Are you a worrier or a warrior?

The New York Times has an interesting, long article about a gene associated with how we cope with stress, including how we deal with the stress associated with standardized tests.  There is a ton of stuff in the article — too much, really — so I want to unpack it here a bit to help you draw some lessons about how to understand your own reactions to high stakes testing.

The first part of the article details two different genes — and two different enzymes — that can be used to regulate dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains where “we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts.”  One enzyme is fast-acting and one is slow-acting.  In general, the slow-acting one is better at regulation, and those whose genes produce this enzyme tend to be better students, better planners, etc.  On the other hand, the fast-acting one is better at coping with the flood of hormones that happens in stressful situations.  People with the fast-acting enzyme are energized by stress and competition and require the enhanced stimulation to remain engaged enough to perform well.  Those with all slow-acting enzymes are dubbed “worriers”: folks who study hard, do well, but fall apart on standardized tests (without intervention).  Those with the fast-acting enzymes are dubbed “warriors”: students who thrive on competition, and may be mediocre students who outperform expectations in high-stakes settings.  Most of the population has both genes (one from each parent) and therefore may have a blended response.

Can you tell which group you fall into?

Worriers

The key to worriers mastering their debilitating stress response is practice.  If you become inured to the stresses of a test day experience, your impressive cognitive skills and steady approach can be brought to bear on the test, smashing it to smithereens.  There are three principles to keep in mind as you search for ways to gain experience:

  1. Don’t identify with your stress response (i.e. “I’m just a bad test taker”): you can change that response to something more experienced and constructive.
  2. Make sure something is at stake when you set up practice test experiences: try to mimic the context of the test center, but also find a way to put something on the line.  Some ideas are to enlist a friend to ensure that you donate money to a cause you hate if your practice test results fall below an appropriate goal — and use the money instead to buy yourself a fun night out or donate to a cause you love if you succeed in your goal.  Another avenue is to make your results public in some way (though not in a way that future employers can find in a google search!)  Think about starting a blog, or using your favorite social media vehicle to set goals and then report your progress.  In particular, some thing bad needs to happen if you fall short, though it should be proportionate to your experience level.  If you currently fall apart when you take a test, have the stakes be low (but not zero) to start with and increase them as you get more comfortable.
  3. Every time you have a high-stakes event — practice or real — spend some time in advance thinking about the good things that come out of the experience regardless of the results (the experience, the social connections, learning, etc.) and some time afterwards ensuring that something good does come out of the experience.

Once you have blunted your worry reaction to high stakes tests, all the benefits of your genes can come back into play.

Warriors

Warriors are less likely to even be reading this blog, since they thrive in high stakes testing situation.  The big drawback for the warrior is that you might not have developed the cognitive skills that will shine — if you have them — when boosted by stress.  The challenge for you will be to spend enough focused time studying to build a solid foundation for test-day performance.  The strategies you can use to work with your brain, rather than against it (i.e. by boring yourself to tears through shear willpower) are:

  1. Turn everything into a contest.  If you have some like-minded study buddies, you guys can set up friendly competitions (but be sensitive if there is a worrier in your midst).  Or you can compete against yourself.  Everyone should be tracking their study progress, and you should be using those stats to win something if you meet your goals.
  2. A subtle difference between worrier competitions and warrior competitions is that warriors are thriving on the high of competition, rather than inuring themselves against the fear of consequences, so you want to try to amp up the high by focusing more on positive rewards, though those positive rewards should be tied to real stretches in your abilities.  If you aren’t falling short with some degree of regularity, you are not setting yourself a big enough challenge.

If you can turn your studying into as big a thrill as the test-day, you are going to find yourself with a much stronger set of cognitive skills to play with for the real thing.

Next up

The article goes into a bunch of other interesting research into stress in high stakes testing situations, but I’m going to save that for the next post.

Care for your brain

This post is just a quick note to draw your attention to still more research in brain science on the incredible plasticity of our brains throughout life.  Particularly if you have difficulty with stamina and concentration on your test of choice, there could be huge paybacks to even 5 minutes a day of quiet contemplation.  Combine this with a walk outdoors, and you will be getting a complete mind-body boost that will help get you through your studying.

