questions with 35 minutes to complete them in any section requires efficiency and discipline, and the importance of the exam accounts for its pressure (though there are various ways of avoiding panic, which, Lehrer agrees, is never a good thing).

As the February LSAT approaches, my clients and I are fine-tuning their approaches and LSAT prep techniques.  One issue that comes up with some clients is changing their answer at the last minute.  The old saw is that your first instinct is always right.  No.  It’s probably accurate to say that your first well-honed instinct is usually right.  But that requires that your LSAT prep has sufficiently honed your instincts.  More important, because the best the well-honed instinct will be is usually right, relying on your instinct doesn’t ensure you’ll get any individual question right.

Instead, what my clients learn to do if they suddenly lean to a different answer than they initially did is to revisit those two choices using exactly the same procedure they used to evaluate them in the first place.  They had a reason to make their initial selection (having a good reason is a key we address early in the program).  Now they’ve noticed something—consciously or not—that puts that choice in doubt.

But you shouldn’t just trust your second or first instinct mechanically.  Instead, you should revisit both choices with the same procedure you’ve used to answer similar questions correctly (of the many possible methods available, by a couple of weeks before the exam, we’ve found one or two that work for any individual).

You’re not mechanically trusting either your first or second instinct.  Instead, the second instinct is like a warning bell that tells you that you may have missed something.  But a warning bell isn’t a surefire indicator that there’s trouble at hand.  You need to check both instincts against the facts of the question itself.  Then you’re more likely to get the right answer.

That’s point two:  it’s not just practice that matters, but focused practice that hones techniques to the few that actually work for you and that can be applied in pressure situations and allow you to refine but not wholly rely on your instincts.  And the one thing that won’t help you is to think that the LSAT tests how smart you are, whatever that means.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on February 3, 2011.

5 Responses to “Focused LSAT Study Techniques Redux: Why Speculation about Whether the LSAT Tests “Intelligence” Actually Hurts LSAT Takers and What it Means for Your Best LSAT Score”

  1. […] First, you should be clear-eyed in your diagnosis of what went wrong the first time.  Sometimes, nothing significant was the matter.  In that case, you should probably accept your score as being pretty close to the best you can do and get on with your life.  A few years from now, neither you nor anyone else will care what your LSAT score was.  A lower-than-desired-or-expected LSAT score has nothing to do with your value as a human being and, for that matter, very little to do with your intelligence. […]

  2. […] what specific skills or aptitudes LSAT score  is  supposed  to measure.  That said, the  LSAT score is not a measure of intelligence. At a minimum  we know that an LSAT score is a very good  measure  of ones  ability to take […]

  3. […] That’s not shocking, I suppose; it’s related to a point I’ve made before, which is that thinking of the LSAT as an intelligence test is a mistake. The LSAT is largely a technical challenge that’s even more challenging for those with higher […]

  4. […] difference of 6-8 right answers isn’t a question of intelligence, it’s one of composure.  That’s why Advise-In’s LSAT preparation program is structured […]

  5. […] specific outside knowledge (that’s why it’s not a standardized test like the SAT).  And it’s not an intelligence test for anyone, man or woman.  So, why do women score lower and, more important, why has the gap […]

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