As the calendar turns from July to August, preparation for the September LSAT starts to heat up. For many of our students, August finds them moving beyond the halfway point in their respective courses and coming down the home stretch. Yet all of a sudden, the dog days of August start to feel more like the Dog Days of Abstraction on the Logical Reasoning section. Method, Flaw, Parallel, Principle…the list of abstract question stems seems neverending. Gone are the days of specificity and precision, only to be replaced by the vague wording and abstraction of these new question types.
This year, I have found one of these abstract question stems popping up repeatedly in students’ questions: Method of Reasoning-Argument Part. In these, the question stem cites a specific statement from the stimulus and asks you to find the answer choice that correctly describes the role that statement plays in the argument above.
Below you will find some tips that many students have found useful in dealing with these questions. Many of these items are simply reminders of some of the Primary Objectives for Logical Reasoning questions found throughout the PowerScore materials. But in each case, the discussion is tailored specifically to their use with the Argument Part questions.
1. Read for structure indicator words: This is perhaps the most basic step to Argument Part questions. Frankly, it is a step that should already be built into most LSAT takers’ approach to the stimulus of every argument-based question stem on Logical Reasoning (basically everything except Must Be True, Resolve the Paradox, and Cannot Be True questions), not just Argument Part questions. Conclusion and premise indicators often provide, at the very least, the basic framework for the argument. You will find that in the easiest Argument Part questions, you won’t need much else because the statement cited in the question stem will be deliberately marked with one of these indicators and the description found in the correct answer will be a relatively clear description of some kind of a premise or conclusion.
Although most questions will require you to go a bit further, this step should not be taken for granted. Even if you aren’t able to identify the correct answer from this step alone, it can still help you determine generally whether your statement supports another statement or if it is supported by another statement (or in some cases neither of these). These general understandings might not be enough to fully identify the correct answer in all its detailed description, but they may be very useful tools in helping to eliminate answers that clearly do not match these general understandings. For example, if the statement in question is true because something else is true, that is enough to show that the statement is conclusory in nature and supported by at least one statement. Any answers that claim the statement has no support would therefore have to be incorrect regardless of what else they might say.
2. Identify the Main Conclusion: Again, this is a step that should already be built into your general Logical Reasoning approach. Yet it is incredibly common for Argument Part questions to distract test takers from making this identification. Once they recognize the question stem is asking them to identify the role played by a certain statement, many test takers focus solely on that statement, and dutifully attempt to identify the role it plays without first nailing down the main conclusion. This is a mistake! The main conclusion is often one of the easiest pieces of an argument to find, and undoubtedly the most important.
Once you find the main conclusion, you will ultimately encounter one of two scenarios. On the one hand, the main conclusion may actually be the statement the question is asking about. If so, your work is all but done. Now you just need to find the answer which accurately describes that role. On the other hand, even if your statement is not the main conclusion, you haven’t wasted your time. Knowing the main conclusion is critical, because the statement in question is often easiest to describe in its relationship to the main conclusion: Is it a premise that supports that conclusion? Is it an intermediate conclusion that supports the conclusion, yet is supported by other statements? Is it an argument the main conclusion is attempting to undermine? Is it something the main conclusion is attempting to explain? All of these questions are easier to answer if you know what the actual conclusion is in the first place.
3. Prephrase (but don’t overdo it): Using the structure indicator words and your knowledge of the conclusion, describe generally what role you see the statement playing. Keep in mind that your prephrase is an approximation. The LSAT will often provide an answer choice that, while technically accurate, probably doesn’t match your prephrase exactly. This doesn’t mean your prephrase is wrong or poorly constructed, it often just means the test is taking advantage of the limited standard the answer choice has to meet. While the correct answer must be an accurate description of the role played by the statement in the argument, it does not have to be the most precise or comprehensive description you can imagine. Many incorrect answers will tease you with this precision or comprehensiveness only to include inaccurate elements that disqualify the entire answer.
4. Know your terms (and their synonyms): This is an important step for all Method and Flaw questions, not just Argument Part questions. You must become accustomed to the language (especially the abstract language) the LSAT uses to describe certain types of reasoning, as well as certain structures in an argument. What do examples or counterexamples actually look like? What constitutes an explanation? Or a phenomenon? What is the difference between an intermediate conclusion and a main conclusion? Each of these questions, as well as many others, have proven critical at one time or another in the determination of an Argument Part question.
There is a very useful technique to practice this step, however. As you are working through Argument Part practice questions (and really this technique works for any Method or Flaw question), carefully look at each answer choice. If you see an answer you believe to be incorrect, ask yourself, “How could I have altered the argument above to make this answer choice correct?” In other words, what would need to change to make that description accurate? You can also practice this technique in reverse by asking yourself, “What wording would I need to change in this answer choice to make it technically correct?” If you repeat this process over and over, you will greatly improve your ability to translate these abstract descriptions on future questions. For a more specific example of the use of this technique, check out this Forum post from Dave Killoran.
5. Don’t Forget the Fact Test: All Method of Reasoning questions, including Argument Part questions, must meet the Fact Test. This means the correct answer choice must be a provably accurate description of the argument in the stimulus. In the case of Argument Part questions, each part of the correct answer will accurately describe some aspect of the role played by the statement in question (even if the answer doesn’t necessarily have to describe every aspect of that role). In other words, anything mentioned in the answer choice has to be in the stimulus. If any part of the answer choice describes something that the statement did not actually do, then the answer has violated the Fact Test and can’t be correct.
As mentioned above, be careful with answer choices that provide the precision you yearn for, but don’t need. For example, just because the statement in question is an intermediate conclusion, the correct answer does not have to actually use the phrase “intermediate conclusion.” It might simply describe the role as “a conclusion.” While “conclusion” is not quite as precise as “intermediate conclusion”, it is no less accurate. Either description could work. (A divorce lawyer is still a lawyer, after all). Yet the answer that uses the phrase “intermediate conclusion” undoubtedly looks better and is likely to draw in a lot of test takers. However, an incorrect answer could use this language, describing the role as an “intermediate conclusion”, and then add other aspects to the description that simply don’t match what occurred in the stimulus. This is a classic LSAT ruse to ensnare test takers who seek out the best sounding answer as opposed to…
6. Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate: You must actively and aggressively look to eliminate answer choices that contain any inaccuracies in their descriptions. No matter how magical or musical sounding the other parts of the description are, if any part of that answer choice describes some function never performed by the statement in question, the answer must be incorrect. Remember, correct answers are correct because they are free of any problems, but incorrect answers can be wrong simply because they have one problem. All it takes to eliminate an answer is to see one of those problems. This is often far easier than seeing an answer free of any issues.
Even if you aren’t sure what role your statement played in the argument, you may very well know the main conclusion of the argument and be able to identify the role played by other statements in the argument. Incorrect answers on Argument Part questions are often accurate descriptions of these other statements in the stimulus. At the very least, knowing the role played by some of these other statements can tell you what is not the correct answer. By narrowing the field down to just a couple of Contenders, this may be enough for you to recognize that craftily worded correct answer that didn’t quite jump out right away.
Hopefully, these tips will help you hone your approach to Argument Part questions and make a difference come September (and beyond). If you have any questions about Argument Part or the techniques discussed above, please ask away in the Comments below!