The sooner you start this practice, the more benefits you’ll get from it by test day — and beyond.

The Study Cycle

What do you do when you study?  Have you thought at all about how studying for the LSAT/GMAT/GRE/SAT is different from a biology test or a French exam?  Remember that standardized tests test how you think far more than testing what you know.  How do you study for something so meta?

The only way to change how you think is to think differently.  Sounds like a tautology, right?  But if you approach every question the same way, you are going to get basically the same results each time.  Remember, test writers have an entire scientific field dedicated to ensuring this is true.  So you have to break your brain out of its box, and no, I don’t mean by banging it against a brick wall.  Instead, you want to design a study cycle that constantly tries new perspectives and then knits them into the basic test taking experience.

A study cycle involves these steps:

  1. Take a baseline measure.  This might be a timed section, timed test, or just a sequence of 10 questions of the type you are targeting.
  2. Analyze your results.  What questions did you get wrong?  Why did you get them wrong?  What patterns are there?  If you could stop doing one thing wrong, what would it be?
  3. Brainstorm some exercises that will attack that one thing you want most to fix.  I suggested some already, and will continue to do so.  You want to look for exercises that take you out of your comfort zone, such as not reading the RC passage.  Some are clearly not what you’d actually do on a test, such as the question writing exercise, but they give you a new perspective.
  4. Practice your exercise enough to give it a real go — don’t stop after one attempt because it is a disaster or it scares the shit out of you — spend real time on it.
  5. Take a post-exercise measurement.  How did your experience change?  Did you get more questions correct?  Were your mistakes of a different nature?  Any progress on that one thing wrong?
  6. Repeat.

In general, you want these cycles to be pretty short, maybe spanning two or three days of work, one or two pomodoro units a day.  Some will be bigger efforts, though you might want to mix in study cycles of a totally different sort to keep your brain nimble and your interest piqued.

A lot of what I, and other tutors, can do for you is suggest creative changes to your process — we have a lot of experience that way.  But it is also important that you start to own your own study cycle.  Be a little playful, and enjoy the creativity involved in coming up with something new.

Think like a test writer II

It is a bit harder to write your own good quantitative question stems (trust me, I once wrote a big chunk of a test bank for my old university’s quantitative methods subject — it took forever!) but there is still some useful thinking like a test writer to do for your normal multiple-choice problem solving questions on the GMAT, GRE or SAT.  In particular, if you are a test writer, you want various percentages of people to pick the wrong answer over the right answer.  So how do you get them to do that?

Well, harder problems are harder (generally) because they require more steps.  Many non-TestSmashing test takers will forget where they are heading on a question and just kind of stop when they feel they have taken enough steps — or stop when they have a number that matches an answer choice.  So how do you gull these poor souls into choosing a wrong answer?  Make sure that each step’s answer appears in the answer choices!  You, of course, are going to remember what the test really tests, and make sure you actually answer the question being asked, right?

And, while it breaks my heart to say it, waaaay too many people who feel helpless on a question will just randomly combine the numbers in a question.  (Are you one of those people?  For the love of God and all that is good, resolve to STOP TODAY and never, ever do that again!)  Fill in the remaining wrong answer slots with such random combinations.

If you want active practice thinking like a test writer for problem solving questions, pick up an algebra text book (or search the internet) and find some open-ended word problems.  Solve them, and note along the way the intermediate steps.  Come up with 5 answer choices.  Post in comments if you want!

Think like a test writer

One great way to start smashing test questions is to start thinking like a test writer, instead of a test taker.  You’d better believe that the test writers spend tons of time studying how you think,* so don’t you think you should return the favor?

If you were assigned to write questions for your choice of test, what would your objective be?  Well, this is a standardized test, and the standardization means that the people who take the test this year have to have basically the same experience as last year and the year before, only the questions have to be completely different.  Not only does it have to feel the same, but the same person (who hasn’t done any test smashing) should get the same score every time she takes the test, within some narrow band.  And in order for that to happen, you have to know as precisely as possible, how many people — and of what “sort” — will get your question correct or incorrect.  Of those who get the question incorrect, you should have a pretty good idea of the distribution of which wrong answer they will choose.  The hopeless test takers will go for one wrong answer, and the almost-there test takers will, perhaps, fall for a different trap.

