Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reading Comprehension Week - How the LSAT Has Changed

Yesterday we discussed our philosophy and approach to the most mundane section of the LSAT. Future posts will include a graph of the most frequently asked question types (or task standards, as we call them at Zen), and how to correct mistakes made on the most important of the 19 task standards.

For today, we'll answer if you can use the cheap Official PrepTest books from the 1998-2002 LSATs and still get appropriate practice for the newest LSATs.

Lots of people worry about whether they have to spring for the brand spanking new, $8-a-pop PrepTests; our analysis of the Zen task standards show that the newest PrepTests ARE necessary for the reading comprehension sections. While logical reasoning has remained relatively unchanged since 2000, reading comprehension stole a question from analytical reasoning and substituted two 200-250 word comparative passages for a standard 400-500 word passage in 2007.

As you can see from the graph, the importance of each task strand relative to the others has changed in every case by at least 5%. The most significant differences are ~8% drops in identifying opinions/tones and analyzing passage structure and a ~7.5% increase in extrapolating opinions.

In general, these changes have made the reading comprehension section more difficult, in that the LSAT requires fewer identification tasks and more active considerations of arguments and their evidence. When
more of these time intensive tasks are grouped with more explicit text-reference tasks, modern reading comprehension sections require you to be able to zoom in and out of both the scope of the passage and the amount of detail needed to perform a task.

Specifically, the individual task standards "describe the overall passage organization" and "identify conclusions implied by a quoted expert" have been completely eliminated from modern LSATs. While these tasks, especially the former, are still important skills to utilize on modern LSATs, they are no longer allocated individual points.

When coupled with the additional question stolen from the analytical reasoning section and the added difficulty
--in our opinion--of balancing two conflicting and/or complementing arguments in the comparative passages, modern LSAT reading comprehension sections require both more strenuous and more numerous mental tasks to be performed in the same 35 minute section.

However, there are several important points - outside the obvious price advantage - that make the older tests still desirable for self-study.

1) Even if the questions are easier in the older LSATs, it provides a natural learning curve for students; starting at the somewhat easier material and working up to the modern level helps build confidence and provides appropriate content for lengthy practice. If you are to incorporate the older PrepTests, ensure you use them at the beginning of your self-study.

2) Reading comprehension sections are the most prone to LSAT fatigue, as the tasks require you to hold much larger amounts of information in your working memory for a longer period of time than logical reasoning sections.
The sheer volume of real LSAT reading comprehension questions provided in the 10 Official PrepTests series allows you to ensure that you practice to prevent LSAT fatigue, even while focusing intervention strategies on other sections. NEVER practice reading comprehension sections in isolation, as the real test measures your endurance as much as your accuracy.

3) The question stems in the older LSATs are more varied than in modern LSATs. That is, there are more ways to learn how the LSAT phrases a given task standard; this provides a greater opportunity to develop a personal understanding of which task the LSAT is prompting. After internalizing the different task standards, it is easier to identify them in the more rigidly composed question stems of the current LSATs.

4) Similar in use to number 2, but overlooked by many test takers, is the fact that the PrepTests are significantly shorter than the actual LSAT; they are missing the experimental section that adds 25% to the length of the test. Taking sections from the older PrepTests and spreading them throughout the modern LSATs
as mock experimentals allows you to accurately simulate test-day length in your regular practice.

Tomorrow, look for the journal entry from a Zen student as he applies our methods to his self-study, specifically to the reading comprehension questions. Thursday we'll continue our analysis of the modern reading comprehension section, including advice on how to tackle the second-most prevalent task standard: citing explicit evidence used by authors.