Lessons from Competition Research for LSAT Takers: Regular Practice Isn’t Enough, and It’s Not 1869 Anymore

I love articles about competitive training and analogize LSAT preparation to sports on occasion.  That’s not because I’m a sports fan (though I am).  It’s because LSAT prep is a lot like preparing for other competitions, and more research has been done on what works for competitive athletes than LSAT takers.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine published a very helpful piece by Joshua Foer on his experience in a memory competition.  One paragraph toward the end of the article stands out.  Foer writes, in part:

“In his 1869 book ‘Hereditary Genius,’ Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, which ‘he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.’ In other words, the best we can do is simply the best we can do. But Ericsson and his colleagues have found over and over again that with the right kind of effort, that’s rarely the case. They believe that Galton’s wall often has much less to do with our innate limits than with what we consider an acceptable level of performance. They’ve found that top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail” (emphases added).

No one who reads this blog regularly or is an Advise-In Solutions client will find these findings surprising.  This blog reports on cognitive research regularly, and contains even more lessons than those Foer discusses.  But Foer’s point is excpetionally well-put and worth reiterating.  I’ve often discussed the necessity of focused practice, not mere practice.  It isn’t enough to just take one LSAT after another without at least:

     (1)   Understanding what you’re doing on each type of question, and why you’re doing it;

     (2)    Tracking your content and test-taking patterns, and especially (on the test-taking side of the equation) your focus and focus-recovery techniques;

     (3)   Analyzing each and every error you make and having a clear strategy to correct them (not a trick that works most of the time but a technique that will work each and every time);

     (4)   Continually assessing the effectiveness of your techniques, and substituting more effective techniques for less effective ones; and

     (5) Getting prompt feedback, correctives and reinforcement (not next week or a few days later, but no longer than several hours).

These are just some of the things that any top-quality LSAT prep program ought to do; if it doesn’t, you’re not getting the best LSAT preparation course available (in fact, you’re not getting very good LSAT prep at all).  Advise-In does all that and more for every client individually for the simple reason that it works.  It not only works for LSAT prep, but for any competition.

It’s not that the analogy between getting your highest LSAT score and winning at other competitions is perfect.  But the biggest difference between them makes it easier to perform well on the LSAT (which is good, because another major difference is that while people spend years preparing to win a medal, they don’t and shouldn’t spend that long preparing for the LSAT).  The biggest difference between the LSAT and other competitions is that in the LSAT, all your competition has been incorporated into a single point: the LSAT itself, which is scored based on how all takers have done.  So, you don’t have to pay attention to the over 100,000 takers (and shouldn’t pay attention to the 50-100 or so taking it in the same room with you).  To the extent you’re competing with them, LSAT grading will take care of it.  You’re competing only against the LSAT itself, and that should be your sole focus.  What the person next to you does doesn’t matter to you—it’s statistically insignificant.  And that makes it easier (but still not easy) to focus on the true opponent: the LSAT.

We’re way past 1869 and Sir Francis Galton’s theory of hard ceilings on performance.  The research doesn’t bear it out; the wall, it turns out, can be surmounted, not by practice but by the right kind of focused practice.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on February 26, 2011.

2 Responses to “Lessons from Competition Research for LSAT Takers: Regular Practice Isn’t Enough, and It’s Not 1869 Anymore”

  1. […] “stimulus,” “question type 33,” etc.; what I call “focused” practice as distinct from just more of the same; […]

  2. […] focus on specific issues that arise in the course of your practice LSATs.  There’s a lot of cognitive research that shows why simply repeating practice isn’t sufficient and it’s also common sense.  We’re […]

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