Every time you take an official test, you are contributing your lab rat skills on those experimental sections.  (Does that make you feel good?  You are contributing to science!  For free!)  That is where they test and calibrate their questions.  But you’d better believe that they aren’t writing random questions that they then learn about on the experimental section: they already have a pretty good idea what is going to happen by the time the question shows up on your test.

So, if you are the manager of a bunch of question writers, what are you going to do?  Well, there have to be templates that writers share, so that Sarah’s questions look the same as Karim’s questions.  And, dear TestSmasher, if you can figure out the templates, it is like having a master key to the test — or a sledge hammer!

This could work for any question type, but I think arguments are particularly well suited for this exercise, which is to sit down and write (at least) 3 questions in the style of your test:

  1. Pick one stem (maybe a question type you hate?) and use it for all three.
  2. Find a couple of official questions of the same type.
  3. Analyze the best you can the argument structure: number of sentences, the role they serve, etc.
  4. Choose 3 totally unrelated topics
  5. Craft an argument on each topic that conforms to the structure
  6. Write at least three answer choices (five might get tedious)

Most of the art of question writing lies in writing the answer choices, so let’s drill down into that one.

The correct answer has to be:

  1. Indisputably correct.  (Think about aggrieved test takers and their lawyers.)
  2. Not obvious.

How do you do both at once?  The way I would go about it is write an obvious and correct answer choice and then revise by picking synonyms or other phrases that mean the same thing but aren’t the way you would think to characterize the correct answer if you were a normal person instead of a test writer.

The wrong answers have to be:

  1. Indisputably incorrect.  (Think lawyers again!)
  2. Attractive.

And how do you do that?  Well, you say things that are correct but not answering the question, of course!  Or things that are in response to the question but are slightly, subtly, but fatally wrong.   Write at least one of each.

Once you have done this exercise, first, post your fake questions in the comments — I’d love to see what you come up with.  Then, go do a set of real questions with the same stem.  Do you approach the questions differently?  Identify the wrong (or right) answers more consistently?  Do you catch yourself before you fall into a trap that used to trip you up?

*There is an entire scientific field, psychometrics, that studies how you think and respond to questions designed to measure something about your cognition, psychology, or character.

A note on question types

In my last post, I was a bit snarky about the tendency of test prep companies to develop complicated taxonomies of, say, argument question types.  I’d like to be a bit more nuanced about that.  I like simple taxonomies, ergo my DESTROY, SUPPORT, DESCRIBE for arguments, and I do think that all of the arguments fit into one of those three broad categories.

HOWEVER.  In the course of your studying, if you start to notice that it helps you to think about “inference” questions differently than “conclusion” questions, that is fantastic.  If it identifies for you a difference that is meaningful to you in what approach you take/traps to look out for, then you know you are studying and learning well.  My only quarrel is when you spend a ton of time (and money) learning someone else’s taxonomy, with nuances that don’t mean a whole lot to you.  Then you stress out a bunch over your inability to see any difference between an inference or a conclusion question, when at the end of the day, there isn’t a difference, and it shouldn’t cause you any stress, because if you weren’t so fucking stressed out, you’d get the right answer.

This applies to other question types as well (RC, LSAT games, math questions on the various math-y tests).

What are you studying for?

I want to post some more worked examples for arguments, but I’ve been chewing over this question for quite a while now, and want to provide some thoughts on what the bulk of test-prep study time should be focused on.

There is a little bit of substantive stuff that is worth making sure you know for each of the tests.  Some math maybe, or logic rules for the LSAT.  This has to be done.  It is also possible to create some things to study for, such as finely grained categories of argument questions.  This is usually a waste of time.  Or you could just do practice questions until the cows come home, hoping for improved results.  The tests are pretty resistant to magical thinking, though.

So what are you studying for?

