Test Prep Companies and the Power of Positive Thinking

I used to judge debate rounds, and, when I did, I always found it annoying when debaters would downplay the desirability of the activity. For example, it was a common trope for debaters to begin their speech by saying something like “Thanks, judge, for taking the time to judge debate when I’m sure there’re more exciting things you could be doing,” or (during the last round of the day), “We’ve made it almost all the way through the tournament, so we’ll try to be brief and get you out of here soon.”  This irks me because the debaters shouldn’t be apologizing for doing what they enjoy (even if it’s objectively nerdy and would bore many people). Don’t say you’re sorry about something you choose to do voluntarily; own your own actions.

Another activity that bores (and indeed depresses) many people is standardized testing, with which I have some experience. I’ve taught the LSAT on-and-off for four years (sometimes as a full-time job), and I’m currently using BarBri to study for the bar exam, which I’ll take at the end of July. Recently, while listening to a BarBri lecture (on property, I believe), an interesting difference between BarBri and the company that taught me the LSAT (TestMasters) came to mind, and I decided to write about it here: BarBri lecturers are constantly apologizing for the bar exam and, to a lesser extent, for their course (“This is really boring.” “I promise to get you out of here early.” “Hopefully you didn’t hate this awful, horrible, experience of studying for the bar.”) The culture of TestMasters, on the other hand, is very positive on the test it teaches: a great example of this is when I interviewed for the teaching position I eventually took with them, the founder of the company, Robin Singh, asked a question that boiled down to “Do you think the LSAT is a good test?” Sensing which way the wind was blowing, I replied “Yes” and gave several reasons. Mr. Singh responded “Exactly, and here are some more reasons why it’s a great test” and then spent several minutes singing the LSAT’s praises. BarBri’s corporate culture portrays the Bar Exam as an unfortunate obstacle to overcome; TestMasters generally perceives the LSAT as a worthy endeavor in which the company will assist you.

Now, it is certainly the case that the average taker of either the bar exam or the LSAT shares the BarBri approach: I hate this test; I just want to get it out of the way. Indeed, most sane people don’t take standardized tests just for the hell of it. Nevertheless, I like the TestMasters approach far better. I think there’s something of value in having a corporate culture that embraces the meaningfulness of the problem it is meant to solve. Think about it from the perspective of the instructor. If you teach to a test that you think is pointless and unpleasant, how can you be passionate about your work? If, on the other hand, you teach usable skills that manifest themselves on a fair examination that tests important abilities, then you will care much more about the product of your work and do a far better job for your students. A company that’s apologetic about it’s core purpose can’t possibly motivate its employees and care about its customers to the extent that an organization that takes pride in its function would do so. A person that’s embarrassed about what they do for a living should probably find another a job; a company that whines about its own reason for existence should probably just go bankrupt.

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5 thoughts on “Test Prep Companies and the Power of Positive Thinking

  1. You’re clearly right that apologizing for the service you are providing is a bad idea–BarBri should emphasize the value of its lectures, if only because of their obvious instrumental value, i.e., helping you pass the bar.

    But you’re not clearly right (nor I suppose clearly wrong) that to do a good job teaching someone how to X, you have to believe or suggest that X-ing is intrinsically good. And there may be reasons to think the opposite is true. Take your example of the LSAT. Yes, saying it’s a fair test on important skills will make some students take studying more seriously. On the other hand, the student who struggles early on may prefer to hear that it’s a meaningless obstacle, if only because the alternative suggests that there is something wrong with *him* rather than with the test. Also, you may even lose credibility (the opposite of your expected result) by hyping up the test, if in fact most people find it meaningless. And that creates more distance between you and the student: a student may think that to do well on the LSAT, you have to believe it’s important, to be like that crazy teacher. Finally, you may foster a kind of “us against them,” team mentality when you play to people’s first instincts–we all agree this is an awful test, but together we can kick its butt!

    But again, even if you think the LSAT or the bar exam is an obstacle without any value in itself, students won’t respond well to your teaching unless you think what you’re saying (at least) actually matters.

  2. That’s a really good point. There’s definitely a tension between reassuring your students (/being taken seriously by your students) and the sort of internal messaging to the company about its values. My intuition is that it’s better to err on the side of building internal morale at the expense of communicating with your students, because passionate employees will do a better job (even with the additional headwind of their somewhat weird beliefs) than soulless ones.

    (I cross-posted this comment and the previous one from Facebook)

  3. I took a Kaplan course for the LSAT that definitely fell into the BarBri camp… the attitude was definitely more “the LSAT is trying to trick you; learn to beat the test” than fostering a respect for the test or focusing more generally on the logic-skills that are broadly tested.

    But whereas I think the LSAT happens to be a pretty reasonable test of various skills, I question any sort of regime that pushes people away from a more-or-less realistic view of what they’re doing. It is a pretty common self-defense mechanism for people to believe that what they’re doing is very important, and I think some harm is done when perspectives become skewed.

    I had an interesting conversation with an aspiring musician today who spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me that the act of creating music was a comparable social good to doing humanitarian, service, or political work. I have no doubt that his enthusiasm and conviction resulted out of the affirmation and reassurances of his personal social group. His band’s “internal morale” and value system is pretty strongly cemented. Does this make them a better band? Probably. But does that particular outcome justify what I would consider (and I think many would consider) a far less productive use of his considerable intellect?

    The question is certainly different when it comes to a task as pointed and direct as “test preparation”. And yes, as a teaching strategy, generating enthusiasm may be more useful than making the task seem like a tedious chore. But when it comes to “embracing the meaningfulness of the problem [a corporation] is meant to solve”, I worry slightly about the societal consequences of becoming accustomed to “embracing” problems that, in fact, are quite meaningless.

  4. I think it’s entirely possible to be passionate about your work while still hating the thing you’re preparing people for. Funeral home directors don’t love it when people die, and part of their job is consoling people and telling them how terrible it is; but they may well enjoy helping people deal with the death of a loved one in the most comfortable and healing way possible. Similarly, the BarBri lecturers may agree that the bar exam is tedious and boring, but they might get pleasure out of helping people overcome what they perceive as a necessary, if unpleasant, obstacle for happiness (in this case, the end result of becoming a lawyer). The Testmasters culture is good too, but I don’t think either one necessarily makes for more passionate employees.

  5. Just to note — the LSAT could be a “good test” in a variety of ways and still be a colossal pain in the ass for. Similarly, the bar exam could be a valuable test as a check for would be lawyers while still being as boring as humanly possible.

    Beyond that, comparing the nature of the two tests themselves it seems far less important for the bar classes to sell the test as the best thing ever than it is for LSAT classes to do the same — in many ways the ‘skills’ being tested by the LSAT are far more generalizable than most of the ‘skills’ individually being tested by the bar exam. If while taking the bar exam you happen to find the sections on (for example) criminal procedure just mind-numbingly boring, you can rest somewhat easy knowing that it more than possible that you could have a life-long career without ever really needing to use that material ever again. On the contrary, if you are taking the LSAT and find yourself allergic to reading critically, no matter how often an instructors could say ‘Oh, this part is just boring,’ it won’t change the reality that you’re going to need some ability to read critically if you want to succeed in law school/as a lawyer.

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