Playing with a Full Deck

Countless successful students prove that people can see significant and sustained improvement on the LSAT over time. That’s great for them, but how can you get such results? Here is how I use index cards and the “blind review” process to help my students get the score they want.

There are lots of LSAT prep materials (PowerScore, Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.). which range from “brief but useless” to “overlong and overwhelming.” You can buy a 900 page book that is “guaranteed” to raise your score, but the book won’t actually help you until something in that book enables you to eliminate a wrong answer or choose a right answer. If you’re lucky, those 900 pages might contain thirty concrete and specific insights or techniques that consistently affect your score.

I never require my students to buy any specific prep materials. I want them to make the most of whatever they start with, whether they come to me with the LSAC “SuperPrep” or the entire PowerScore LSAT Bible Trilogy. Instead, I help them figure out generally-applicable techniques that enable them to eliminate a particular wrong answer or identify a particular right answer, and write it out on my tutoring whiteboard in a format that would fit on an index card. At the end of each session, I expect them to save those whiteboards and copy out any new cards and add them to their personal card deck.

Once you have some cards in your personal deck, I will ask you to do one logical reasoning section under time pressure. For students who are already scoring at or above the national average (152), that means under 35 minutes. I don’t put a specific time limit on students who are still scoring under 152, but I do have them time each individual question with a stopwatch.

Once you complete that logical reasoning section under time pressure, don’t score it! You have completed the “testing” phase of the process, but you haven’t even started the “learning” phase. The next step is to “blind review” each question, using your personal card deck. Let’s walk through that process, using Section 2 of the  June 2007 LSAT (which is the only test that the LSAC makes generally available).

Question 1: Which one of the following most accurately expresses
the main conclusion of the economist’s argument?

Process: Do I have an index card for this? No, I don’t, because I usually get main point questions right. Looking at my test paper, I see that I originally underlined the phrase “not all efforts to increase productivity are beneficial” because it looked like the conclusion to me. I know that the conclusion is the phrase that everything else in the paragraph supports, and that’s true here. The answer I chose was B, which says,”Some measures to increase productivity fail to be beneficial.” I’m pretty sure that “Not all are” is logically identical to “Some are not,” so I’ll stick with my original answer. Since I double-checked my reasoning, I’m going to take my ball-point pen and draw a blue circle around the black pencil circle I started with. 

Question 2: Which one of the following uses flawed reasoning that
most closely resembles the flawed reasoning used in
the argument above?

Process: Parallel flaw–let’s see, I do have an index card for this one.

Parallel flaw: read the stimulus and see if you can spot the flaw.
If you can see it now, you can do it now.
If you can’t see the flaw, this will take longer than any other question and you’re still likely to get it wrong. Save it for last!
If you still haven’t seen the flaw, read the answers CAREFULLY. One of them has the hint you need.

Well, that’s good–because I couldn’t see the flaw with the clock ticking and I still can’t see it. Let’s look at the answers for hints. Nothing in A… B is interesting. If I mix something extremely toxic (like arsenic) with something non-toxic (like water), I’ll bet it’s still extremely toxic, not “moderately toxic.” That’s sort of like the stimulus–breeding a dog that barks a lot with a dog that doesn’t bark won’t necessarily give you a moderate barker. Let’s circle B with the blue pen. Since this card seems to have actually helped me here, let’s put a little tick mark in the top right corner of the card. 

Question 3: Which one of the following most logically completes
the argument?

Process: This looks like some kind of inference. I have a card for that.

“CAN’T BE FALSE” FAMILY:
1. Pick an answer.
2. Could the opposite of that answer ever happen?
3. Reread the stimulus–if the answer you picked CAN’T BE FALSE, you’re right!
4. Avoid answers that COULD BE TRUE, answers which reference something you have no information about, and answers which are EXPLANATIONS of the stimulus rather than DEDUCTIONS from it.

I picked answer A, “people at a century’s end reminisce about their own lives.” Could that ever be false? Maybe. I mean, some people may look back on their own lives but others wouldn’t. A might be wrong. Let me look at the others. B looks wrong–no information about fearing. C talks about looking forward to the next century. That COULD be true, but it doesn’t have to be true. D talks about the history of the century just ending. Could that be false? People don’t care about the century just ending, but the stimulus says that people behave toward the century much as a person behaves towards his or her own life. If we look back at our lives at the end of a century, I guess people at the end of a century must look back on the century. OK, let’s circle D in blue, and add a tick mark to the card. (Hmmm– that’s the fifth tick mark on this card. I guess I should be thinking about this while the clock is running–I want to  get this question right the first time, not just on blind review!)

Question 5: The reasoning in the consumer’s argument is most
vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that the
argument…

Process: Flaw! OK, there’s a card for every different answer to a flaw question. Let’s look at these answers. A talks about  bias. I have a card on this.

Flaw: Bias.
This is a specific form of the more general ad hominem fallacy, which attacks the person rather than the argument.
Bias may show that a witness is unreliable, but it does not prove that the witness is lying.
Any conclusion that says the opposite of what the biased witness says is flawed.

