The next LSAT is just around the corner, you’re regularly taking practice tests in preparation…and you suddenly score 5 points lower than last time. What?? Why?! You are (understandably) freaked out.
You call your best friend, your shrink, your tutor—all the same person if you’re lucky— to ask the crucial question: should you postpone your LSAT?
Turns out, there is nothing wrong with bombing a practice test. Just ask the NYTimes. In a feature piece titled, “Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing,” the Times discusses an exciting new development in learning-science: pretesting. (In case you’re wondering, “pretesting” is a fancy way of referring to your favorite pastime the last several months: taking (and reviewing) practice tests.) So what good is pretesting if you bomb every (other) test. Being told to “review” your mistakes and “learn” from them sounds like a reasonable plan in principle, but in practice your mistakes are embarrassingly obvious. Well, guess what? Your brain benefits from this experience even if your self-esteem does not:
Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later. The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.
I love that! We “fail forward.”
In a series of controlled experiments, education scientists found that pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group. Not bad! According to U.C.L.A psychologist Elizabeth Bjork, “Taking a practice test and getting wrong answers seems to improve subsequent study, because the test adjusts our thinking in some way to the kind of material we need to know.”
One way a practice test can do that is by dispelling your “fluency illusion”: the belief that once you’ve learned how to diagram, say, conditional reasoning statements, further study of conditionality won’t strengthen your knowledge of it. The fluency illusion forms subconsciously over the course of any study regimen, and renders you an extremely poor judge of what you need to restudy or practice again. Take conditional reasoning, for instance. You might have understood the relevant chapters in the Logical Reasoning Bible, but that doesn’t mean you can accurately and consistently apply the techniques you think you’ve learned from it. You’ll move on, forgetting that you forget.
Pretesting fixes that. When you bomb a conditional reasoning question on an LSAT practice test, you recognize instantly upon review that you’re making mistakes, as well as how to correct them. In fact, pretesting alters what you remember and changes how you subsequently organize that knowledge in your brain. Over time, you will start applying the relevant diagramming techniques not from memory, but by intuition. What would normally take you 3 minutes to diagram will, over time, turn into a 1-minute question. You may not even need to diagram it.
Ultimately, while getting an awesome score on your practice test can give you an important confidence boost, it has little pedagogical value. A 180 is mostly about bragging rights; it teaches you very little. By contrast, a 142 says little about your potential, but it can teach you a lot. Indeed, the more your test scores fluctuate, the more you can learn from them. Many students experience fluctuations of 10 points or more, which can be attributed to several factors:
- Test endurance. Without taking a ton of LSAT practice tests, you cannot build the endurance and stamina necessary to complete a five-section test without getting mentally exhausted. This is probably evident from your performance on the last section of your practice tests, or on questions that are toward the end of each section.
- Section strategy. Your current pacing may be off. Perhaps way off! You might be able to finish some of your sections in time, but you probably rush through half the questions. Rushing is no good. Inversely, you may not be able to finish any of your sections, forcing you to guess on a good number of questions. Blind guessing is no good either. The appropriate strategy would be to approach each and every question correctly, setting aside only those you can reasonably expect to take an inordinately long time to solve. The goal is to finish your section without having to guess blindly, and then return to any outstanding questions, if time allows. This strategy takes practice, but with time you’ll find it can lead to significant gains.
- Question accuracy. At the early stages of your test prep, your accuracy is likely to be higher on the question types you’ve already studied than on those you haven’t. As you advance in your studies, you will achieve a more consistent accuracy level across question types. Ultimately, your accuracy should correlate most closely with the difficulty of the questions, and less so with their particular type. However if you still find that a type or two are consistently causing issues, you’ll know exactly what you need to review.
- Recognition. When you took your first diagnostic test, you probably didn’t know much about conditional reasoning, causality, or grouping games. You were trying to “wing it,” so to speak, using common sense alone. Your accuracy may have been abysmal, but at least you covered more questions. Today, your recognition levels are higher: you know a conditional statement when you see one. That doesn’t always mean, however, that you can use that recognition to arrive at the correct answer choice quickly and efficiently. In other words, you haven’t turned recognition into automation. As a result, you are probably running out of time sooner than expected, further lowering your score.
In each case described above, a recognizable deficiency is behind your score fluctuations, and in each case a solution is within reach.
So don’t panic if your most recent performance wasn’t what you’d hoped it would be! Every LSAT experience is an opportunity to learn and improve, and few provide a better opportunity for meaningful progress than the experience of “failure.” Use the days ahead to analyze exactly why you under performed, exactly what skills still need work, and exactly how you can engineer a more successful outcome on test day!