I like to think of it as taking the decisions out of the test.  You want to absolutely minimize (i.e. get to zero) the moments on the test where you are looking at a question and don’t have a plan for solving it.  This is different from knowing what the right answer is off the bat.  Instead, it is having a process that you know and trust and FOLLOW EVERY SINGLE TIME.  My suspicion for the students who take a test prep class, feel like they are improving, and then get the same fucking score as they have gotten at the start, is that they get into the exam and wing it, rather than relying on a set process.

When you are nervous, you make DUMB decisions.  Big time DUMB.  You are not dumb, but when you are thinking about “ohmygodIhopeIdowellbecause IreallyreallywannagetintoHarvard” you are not at your tip top in thinking through the ins and outs of your approach.  It’s just the way the brain works.  So the way to cope is not to start thinking “ohmygodIbetternotfreakoutbecausethen I’mgoingtomakebaddecisionsandnotgetintoHarvard” but instead to not make decisions when it isn’t safe.  Sort of like not driving drunk.

When you turn the page/click to the next screen, and see a reading comprehension passage, you want to have a tried-and-true process that you don’t question and don’t change on test day.  You are going to read the first question stem, skim for an answer, prove every fucking word of your answer choice is addressed in the passage, rinse and repeat.  You are not suddenly going to decide that maybe reading the passage first would be a good idea.  You aren’t going to go all magical thinking and pick (C) because it just “sounds” like the right answer.  You aren’t going to panic about the time and pick the first plausible answer because “whatifI’mtooslowanddon’tfinishontime bettergofasterorImightnotgetintoHarvard.”

You want to walk into the test with a very clear, realistic idea of what your score is going to be and how you are going to earn it.  Of course there will be some variation and some moments that may call for a bit of creativity or insight, but that is to be kept to a minimum.  If you don’t already know what your score will be, you shouldn’t be taking the test.  If you think you know what your score will be but hope it will be lots better, you DEFINITELY aren’t ready to take the test.  Instead, you want to work systematically through the question types on your test, and figure out your approach, practice it consistently until you would NEVER do it differently, then move on to the next question type.  This is the heart of Test Smashing.  The test should be little smithereens before you walk into the test center.

Arguments

These are the Critical Reasoning questions on the GMAT and the Logical Reasoning questions on the LSAT.  Indeed, the approach to the short reading comprehension passages on the GRE should be approached blending the Arguments and Reading Comprehension question approaches.  There is no equivalent question type on the SAT.

Important:  If you are taking the LSAT, arguments are 50% of the test.  Games and Reading Comprehension are each 25%.  TestSmashing Arguments is the most valuable thing you can do to up your LSAT score.  Not to mention there is a lot of spillover between Arguments and RC.  Games are the strangest (and most fun) part of the LSAT, so they often suck up most of the attention of LSAT studiers.  This is a mistake.  If you can avoid that temptation, you are ahead of the game already.

Okay, ‘nough warm up.  How to smash arguments:

1. Read the question stem first.  A lot of prep companies spend a lot of time categorizing the question types in elaborate ways, and that isn’t a terrible thing to do, but I also think it isn’t the most important thing to worry about.  I would, however, write one of three things down on the test next to the question (or on scratch paper for the GMAT): DESTROY, SUPPORT, DESCRIBE.  Or symbols that are meaningful, like X, (check), ~.  (Spending time writing lots out is not the TestSmasher way, unless it is necessary.)

2.  Read the argument with one main purpose: which bit of the argument fits into which slot?  There are two slots: Premise and Conclusion.  They take the form, Premise: A is X.  Conclusion: Therefore, B must be Y.  In other words, there is a statement of fact (the premise) and then a statement about something else that must also be true (conclusion) because of the original fact.  The order in which these items come is not consistent.  Sometimes the conclusion comes first.  It is very important to know which is which.

3.  Do.  Not.  Ever.  Engage.  The substance of the argument is irrelevant.  The truth in the real world is irrelevant.  This is how people get snookered on arguments.

4.  If you wrote down DESCRIBE on your paper, you are done.  Look at the answer choices and, like in reading comp, prove that every word in your answer choice describes what is happening in whatever part of the argument you have been asked to describe.

