Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (43)One of the basic tenets of my coaching philosophy is to teach a student to teach themselves. The vast majority of the learning process should take place solo. Learning the LSAT or the GMAT is more like learning a language than it is like learning a subject, and there is just no way—no matter how long you stick with it—that you’re going to learn that language in 90 minutes a week. My goal as a tutor is to shape the way that the student thinks, ideally bending it toward the way that the test-makers think.

One tool that I’ve found incredibly useful in explaining this paradigm is Bloom’s Taxonomy, an education theory of the hierarchy of learning developed by Benjamin Bloom and published in the late 1950s. It divides mastery of a given concept or subject into six categories: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The higher up you go on the hierarchy, the less likely you are to ever forget what you learned and the easier time you’ll have applying it. Case in point: I learned these six categories many years ago, and they came right back after not thinking about them for a decade or more.

Moving up the ladder

Anything you might put on a flashcard to study falls into the category of knowledge. As an educator, the easiest and worst way to teach a subject is to teach such a stream of facts devoid of context. In the GMAT, there is a little 9th grade math to brush up on, which will necessitate some memorization, but most of the GMAT and the entire LSAT is extremely resistant to a knowledge-based approach. In fact, it is often true that the less you know the better, lest it color your understanding of the sequence of logical reasoning that leads you to the proper answer.

Comprehension of how a concept works is much more durable. You can remember several facts, or you can know how they fit together and thus be able to recreate them on demand. Mere knowledge is subject to inadvertent misplacement of a fact, whereas comprehension sees how it fits together and makes mistakes much less common.

How it works

Even within the 9th grade math in the GMAT, there is a way to swap out comprehension/application for knowledge to increase durability and reduce errors. Take the Pythagorean Theorem. You could remember that it only applies to right triangles and not others, or you could visualize a triangle with sides x and y where the angle between them increases or decreases, leaving you with different outcomes for hypotenuse z. This leads you to the conclusion that the angle opposite z must be stable for the theorem to hold, so it must only apply in right triangles. Now you can’t forget it!

Or think about it this way: you could memorize the size and dimensions of the wood you’d need to put together a table. Or you comprehend the design, leaving no need to memorize meaning you’ll never forget or slip up. If you learn by doing (application) then you’ll comprehend without ever having to actually sit down and figure it out. In other words, you can move up the sequence by starting with knowledge, moving to comprehension, and so forth. But if the situation gives you a chance to start on the second or third rung of the ladder, by all means take it!

In my tutoring sessions, I focus primarily on ditching knowledge (what type of question is this?) for comprehension (what is this question really asking?), followed by application of the concept to answering the actual question. The books teach the question types, and this is useful because it teaches you how to comprehend how the questions function. But it’s silly to try to keep in mind the ten discrete-but-not-really-so-discrete categories of questions involved in LSAT logical reasoning because (a) there’s no need and (b) it will probably trip you up later down the road, wasting valuable time and causing mistakes.


I really know that I’ve done my job when students come back to me speaking in the language of the upper part of the flow chart: analysis, synthesis, evaluation. These three are a cycle: they pick apart (analyze) some approach to answering a question (be it their own or mine, or that of a textbook or a YouTube video), put it back together to inform their own approach (synthesis – sometimes called creation), and then evaluate that process, leading them right back to analysis. Some understandings of this cycle put it in the sequence of analysis, evaluation, creation, but the basic concept is the same. The thinker is studying the learning process, both internally and externally, and thus teaching themselves. Since they’re typically working alone for 5-10x the time that they’re working with me, they now have the ability to maximize their learning potential, increasing it 5-10x!

So please, don’t just get by. Don’t settle for getting the right answer. Challenge yourself to understand every aspect of the problem in front of you. Become the expert in it, so that you could teach someone well enough that they could teach it to someone else. Not a great test-day strategy, but when you become the expert, test-day strategies get easy.