Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LSAT Whisperer

So I'm tutoring several people for the December LSAT. They're all very nice and very hard workers, and I've really enjoyed working with them and seeing them progress. They're at very different skill levels, which makes it a challenge for me, but also keeps it interesting when I have to teach the same lesson for the eightieth time. One of my students, if I may take a moment to brag, has gone from a 150 on her first diagnostic test to consistently scoring in the low to mid-170s. I am so proud of her, I could just burst. Not that I'm not proud of the other students' progress. Everyone seems to be doing much better on their Logic Games, consistently finishing three of the four games with near perfect accuracy. It's really gratifying to see the little "a-ha!" moments when something just clicks for the first time.

One thing that they all have trouble with, regardless of skill level, is having enough confidence in their answers to just let go and move on to the next question. Given an unlimited amount of time, that wouldn't be a problem, but since you only have 35 minutes to answer 20-odd questions in each section, you have to work as efficiently as possible. I try to show them how they can use the various Kaplan methods to find the right answer without needing to check and double check their work, and as they go along, they start to believe that it works intellectually-- and as a side note, it does work: I'm really impressed with how Kaplan has dissected the LSAT. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: had I known and used the Kaplan method back when I took the LSAT, I may well have gotten a perfect score.

Anyway, understanding that it works intellectually doesn't always mean that it's easy to let go of their anxiety, and sometimes, as we're working through practice sets together, I catch them running through the wrong answers, just to reassure themselves that they really are wrong.I usually just remind them that they don't need to do that because we already found the right answer, we know why it's right, and we also know that if that answer is right, the others must be wrong, so we don't need to be concerned with them. At that point, they usually grin a little sheepishly and agree with me. Sometimes, you can tell that it's really a matter of the student not feeling confident in their own abilities, so I remind them of specific things that they've mastered that they didn't know before, and point out how accurate their answers have been so far. My superstar student's results really skyrocketed once she internalized that idea. I want all of my students to have that revelation, even if they only believe it for a specific skill set at first. So far, everyone I've worked with has been very conscientious about homework and practice, and no one's failed to make progress in some skill sets. And if someone's really struggling with the idea of trusting their skills, then I tell them that, if they really feel queasy about their answer after working through the question carefully using the Kaplan method, they should mark it in the test booklet with a big star or something, and then if they have time left at the end of the session, they can come back and go over it again, after they've given themselves time to answer the other questions. It's all about maximizing your ability to complete as many questions accurately as you can.

But all the gentle encouragement in the world is not enough sometimes. Last night, I had a session with a student who is stuck on a particular problem type. We worked on understanding how the problem type works and what methods he could use to tackle it. He's catching on, slowly but surely, so we started doing some practice sets. As we did more and more of them, I started to be more insistent that he keep moving and not second guess himself, but I guess he's still feeling a little hesitant or something, because he just could not let go. As I "caught" him doing it for what felt like the six thousandth time, I had a mental image flash across my brain:

What if, every time a student started to go back and review the wrong answers, I squirted them with a water gun or shook a can full of pennies at them?

I know, I know: that's not a good pedagogical technique. But it seems like it might be effective, you know? After all, who wants to get a cold stream of water in the face? If you faced the threat of being squirted every time you did a certain thing, wouldn't you start to avoid doing that thing?

The image was gone in an instant, and all I did was smile to myself before I stopped him and reminded him that he doesn't need to check that the wrong answers really are wrong, that he understands now what kind of answer that particular question type calls for and how to apply that idea to whatever specific instance appears on the test, that he's getting more and more accurate now that he understands the question type better, and that he needs to work on timing now that he's got the hang of how to get the right answer. I'm sure he'll get there eventually. Still, I wonder if a healthy dose of strategically applied cold water might not speed the process...


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