5.  Otherwise, you have to figure out the mechanism by which the author of the argument got from Premise to Conclusion.  Unless the argument is:

A is X.  Therefore, A is X.

(and very, very occasionally, you will see an argument that is a tautology like the one above) there is an Assumption involved in the argument.

6.  The key to most argument questions is realizing that there is only a small set of structures to the arguments.  If you can see past the substance and the crappy writing style, you’ll learn that there are maybe 5 or 6 arguments on the tests.  Once you are able to see that, identify the class of argument, know how the correct answer is structured, you have smashed Arguments!!!

Some of the underlying structures are:

A is X.  Therefore, B is X.  Answer choice deals with the question: Is A = B?

A is X.  Therefore, A is Y.  Answer choice deals with the question: Does X imply Y?

There are a handful of these structures, and the prevalence and flavor are somewhat different between the LSAT and GMAT.  You should find a way to characterize the structures in a way that is meaningful to you, and your study time on arguments should be about noting and understanding the structure of arguments.

7.  Which word did you write down?  If you wrote DESTROY, and the argument is such that the answer choice deals with the question of, Is A=B?, then you look for an answer choice that says “B is not the same as A.”  If you wrote SUPPORT, the correct answer would be “B is indeed the same as A,” at least for the purposes of the argument.

8.  Double check that you executed the correct action on the argument.  The other way people get snookered is that they DESTROY instead of SUPPORT or vice versa.  This usually happens when they ask you to DESTROY a sensible argument or SUPPORT a really stupid one.  If you are not engaged with the substance of what you are reading, you won’t make this mistake as much.

Note: One frequent question type is “What assumption does the argument rely upon?”  This sounds DESCRIBE-y, but, since it deals with the assumption it isn’t.  Whether it is DESTROY or SUPPORT depends a bit on your temperament.  TestSmashing makes me snarky, so I like to think of identifying the assumptions as an act of destruction.  Some of you may feel more nurturing than me, and see identifying assumptions as a road to supporting the argument by making it stronger.  So interpret the question in the way that speaks to your perspective, but in the end the answer will always be “the argument assumes A = B” or “the argument assumes that X implies Y.”

How do you know you have smashed Arguments, once and for all?

Well, you’ll get them 100% correct, all the time.  I mean 100%.  Not 80% or 90%.  And, you will start to weird yourself out, since you’ll read the argument, have a pretty good idea of what the correct answer will say, and read the answer choices only to realize you predicted the exact wording of one of the answer choices.  That should scare you, because answer choices that sing to you are often traps, but if you are test smashing arguments in particular, you will know what the right answer should say almost to the word.  Of course, sometimes they will choose a bizarre route to the right answer.  Sort of like “X doesn’t imply Y when aliens invade,” but you should, by now, recognize that indeed it is true that X doesn’t imply Y when aliens invade, this is the form of answer I am looking for, therefore this must be right, bizarro though it may be.

I’ll do some worked examples in subsequent posts.

That math thing

So, unless you are taking the LSAT, you need to know some math.  Perhaps you are taking the LSAT because you want to get an advanced degree but don’t want to know some math, in which case, that is a crappy reason to go to law school.  Maybe you should read this post too.

A lot of people think they don’t like math or that they can’t do math.  Others don’t mind it, but have forgotten everything they used to know and don’t use the skill currently.  For those of you who fit into either of these descriptions, this post is for you.  While the GMAT, GRE, and SAT don’t actually try to test your math skills comprehensively, you do have to be really comfortable with some math.  And for the tiny slice of the discipline that you have to understand, you have to understand it really really well.

But that is okay!  It will serve you really well to learn this stuff!  Particularly if it currently gives you nightmares.  It just sucks to go through life as a professional, competent adult who is scared of math.

