LSAT Study Off-Track? A Tip for Overcoming a Common Obstacle
A student came up to me the other day with a perplexing problem. He had improved to a point where he was reasonably adept at Logical Reasoning problems, but he felt that he could not improve past a certain plateau. He had followed all of my advice and could recite the methods that we teach backward and forward. And when he got a question wrong, he could understand why he got it wrong and why the correct answer was correct, but he did not feel he was learning anything from his mistakes.
So then I asked him to show me an example of a question that he got wrong. When he did so, I wanted to beat him senseless. So I did. Well, not really—at least not physically. The question was a form of argument that we had covered extensively in class, but it had surfaced in a type of question that didn’t normally contain that kind of argument.
And then it hit me. Everyone teaches question types in Logical Reasoning. Students are able to improve dramatically on the test by noticing patterns within the different question types. The LSAT can be very daunting when you first stumble upon it in a drunken haze because it appears that it is asking you to do a ton of different things. And then in come LSAT companies who show you that that is not really the case. Every LSAT company in existence teaches students that there are a small number of question types that occur frequently in each Logical Reasoning section. And each company claims to have discovered the ultimate approach to chopping up the section into these categories (Blueprint’s is best, by the way).
My encounter with the unnamed student a few paragraphs ago got me thinking that we might sometimes overlook other similarities within the Logical Reasoning questions that can be just as important, if not more. Sure, the questions asked on the LSAT can be very similar (‘must be true’ versus ‘properly inferred’ versus ‘follows logically’ for example), but so are the arguments that they make. If a student, through practice, can recognize the types of arguments that the LSAT puts forth, they will have found a valuable way to pick up points.
Most notably, if you can understand why a particular conclusion need not follow from the set of premises designed to support it, you should then be able to strengthen that argument, weaken it, identify assumptions, describe the flaw, and on and on.
Here’s an example:
- A recent psychological study was run on employees of several local businesses that were open 24 hours a day. It was found that employees who worked the “graveyard” shift, some range between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., tended to score higher on several of the tests that tend to evince signs of depression. These results would tend to show that certain elements of working during these hours— irregular sleep patterns, limited personal interaction, lack of sunlight—tend to increase the chances that one will suffer from depression.
This was authored by yours truly but it could easily become the next great LSAT question. In this fake stimulus, you are presented with a very common form of argument on the LSAT (and also an argument to which we all fall prey in everyday life). This argument takes a correlation between working the “graveyard” shift and exhibiting signs of depression to show that working that shift causes depression. We all have friends that do this in everyday life. I have a friend who swears he has a “lucky” shirt because he has gotten laid a couple times while sporting the ugly thing. I continually remind him that all the “lucky” ladies are less likely a result of the shirt and more likely a result of cheap drinks at happy hour. Same deal here. Establishing a correlation on the LSAT is never a sound basis for concluding causation. The most common problem with this form of argument is that there could always be alternate causes (like the drunken factor for my friend).
However, the argument about the “graveyard” shift and depression has another pretty common issue. In this situation, the argument fails to rule out or even consider the possibility that people who are already depressed are more likely to work the “graveyard” shift. You know, because then they do not have to deal with that annoying sunlight or all those damn peppy people with their incessant talking. So here they have failed to exclude the possibility that the cause and the effect are reversed.
But here is my point. If you are able to spot the form of this argument and the problem with the argument (generally referred to as the fallacy), then you should be good to go. I don’t care what type of question they want to throw at you. All you have to do is frame your mindset a little bit differently based on the qualification for the correct answer. Below is a list of question types that could follow the stimulus and examples of what the correct answer choices would sound like:
- Flaw: The argument fails to consider the possibility that people who are already depressed are more likely to volunteer to work the “graveyard” shift.
- Strengthen: People who are depressed are no more likely than those who are not to accept positions that are generally worked during nighttime hours.
- Weaken: In a subsequent study from a neighboring town, researchers found that people who showed symptoms of depression were disproportionately more likely to enjoy working during off hours.
- Assumption: If given the choice, people who show signs of depression would be no more likely than those without to choose to work the “graveyard” shift.
- Parallel Flaw: People who live in mansions tend to make more money at their jobs. Thus, there must be something about living in a mansion that causes people to advance to high-paying jobs.
So the big lesson is: Don’t just watch the question types. You can learn just as much from how you are understanding and evaluating arguments that are made and repeated in Logical Reasoning.