Test Tips: Handling Interruptions On Test Day

I ran across an interesting article today about the impact of interruptions on peoples’ ability to accurately complete tasks. Take a look, and then let’s discuss!

not-listeningThough the article never explicitly mentions the LSAT, it’s fairly clear that these findings are absolutely relevant to the LSAT. For example, think about the last time you forgot to turn off your cell phone while taking a practice test, and it rang while you were in the middle of a question. Or, looking forward, imagine your mindset in the test room when “that guy” (there’s always one!) starts doing whatever annoying thing he does – coughing, tapping his pencil, tapping his foot, shaking his leg, whatever. That second or two that you get annoyed or distracted may not seem like a big deal. But then, you read the second line of the article:

The study, in which 300 people performed a sequence-based procedure on a computer, found that interruptions of about three seconds doubled the error rate.

Whoa.

First of all, sequence-based procedures? We do those – they’re called sequencing games. This study seems to be telling us that getting distracted while attempting to solve one of these guys doubles your error rate.

“So why did the error rate go up?” Altmann asks. “The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”

It should be noted that the task that these guinea pigs test subjects were asked to do was a lot simpler than what you’re going to be expected to do on the LSAT. Identifying whether a letter is in the first half or second half of the alphabet isn’t exactly rocket science. Yet, even on such a simple task, a 2-3 second distraction absolutely tanked the accuracy rate. How do you think that same 2-3 second distraction is going to affect you when you’re trying to parallel a given flaw, or find a way to weaken a complicated argument? It’s always been pretty obvious that being distracted is always worse than not being distracted, but the fact that such small distractions can have such a large impact is the real shocker here.

So what can you do about it? The solution is twofold – either you learn to block out distractions (maintain focus), or you learn to gather yourself once you’ve been interrupted (re-focus). Most likely, it will be a combination of the two. Let’s examine each option:

shutterstock_85474711Maintaining focus means that you don’t get distracted in the first place. You often hear this being referred to as being “in the zone” in various contexts – when you’re so locked into what you’re doing that you’re totally unaware of what’s going on around you. How good you are at this will vary. For example, I get hyper-focused whenever I’m working on something; often, someone can be speaking directly to me and I won’t perceive it until they do something to physically jolt me out of that state (usually, a tap on the shoulder will do). I don’t expect that everyone can attain that level of focus, but that’s okay. What’s important is for you to figure out is how to get in your most concentrated state possible, and maintain it for as long as possible. If something still manages to break into your little bubble, that’s fine – that’s when you switch gears and re-focus.

Re-focusing  just means that you recognize that you’ve been distracted, and you take a quick moment to gather your thoughts before throwing yourself back into the task at hand. A huge danger of getting distracted is losing track of where you were, or mis-remembering your thought process up to that point. When both things happen, it’s doubly disastrous. Once your attention returns to the task at hand, don’t take anything for granted – take the extra second or two to recap where you were and how you got to that point.  This is also a fantastic opportunity to do some other de-stressing exercises to relieve some anxiety. Your concentration has already been broken, so it does you no good to pretend that it hasn’t. Instead, take a second to settle down, and then work on getting back to that state of concentration as quickly as possible. Only then should you continue with the question you were working on. It’s not quite as good as not getting distracted in the first place, but that’s not a reasonable expectation anyway.

You cannot assume that your test environment will be perfectly quiet, nor should you expect it. Rather, you must adjust your study environment in such a way that it gives you experience with dealing with background noise and sudden distractions. Whether that means going down to the local Starbucks to study, leaving the TV on at low volume while you take a test, telling your roommate to come bother you at some random point during your test, or whatever else you can think of to introduce those elements to your studying – do it. The only way you can learn to block out distractions to the best of your capabilities, and to refocus quickly when you do get interrupted, is to have experience dealing with it. If you don’t have that experience, then don’t be surprised when you find yourself having a much harder time piecing together the parts of a question once the inevitable distractions of test day surface.

This is just one of many issues that underscores the importance of having a strong mental game on test day. You can have all of the technical skills in the world, but if you can’t fight through the realities of the situation that test day puts you in, you will inevitably be disappointed with the result.

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