The LSAT, Context-Dependent Learning, and Jeopardy!

Posted by Ryan M. on 9/20/19 11:00 AM


I'll get to the LSAT in a minute, but first I want to talk about Alex Trebek.

JeopardyMy life-long dream is to become a Jeopardy champion. In my spare time I memorize everything I can about Shakespeare plays, Greek Gods, famous inventors, and Ukrainian geography. But all Jeopardy contestants do that. If I’m going to win, I need some other way to gain an edge over the competition.

Jeopardy contestants perform in an unfamiliar environment under bright lights. The crowd is cheering, tens of thousands of dollars are at stake, millions are watching at home, and Alex Trebek is just feet away from you going on about the Etruscans. It's no wonder most contestants report feeling nervous – like most LSAT takers.

So, I came up with some strategies for my Jeopardy preparation to help combat this game-day anxiety, which we can also use for the LSAT. While practicing for Jeopardy, I try to recreate the Jeopardy studio experience as closely as possible. For example, when playing along at home, I stand instead of sitting. To get my timing down, I wait until Alex is done reading the clue before I “buzz in” using a makeshift buzzer (that springy part of my toilet paper roll holder). And of course, I always answer in the form of a question. I've even been to the Jeopardy studio to watch from the audience to feel more comfortable in that room.

If I ever find out I'm actually going to be on the show, things will get a little kookier. I'll get a podium to stand behind while I play along at home. I'll study wearing the same clothes I plan to wear on the show. I'll keep my air conditioner on full blast and get some bright stage lights to make my apartment feel more like the chilly, luminous Jeopardy studio. I might even buy a life-size cardboard cutout of Alex Trebek. Hopefully, if I do all these things, I won’t be as nervous as the typical contestant and will perform better.

The habits I'm describing are based on concepts called context-dependent and state-dependent learning. Studies show these techniques help to increase exam scores.

Context-Dependent Learning refers to the phenomenon that test performance improves when you study in the same type of environment you will experience on test day.

State-dependent learning is similar but focuses on the test taker’s physical and emotional states. Like muscle memory, these ideas help to explain why sports teams have a home-field advantage and why I'm so much better at ping-pong in my parents' basement than anywhere else.

Here are some suggestions I give my LSAT students based on these principles.

Context-Dependent learning:

In the weeks leading up to the test, surround yourself with the same sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings you will experience on test day. Follow the same routines and rituals. Take practice tests in the clothes you will wear on test day. Study in classrooms or libraries surrounded by other people, rather than at home. Once you learn your test location, visit the building and study there. Try to take practice tests at the same time of day that you will take the LSAT.

State-dependent learning:

Each morning eat the same breakfast at the same time you will on test day. If you plan to drink coffee on test day, drink coffee on practice days. If not, don't. If you like to listen to music to get pumped up or relax before a test, create a playlist that you listen to every day before studying. Then listen to that playlist on test day. Eat the same snacks between practice test sections that you will eat during the real LSAT. Get a life size cardboard cutout of an LSAT proctor (okay, maybe don't do that).

These are just some ideas, I'm sure you can come up with others. The goal is for your actual test day to be filled with lots of familiar sights, sounds, and feelings, so you can be as comfortable as possible when taking the LSAT. If you do that, you will decrease your nerves and increase your chances of performing at your best. Remember, when it comes to the LSAT, every little advantage counts.

Cambridge Coaching LSAT tutors, like Ryan M., understand the make-or-break importance of the LSAT and are dedicated to helping our clients beat the exam. That’s why we believe in doing more than just targeting client's weaknesses - your tutor’s goal is to identify the sections where you have the greatest potential for improvement, and to help you wring every last point from them.

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