The stuff you need to know

The most important three skills for all the math-y tests are estimation, number sense, and basic function manipulation skills.  Estimation is an important TestSmashing skill — it isn’t particularly tested directly.  By number sense, I mean, do you understand zero?   fractions?  negative numbers?  what operations start to behave crazily in which bits of the number line?  Also, what are the differences between even and odd numbers?  Can you factor numbers into their prime factors quickly?  Cope with exponents? That kind of thing.  Unless you like to think about numbers, and be curious about them, this stuff is actually kind of hard to learn — it isn’t really a part of the math curriculum.  You just sort of have to notice it as you go along.  Basic function manipulation — the mechanics of algebra — are also super important.  Can you solve for x?  And not just, do you know how to if you sit down and think about it, but do you automatically start rearranging equations in your head — accurately — every time you see an x?

It also doesn’t hurt to know a few things about triangles.  And the GMAT has a pretty substantial emphasis on combinatorics and probability in the hard questions.  But if math makes you queasy, don’t sweat this stuff.  Focus on estimation, number sense, and function manipulation.  Once you’ve mastered them, then you can start to pick up the less central stuff.

The stuff you don’t need to know

Notation and jargon.  Avoid explanations or manuals that use a lot of either.  It is cognitively taxing and pays no benefits whatsoever on the tests.  (And very little in life, though it can be fun to throw a string of jargon into someone’s face if they aren’t taking you seriously enough.)

How to learn it

The very best self-study guide for learning and cementing the skills you need is Forgotten Algebra by Barbara Lee Bleau.  Units 1-15 are pure gold and on target.  Polynomials are almost never on the tests, so Units 16-22 are not so useful, but Units 23, 25-28, 31 will also help.  The book is great because it breaks everything down into micro-steps, gives lots of examples, has clear explanations and plenty of practice problems.  It is also great in its focus on number sense.  If you do one unit a day, you will be good to go in 2-3 weeks.

If you have found another book that you like, please let me know in the comments section!

How to love it

If you are mathphobic, the problem isn’t so much that you are incapable of learning the mechanical steps in Forgotten Algebra.  It’s that you have blocked your ability through boredom or trauma.  This is common and tragic, and there are books out there that could inspire you past the block.  The very first thing I would do is go read A Mathematician’s Lament.  It won’t take long.  It might make you angry, but the second half of the book, in particular, will pique your brain in a way it may not have been since you were a toddler learning to stand.   Hold on to this sense of joy, excitement.  This is the key to TestSmashing.

I’ll also re-iterate my recommendation of The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child.  It implements Paul Lockhart’s vision, and re-iterates through counter-example how very badly we teach math.  Some of the specific teaching tools he describes are also useful to get you to think about numbers differently, and in a way that will be rewarded by your test.

I know this is a lot of reading, but I think that this is actually time better spent that cranking through GMAT questions if you are mathphobic.  Once you have found the joy, the cranking through GMAT questions will actually be fun and even exciting.

Don’t just take my word for it

I wrote a while ago about how intelligence is not really the issue when taking these tests.  Guess what?  I was right!  The entire concept of intelligence as this immutable, etched-in-stone thing is totally, completely bullshit.  It turns out that studying for the LSAT makes you smarter.  You, dear test smasher, have within your power the option to exercise your brain more, and literally change its structure.  Woohoo!

My favorite quote from the article:

“A lot of people still believe that you are either smart or you are not, and sure, you can practice for a test, but you are not fundamentally changing your brain,” said senior author Silvia Bunge, associate professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “Our research provides a more positive message. How you perform on one of these tests is not necessarily predictive of your future success, it merely reflects your prior history of cognitive engagement, and potentially how prepared you are at this time to enter a graduate program or a law school, as opposed to how prepared you could ever be.

(My bolding.)  This is really great news for you.  This means that the test you are taking is not a measurement of your sum as a human being for ever and for all.  Instead, it is merely a snapshot of where you are on a particular set of skills at the moment.  This is really great news.

Except.  Now you have to act on it.  If you are performing poorly on your favorite test — or just performing more poorly than you like — you can’t just shake your fist at the sky and go about your life like you always have.  Instead, you have a choice.  You can change how you spend your time, and how you approach problems, and then see your score go up and your view of the world change.  Or, you can stay the same.  Your choice.  Change is really hard, and there is no harm, no foul, if you choose to not change. Life can be rich, wild, and wonderful for people with all levels of cognitive engagement.

But you gotta change your approach if you want to change your score.