Let’s see–answer choice A starts with the phrase, “treats evidence that there is an apparent bias.” Yes, the stimulus does do that. It goes on “as evidence that the Connorly Report’s claims are false.  Yes, it does that, too. Looks like a perfect example of an ad hominem fallacy, which is what I though the first time. Keep the pencil circle around A–I’m so sure of this one that I’m not going to put a blue circle around it.

Question 6: The argument’s conclusion follows logically if which
one of the following is assumed?

Process: I hate these! OK, I know it’s an assumption question of some kind, but what kind? I have a card here somewhere…

NECESSARY ASSUMPTIONS v SUFFICIENT ASSUMPTIONS
C->A                                                   A->C
Does the question include the word “if”? Probably “sufficient.”
Does the question include words like “rely,” “depends”? Necessary.

OK, it does say “if” in the question. “If I assume, the conclusion follows.” Looks like it’s a sufficient assumption. (Add a tick mark to this card.) Now, I know I have another card about that.

SUFFICIENT ASSUMPTIONS: POWERSCORE’S “MECHANISTIC APPROACH (TM)”
1. Find the conclusion. Look for a new term. It MUST BE in the correct answer.
2. Find any term that appears both in the conclusion and a premise. It should not be in the correct answer.
3. There should not be any brand new term in the correct answer–only something that has already appeared in at least one premise.

Right. So the conclusion here is “Murray cannot be accepted for the position of Executive Administrator. Good–Executive Administrator is a new term. Knock off all the answers that don’t include that term. Oh–that’s answer A, which is what I picked! Well, put a tick mark on this card–if I had remembered this I wouldn’t have chosen that. Moving on to step 2; “Murray” appears in the conclusion and the premises, so I guess I can knock out D and E. Rule 3 doesn’t help me choose between B and C, so I guess I’ve gone as far as the “Mechanistic Approach (TM)” will get me. Good thing I have another card here…

“CONCLUSION CAN’T BE FALSE” FAMILY
(MBT, MSS, MBF*, SA, PSA)
With MBT, MSS, MBF: the ANSWER can’t be false.
With SA, PSA: the CONCLUSION can’t be false if  you pick the right answer.

So–the conclusion here is still, “Murray cannot be accepted for the position of Executive Administrator.” With answer choice B, Murray can’t be on the executive board (because he  has a felony conviction), which means he can’t be Executive Administrator. That looks pretty good. With C, there’s nothing to keep Murray from being Executive Administrator. OK, C is out and B is in. Put a blue circle around B and add a tick mark to this card. (Hmm. That’s the first time this card has actually helped me!)

Questions 7-25… repeat this process until you finish the section.

When you (finally!) finish blind reviewing that last question, you’re ready to score the section. I encourage all my students to set up a free account at 7Sage.com (which may well be the single most fabulous LSAT resource on the Internet). 7Sage makes it easy to bubble in your blind review results–there’s a black bubble for your initial answer, and then, if you click on the question number, another line of blue bubbles pops up so that you can add your blind review result. When you save and score your answers, you’ll see your score for that section (and the test as a whole). In addition. 7Sage will sort the questions into “very low priority,” “low priority,” “high priority,” and “very high priority” questions.

The “very low priority” questions are those you got right the  first time. For self-study purposes, these “very low” questions are unimportant. Since you already got it right, there’s nothing new to learn!

The “low priority” questions, by contrast, are very important. You got this question wrong under time pressure, but got it right when you worked through it with your card deck. Go over these “low priority” questions and take another look at the card that helped you get it right. Ask yourself, “What could I do different next time so that I get this right while the clock is running?” You already know how to get this question right–now you need to get it right the first time.

The “high priority” questions are also very important. If you have a card for this situation, it isn’t helping you yet. If you don’t have a card that helps you here, it’s time to get one!  I ask my students to look over these high priority questions and flag the question on 7Sage if they can’t figure it out on their own. At our next tutoring session, we’ll use those flagged questions to figure out which generally-applicable insight or technique would help you get it right.

Over time, we will build up an index card deck that enables you to get a blind review score that is consistently ten or fifteen points higher than your target score. At that point, you’re officially “playing with a full deck.” Then you’ll keep doing practice tests, using those cards over and over again until they’re second nature to you. You won’t be shuffling through your card deck on test day–it will be second nature to you.

Can you see sustained and significant progress on the LSAT? Yes, you can!

Symbols and Synonyms

An LSAT logical reasoning stimulus always contains most of the major components of a logical argument. A complete argument always has at least three “statements”: one conclusion and at least two premises. All but the most trivial logical argument have at least two “terms.” After looking through a large number of published LSAT stimuli, I have yet to find any stimulus that does not include at least two of these “statements” and at least two “terms.” I have previously written about how to find a conclusion, and it is relatively simple to find a premise. In this post, I want to help students discover the terms in the argument.

We need to know what a “term” is before we can find one, however. A “term,” in a logical context, means any concept that can be precisely expressed in words. A term could be “the best third baseman in the 1960 World Series,” “the true meaning of life,” or “yellow.”

