Let’s do some reading comprehension!
To make this as authentic as possible, I’ll pick a passage I haven’t seen before, time myself, and try to comment on my thought process as I go. Okay? Good. Reading comprehension is a staple on pretty much every major standardized test, but I’ll be doing one from the LSAT: PrepTest 57, Section 4, Questions 6-12 (10 New LSAT, page 210-211). Here we go!
Well, that was an interesting experience. I generally advise my students not to take notes as they’re reading, and I feel like my experience recording my thoughts for this blog post really reinforced that. My concern about note-taking is that it makes the reading experience much choppier and interferes with students’ ability to fully grasp the big picture of the passage. It can also be a significant time sink and force students to rush through other important aspects of the reading comprehension section.
In my case, I had to really slow down to make sure to still grok the passage; my normal reading times are in the 1:30 to 2:00 range, but it took me a full 4:10 this time with note-taking. Worse, my big-picture understanding definitely suffered, and I barely ever wanted to refer to my notes during the questions. I also had to read a few different sentences more than once. This is critical, though: No matter what, you simply must get the big picture out of your first read of the passage. Ideally, you should be able to do so within two and a half to three minutes, but even if it takes a bit longer you really can’t move on to the questions without it.
It doesn’t help that I think that this passage is a fairly difficult one, both because of its interdisciplinary nature and because of its use of difficult language (albeit generally with subsequent definitions). Use of multiple speakers and points of view further complicates matters. And maybe it’s just me to some extent; I always hate the humanities ones.
Anyway, here were my takeaways from this passage:
The first sentence was really confusing to me. After reading it twice, my takeaway reaction was basically “huh?”. On the third try I pretty much gathered the point about the difficulty with but also the value of mixing science and humanities. The word “misunderstandings” really stuck with me as an important tone indicator. When I finally moved forward, I also found that the second sentence helped illuminate the meaning of the first. The word “misunderstanding” again jumped out at me.
Moving into the second paragraph, I made note (almost subconsciously, at the time) of the word “absurd” as a key tone word. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the meaning of “mechanistic” in the context of “mechanistic reductionism,” but this is the sort of detail issue that I try not to get too bogged down in. Reading on showed that the contextual definition was in the next sentence anyhow. This paragraph, for me, was about a flawed humanist critique of science.
The third paragraph was the other side of the coin: a flawed scientific critique of humanism. The indicator phrase “on the other hand” points up this switch to the converse argument. I should note that in neither case did I have an entirely clear picture of the natures of these flawed critiques, but I had a general idea: some humanists think scientists are reductionist and narrow, whereas some scientists think that humanists are fuzzy and useless. Even so, I had to re-read the sentences around lines 30-34 to really get clarity there.
The conclusion indicator word “thus” in line 35 is obviously a big deal, as is the sentence that follows. It quickly became clear that paragraph 4 was the author’s attempt to reconcile science and humanism and to reject the positions of the prior two paragraphs, returning to the thesis from paragraph 1. I don’t think that I conceptualized that as clearly as I was reading, but I do think that if and when I was asked a specific question I would have known enough to point to the right paragraph to find it. I also noted as tone-indicating the phrase “much more acceptable position” in line 37. Finally, I picked out the “common objectives”/”different means” dichotomy from the end of the paragraph as key.
Question 6 is the typical “main idea” question that often immediately follows an LSAT reading passage. I regarded answer A as being one-sided and narrow, way off on scope. It’s really just pulling from paragraph 3. B was just off-topic; we’re talking about integration here. C was also pretty out-of-left-field; my notes just say “wrong.” Nothing in the passage ever suggested anything like this. D is also just wrong; nowhere does the author suggest that humanities and science have seen a deterioration of their relationship over time. We can go into E expecting to see a correct answer, and we’re not disappointed. The first part, speaking of the possibility of synthesis, is dead-on. The second, part, “much-needed,” gave me a bit of pause, though it seemed tonally reasonable, but we can find what we need around line 36: “in need of correction.” So E is correct. With note-taking, I spent 1:20 on this question.
Question 7 should scream “paragraph 2.” The reader must have a good understanding of the organization, and the flaws of humanist criticisms of science were squarely in the second paragraph here. The humanist critique was science as reductionism, “ignor[ing] or explain[ing] away… human values.” A is simply wrong; the humanists were the “inexplicable” side (“those who believe this also assert… an irreducible spiritual element”). B is wrong on tone; these are criticisms. C seems good. This is the reductionism critique. I made note of it and kept going. D also cuts the wrong way; compare with A. Finally, E is not present in the paragraph at all and is questionable as a “criticism”; it’s quite wrong. The answer must be, and is, C. With note-taking, I spent 1:40 here.
Question 8 is an inference question, and it seemed from the start to involve big-picture considerations. A seemed at first partially right, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I checked the passage for support and ruled it out. See lines 40-41: “Both science and the humanities attempt to describe and explain.” B struck me as wrong; it’s a criticism of science, sure, but not by the author — it was found in paragraph 2, which means that it is ascribed to “some humanists.” C is also wrong. The author is in favor of humanism adopting controlled measurement. D is correct for the same basic reason. It was tough, and at first I went on past, but E is clearly wrong, since the author calls future collaboration “possible, even probable.” So I returned to D and dug up support in paragraph 4 (given my organization understanding!). See line 47. So D is correct. 3:00 with notes.
Question 9 is a softball; recall the focus on “misunderstanding” in paragraph 1. Check the second sentence and see that the “misunderstanding” was about “philosophical foundations.” B is correct. With notes, 40 seconds. Ideally, this should take 20 seconds or less.
Question 10 asked about the function of the last paragraph. We can recall that it was about the need and method to correct the aforementioned “misunderstanding.” Answer A is precisely the wrong tone; it’s out. B is wrong on tone too; the author didn’t regard either of the views identified above as correct. C is wrong for the same reason. D seems right; it’s opposed to both views against compatibility. E is definitely wrong; the author here opposes the above views, rather than expounding upon them. So D must be right. I spent 1:10 with notes.
Question 11 asks the author’s advice to humanists. A starts out well but goes awry when it talks of “constructing mathematical models.” B cuts wrong; it’s the critics’ view from paragraph 2. C seems good, mentioning the “controlled evaluation” we already found support for in line 47 (see question 8!). D is simply not present at all in the passage; it’s way out of scope. E is responsive to the scientists’ critique of humanities from paragraph 3, but not at all to the author. C is correct. I spent 2:10 here with note-taking.
Finally, question 12 requires going to the cited lines, rereading the sentence in question, and possibly reading more in each direction if further context is required. Given the cited sentence and the one that follows, this phrase seems to imply idle dreaming or something like that. Emotion, fuzziness, lack of focus, and uselessness come to mind. A quick scan of the answer choices reveals the correct answer, which is B. This took me 1:10 with notes, but it could be done in under 30 seconds in good circumstances.
Overall, I spent 15 minutes and 20 seconds on this passage — pretty terrible, really, but understandable I hope with the note-taking. A better time would have been around 9 minutes. Shave a bit over 30 seconds off each of my question times, and drop the extra 2 minutes spent on the passage, and you’d have something much more reasonable here. Nevertheless, I hope that it provided a useful insight into the challenges of LSAT reading comprehension and into some of the approaches and thought processes that can be used to overcome them.
Tags: ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, Question Analysis, Reading Comprehension, SAT