Tuesday, November 13, 2018
I have learned probably hundreds of tips, tricks, and techniques to improve one's performance on examinations. But there is only one that I learned with ten million people watching.
In 2005, I took the Florida Bar Exam -- my second bar exam, after passing the DC Bar Exam seven years earlier. When I returned to my car, the lone message waiting for me on my cell phone was not the expected call from my family. Instead, it was Glenn, from Culver City, California, calling to inform me that I had been selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy! -- the fast-paced quiz show in which contestants vie to answer 61 questions in 22 minutes.
The taping was to be in a month, and so I went right from cramming for the bar to cramming for trivial warfare. I knew there was no way I could study every possible subject that might come up on the show. At the same time, I felt like I ought to be "training". Today, there are websites that archive years of Jeopardy! clues, and old episodes on demand on Netflix, but these weren't available in 2005, so my main source of practice was watching the daily broadcast of the show at 7:30 p.m. And, perhaps because I felt that it was a rather precious resource, I decided that I wasn't just going to casually sit on the couch and shout out responses with the contestants. I decided that I was going to act like a contestant. Each contestant stands behind a podium and holds in one hand a pen-sized electronic button, and the first person to press that button after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue gets the chance to give the response -- famously, in the form of a question (e.g., "Who is George Washington?"). So, for a month, I tried to simulate their actions. I watched the show standing up, behind a living room chair. I held a clickable ballpoint pen, and practiced pressing the top button after Trebek finished reading each clue, and only then did I allow myself to call out a response in the form of a question. From time to time, I would feel a little goofy doing this, thinking, Isn't the show really about what you know? But I kept at it, because it seemed like the only way to really practice.
Finally, I arrived in California for the taping. Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in one day, a couple days every few weeks, so on the day on which I was scheduled to tape, I was herded into the studio with about a dozen other contestants. We spent a few hours signing documents and having make-up applied and learning all the rules and, most important and exciting, playing a few practice rounds on the set to familiarize ourselves with the equipment. I noticed some of the other contestants -- all clearly bright and as delighted as I was to be there -- seemed slightly awkward behind the podium. We all knew intellectually what to do, of course; we had all been fans watching the show for years, and we had just received a thorough briefing on what was expected of us. Even so, some contestants struggled to push their electronic button at the right time -- pushing it before Trebek was done talking would lock you out so that you could not answer, but if you waited too long, someone else would get in before you. Others got the hang of the button, with concentration, but then could not remember the responses they were trying to give. And there were times when contestants would press the button correctly, and give the right response, but forget to give it in the form of a question.
But when I went up on stage to practice, it was like I was standing back in my living room. I had practiced the timing of pushing my pen button so many times that, when it came time to press the real thing, I did not even have to think about it. I rang in quickly, focused entirely on recalling the information needed, and then gave the answer automatically in the form of a question. It worked in practice, and it worked in the actual taping. Yes, the show is about what you know, but it's important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know. I won four games, and eventually came back to be a finalist in the Tournament of Champions.
In the years since, I have learned that what I had stumbled onto is known as "simulation training". It is a kind of practice that is not unlike the physical training that athletes do to develop muscle memory and automatic responses. In the context of quiz shows and law examinations, though, what makes simulation training particularly useful is not just the physical skills that it develops. What makes it useful is that it frees up mental space and focus for more complex thought. Not having to think about when to push the button and how to phrase my answer enabled me to devote full attention to reading the clue and retrieving the correct response.
Practicing to take examinations -- whether final exams or Bar exams -- can provide the same kind of simulation training, under the right conditions. Of course, students should write practice exams for other very good reasons, like improving legal analysis and uncovering weaknesses in subject matter knowledge, because law examinations should also be about what you know. But there is an added benefit when practice exams are done under conditions that imitate expected exam conditions. There are dozens of details and stimuli that students encounter consistently during an actual exam that, if unfamiliar, can demand valuable thought or cause detrimental distraction: dressing comfortably, locating a seat, timing bathroom use, logging into ExamSoft, calculating timing targets, contending with silence or noise, reading and following directions, cutting and pasting text, properly submitting responses, etc. Encouraging students to incorporate attention to these elements during their practice work, even when they are not really necessary, can help them improve performance, not because performance depends on finding a proper seat, but because being able to do so with almost no thought allows them to devote their mental energies to the tasks that really need them. Exam performance is about what you know, but it is important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know.