In a complete LSAT question (which consists of the stimulus as well as the correct answer), all key terms must appear at least twice.  The reason for this is that an argument must connect the concepts to form a conclusion. A term that only appears once is not really necessary to the argument, and is therefore not a “key” term.

Here are the most common argument structures in LSAT stimuli:

  • Modus Ponens: A→B, A, ∴B
  • Modus Tollens: A→B, ~B, ∴~A
  • Hypothetical Syllogism: A→B, B→C, ∴A→C
  • Disjunctive Syllogism: A v B, ~A, ∴ B
  • Conditional Counterexample: A, ~B, ∴ ~(A→B)

Note that each argument uses each term exactly twice. While it is possible to construct more elaborate arguments that use terms even more often, it is not possible to construct an argument that uses a key term less than twice. Even the simplest possible argument uses its one term twice:

  • Double Negative: A, ∴~(~A)

This means that every complete LSAT question (stimulus plus correct answer) must use each key term at least twice. Every published LSAT question has at least two key terms. Finding these terms is a foundational skill for LSAT success.

The English language makes this difficult. The LSAT writers intentionally use different words to express these key terms. They exploit negatives, double negatives, and contrapositives to make it hard to match up concepts.

Here is an example from the June 2007 PrepTest, the only test that LSAC has made freely available to all:

Although video game sales have increased steadily over
the past 3 years, we can expect a reversal of this trend
in the very near future. Historically, over three quarters
of video games sold have been purchased by people
from 13 to 16 years of age, and the number of people
in this age group is expected to decline steadily over
the next 10 years.

Which one of the following, if true, would most
seriously weaken the argument?

(E) Most of the people who have purchased video
games over the past 3 years are over the age
of 16.

The conclusion of the argument is “we can expect a reversal of this trend in the very near future.” That conclusion must contain at least one key term, but the presence of the word “this” means we are going to have to look  back  into the stimulus to figure out  what “this” refers to.

The phrases “video game sales,” “video games sold,” and “purchased video games” all refer to the same concept. The phrases “people from 13 to 16 years of age” and “people in this age group” refer to a different concept, and “over the age of 16” negates that term. The word “increase” provides us with a third term, while “decline” and “reversal of this  trend” are its negation. (Since two out of three of these instances are “decreasing,” let us call this key term “decrease” and treat “increase” as the negation.)

Since the key terms are expressed in different English words, we need some way to show that they mean the same thing. The easiest way to do this is with symbols. I will use “S” for “video game sales,” “D” for decline, and “T” for “teenager” (by which I mean the 13-16 year old customer). With these symbols, we can rewrite the argument as follows:

S→T (sales are to teenagers)
T→D (teenagers are decreasing)
∴ S→D (sales are decreasing)

The correct answer to this question is “Most of the people who have purchased video games over the past 3 years are over the age of 16.” Converting this into our symbols, we get “S→~T.” This doesn’t just weaken the above argument, it destroys it.

Learning how to spot these synonyms (and antonyms, like “increase” and “decrease”) takes work, but it is essential. If you don’t recognize the repeated terms in a stimulus, you don’t really understand the argument. If you don’t really understand the argument, you’re just guessing at the answers. If you’re guessing at the answers, your score is going to be a whole lot lower than you want it to be. So let’s start spotting synonyms!

The Official LSAT Superprep

There are many books that try to prepare you for the LSAT, ranging from free (in your library) to $189 for the PowerScore LSAT Bible Trilogy (listed retail price, discounts available). These books tend to be bulky–the Kaplan LSAT Premier 2016 is a modest 933 pages. while each book of the PowerScore Trilogy is near that.

The Official LSAT Superprep retails for $28, costs $18.30 at Amazon, is easily available in “used” condition for under $3.00, and is available for free at most libraries. There are only 63 pages of instruction–the remaining 350 pages are three complete tests with explanations for each answer. It is the “Official” LSAT book because it is published the Law School Admission Council, the producers of the LSAT.

The reason it is so short is that unlike almost all the other prep materials on the market, the “Official LSAT Superprep” confines itself to explaining the test rather than teaching specific techniques to “crack” the LSAT (Princeton Review), “beat” the LSAT (out of print), “hack” the LSAT (website here), or “nuke” the LSAT.

The strength of such a short book is that everything it includes is well-nigh essential. A student who is struggling with one particular type of logical reasoning question might have to read 70 pages to see how Kaplan covers it in their LSAT Premier book. The Official LSAT Superprep covers it in three pages.

If you can afford a tutor, the Official LSAT Superprep may be a far more efficient use of your time than any of the bulkier books. If you can grasp a concept in two pages, you don’t need 68 more pages of text and exercises to get it better. If you can’t grasp the concept, it will show up quickly when you take a practice test. A tutor can then zero in on what you didn’t understand in a way that a textbook never can.

If you can’t afford a tutor, this book is nowhere near what you need to succeed. It tells you what you need to do but doesn’t tell you how to do it.