Time Tactics: Orientation Questions

The first question in most logic games is very predictable–it asks which of the following five answers are acceptable outcomes.  The Law School Admission Council refers to these as “orientation questions,” since they are intended to orient you to the setup conditions. In The Official LSAT Superprep II, the LSAC tells you exactly how to answer such questions:

For such questions, probably the most efficient approach is to take each condition in turn and check to see whether any of the answer choices violates it. As soon as you find an answer choice that violates a condition, you should eliminate that answer choice from future consideration–perhaps by crossing it out in your test booklet. When you have run through all of the setup conditions in this fashion, one answer choice will be left that you haven’t crossed out: that is the correct answer.

This paragraph is the gold standard for “how to solve a logic game problem.” It is short, accurate, and authoritative. It not only tells you how to get the problem right every single time, it tells you how to get it right as efficiently as possible. What The Official LSAT Superprep II doesn’t do is explain why this is the fastest and best way to answer such questions, nor does it explain why other methods are slower and less reliable.

There are three ways to solve an orientation question. The first (which is far too common) is to have no strategy. The second is to tackle the question rule by rule, as the LSAC suggests. The third is to start with answer choice A, go through the rules one by one, eliminate it if it breaks a rule, and move on to answer choice B. This “answer by answer” approach will usually produce the right answer–but it is significantly slower and less reliable than the “rule by rule” approach. Let me explain why.

The “rule by rule” approach is optimal because it minimizes time-consuming steps and eliminates the possibility of “false positives.” By “false positive,” I mean an answer that appears to obey all the rules but really doesn’t. The people who write logic games know how most people try to solve them, and they can and will use that against you. Thus, if answer choice C appears to follow every rule, it can still be wrong–some other rule may be buried in the initial paragraph that spells out the scenario. You can’t really be sure that C is right until you know that every other answer is wrong,

Here are the steps for a “rule by rule” solution:

  1. Look at the rule.
  2. Figure out what you’re looking for in a wrong answer (i.e., “if A comes before B, that breaks this rule”).
  3. Skim through each answer choice, looking for that pattern.
  4. Cross off any answer(s) that break the rule.
  5. Go back to step 1 and repeat until only one answer is left.

Compare that to the “answer by answer” approach:

  1. Look at the answer.
  2. Go up to the first rule.
  3. Figure out what you’re looking for in a wrong answer (i.e., “if A comes before B, that breaks this rule”).
  4. Go back to your answer, looking for that pattern.
  5. Cross off the answer if it breaks the rule and jump ahead to  step 18.
  6. Otherwise, go up to the second rule.
  7. Figure out what you’re looking for in a wrong answer (i.e., “if A comes before B, that breaks this rule”).
  8. Go back to your answer, looking for that pattern.
  9. Cross off the answer if it breaks the rule and jump ahead to step 18.
  10. Otherwise, go up to the third rule.
  11. Figure out what you’re looking for in a wrong answer (i.e., “if A comes before B, that breaks this rule”).
  12. Go back to your answer, looking for that pattern.
  13. Cross off the answer if it breaks the rule and jump ahead to step 18.
  14. Otherwise, go up to the fourth rule.
  15. Figure out what you’re looking for in a wrong answer (i.e., “if A comes before B, that breaks this rule”).
  16. Go back to your answer, looking for that pattern.
  17. Cross off the answer if it breaks the rule.obeys
  18. This is the step where you get in trouble. Is this the final answer choice? Is it the only one that isn’t crossed off? If you haven’t reached answer choice E yet, you could be making a big mistake right here. So if you aren’t at E yet, move on to the next answer and go back to step 1.

That’s the theory. Let’s put it into practice. Here’s a simple orientation question for a logic game:

Allison, Bradley, Clarence, Daniel, Elisheva, and Faith are so tired of prepping for the LSAT that they have all decided to play Pokémon Go. Between them, they manage to catch and hatch Pheremosa, Quagsire, Relisprout, Solgaleo, Togetic, and Uxie. Each Pokémon is caught one at a time, but not every law student necessarily catches a Pokémon. The order in which the students catch the Pokémon obeys the following rules:

Bradley refuses to catch a Pokémon until Allison gets one.
None of the girls try to catch more than one Pokémon.
Uxie is caught first or last.
Pheremosa is  caught after Relisprout.

Question 1: Which of the following is an acceptable list of the order of students and the Pokémon they catch?

A) Daniel catches Uxie, Allison catches Relisprout, Bradley catches Pheremosa, Faith catches Quagsire, Bradley catches Sogaleo, Clarence catches Togatic.

B) Allison catches Relisprout, Bradley catches Uxie, Daniel catches Pheremosa, Faith catches Quagsire, Elisheva catches Sogaleo, Bradley catches Togatic.

C) Clarence catches Uxie, Daniel catches Sogaleo, Faith catches Relisprout, Allison catches Pheremosa, Bradley catches Quagsire, Faith catches Togatic.

D) Allison catches Relisprout, Faith catches Quagsire, Bradley catches Pheremosa, Daniel catches Sogaleo, Bradley catches Togatic, Daniel catches Uxie.

E) Bradley catches Uxie, Allison catches Relisprout, Clarence catches Pheremosa, Faith catches Togetic, Elisheva catches Quagsire, Daniel catches Sogaleo.

I solved this problem “answer by answer.” It took me 1:16, and I sort of cheated because I stopped when I got the answer that obeyed all the rules. (If this had been a tricky question with a rule buried in the scenario, I would have gotten it wrong.) I did the same problem “rule by rule” and it took my 0:36. That’s just under half as long and the answer was more trustworthy–I eliminated four wrong answers and the only answer left had to be right.

Try this yourself. If you don’t see a dramatic difference between the “answer by answer” and the “rule by rule” approach, leave a comment below. If you do find that the “rule by rule” approach is significantly faster (and more reliable), make sure you use it from now on. You’re on your way to learning time tactics!

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