Don’t Read the Stem First on LSAT Logical Reasoning

Don’t Read the Stem First on LSAT Logical Reasoning

I’ll cut right to the chase: If your previous LSAT instructor, website, or book told you to read the question stem first on Logical Reasoning, you can safely disregard everything else they have to say.

I know that sounds extreme, but I mean it. “Read the question stem first” is just about the worst advice anyone ever gave for the Law School Admission Test.

The reason it’s such bad advice is that you can predict the answer to half the questions—maybe more—on LR before you ever read the question. It’s all about the argument.

LSAT Logical Reasoning arguments are almost always flawed or incomplete. The correct answer to most LR questions is essentially, “This argument is flawed or incomplete because ________.” Consider the following argument as an example:

Logical Reasoning question types are important. Roberta wants to get the best LSAT score she can. Therefore, to achieve the best score she can, Roberta should read the question stem first.

This argument is incomplete, and therefore flawed, because it presents no evidence that reading the question stem first is beneficial. Yes, the question stem is important. But so is the argument, and so are the answer choices. By the same logic, we could reach the conclusion that she should read the argument first or even, God forbid, that she should read the answer choices first.

Not only that, but what if reading the stem first is actually detrimental to your performance in some way? What if it puts you in a weird, overly technical “LSAT mode” where you forget to attack the argument? What if it wastes time because after you read the argument, you read the question stem again anyway? (It does all three, by the way.)

There’s a huge leap between “question types are important” and “therefore, read them first.” Notice that leap, and you’ve already won.

They can ask just about any question from there. If you’ve spotted the gap, you already know the answers to the following questions:

Necessary Assumption

Question: “Which one of the following is an assumption on which the argument depends?”

Ask yourself: “Which answer does the author have to agree with?”

Correct answer: “When something is important, it is helpful to read it first.”

The correct answer here could also be, “Reading the question stem first doesn’t fatally distract you from understanding the argument.” (To be clear, it often does in real life. That’s why reading the stem first is such a fatally stupid strategy. But if you want to make the argument that you should read the question stem first, then you have to assume that it wouldn’t fatally distract you from the argument. That’s a necessary assumption.)

Sufficient Assumption

Question: “Which one of the following, if assumed, would allow the conclusion to be properly drawn?”

Ask yourself: “Which answer, if true, would prove the conclusion of the argument?”

Correct answer: “When something is important, you will always score higher if you read it first.”

Strengthen

Question: “Which one of the following, if true, would most strongly support the argument above?”

Ask yourself: “Which answer helps the conclusion the most?”

Strengthen questions have a wide range of correct answers. The best possible answer would prove the conclusion—in other words, it would be a sufficient assumption. See above.

Another possible correct answer here would be a necessary assumption. Arguments are improved by making their missing pieces explicit. Again, see above.

The correct answer could also be something in between, like, “The argument and answer choices are less important than the stem.” This assertion is clearly untrue in real life—but if it were true, it would move us toward the argument’s conclusion.

Weaken

Question: “Which one of the following, if true, would most undermine the argument above?”

Ask yourself: “Which answer hurts the conclusion the most?”

The correct answer could be the opposite of any of the strengtheners above. “When something is important, you should read it last,” or “When something is important, you will score lower if you read it first,” or “The argument and answer choices are more important than the stem” would all be good answers here.

Flaw

Question: “The argument above is susceptible to criticism on which of the following grounds?”

As you read each answer, ask yourself these two things: (1) Did the argument do exactly what this answer says? And (2) is that a problem? If you can’t answer “yes” to both of these questions, that answer is wrong.

The correct answer here could be that the argument “assumed, without evidence, that reading anything important first will improve one’s score.” The argument did make that assumption, and it’s wrong to do so. The correct answer could also be that it “ignored the possibility that the argument and answer choices are not more important than the question stem.” Once again, the argument ignored that possibility, and that’s problematic for all the reasons we’ve already pointed out.

Parallel Reasoning / Parallel Flaw

Question: “Which one of the following exhibits a pattern of reasoning most similar to that of the argument above?” (Parallel Reasoning) or “Which one of the following arguments exhibits flawed reasoning most similar to that of the argument above?” (Parallel Flaw)

Ask yourself: “Was the argument good or bad?” (Parallel Reasoning) or “What was wrong with the argument?” (Parallel Flaw)

Arguments can be good or bad on Parallel Reasoning questions, and they’re always bad on Parallel Flaw. Because we’re always attacking the argument first, it shouldn’t matter much—if there’s a flaw, like there was in the argument above, we’ll already have spotted it.

The correct answer on a Parallel Flaw question must be flawed in the same way as the original argument. We’ve objected to the original argument with, “But wait—what if the argument and the answer choices are even more important than the stem?” Ideally, we’re looking to match that objection.

The correct answer here could be something like, “It’s important to hit your 8-iron well if you want to win the Masters, so Rory McIlroy should practice his 8-iron first.” Our objection: “But what about the other 13 clubs in the bag? What if those clubs are even more important than the 8-iron?” See how our objections to the two arguments sound the same?

Evaluate

Question: “Which one of the following would be most helpful in assessing the argument above?”

Ask yourself: “What’s wrong with the argument? What information would help me figure out whether the conclusion is good or bad?”

The correct answer here could be, “Are the argument or the answer choices at least as important as the question stem?” We can tell that this question is a good one to ask because if the answer were yes—which it is, in real life—then the argument would obviously be stupid. If the answer were no, then the argument would start to make sense.

Okay, Nathan, I can see how reading and attacking the argument first is critical for question types that ask me to strengthen or weaken an argument in some way. But what about all those other question types? Maybe it’s better to read the stem first in those cases?

Nope.

Even if the question doesn’t turn out to be explicitly related to poking (or patching) holes in the argument, we’re still well-equipped to answer it:

Conclusion

Question: “Which one of the following best describes the main point of the argument above?”

Ask yourself: “What were they trying to prove?”

The correct answer here can only be that “Roberta should read the question stem first.” Conclusion questions are extremely predictable—once we’ve read the argument, of course.

Must Be True or Supported

Question: “Which one of the following can be properly inferred from the statement above?” (Must Be True) or “Which one of the following is most strongly supported by the statement above?” (Supported)

Ask yourself: “Which answer must be true?”

There’s really no point in treating these as two different question types. On a Must Be True, the correct answer is anything that must be true if we take everything in the argument as true. On a Supported (aka “Soft Must Be True”), we’d still ideally like an answer that’s 100% proven by the facts. If we can’t find that, we’ll take the one that’s closest to proven. The analysis is the same either way.

The correct answer could restate a premise (“question types are important”) or the conclusion (“Roberta should read the question stem first”) or even a necessary assumption (“when something is important, it’s beneficial to read it first”).

Reasoning

Question: “Which one of the following is a strategy of argumentation employed by the argument above?”

Ask yourself: “Did the argument do exactly what this answer says?”

The correct answer here is the only one that correctly describes something the argument actually did. When there’s a glaring hole in the argument, like the one presented, the correct answer is probably probing for your understanding of that hole. “Attempts to justify that a specific course of action ought to be performed first by citing its importance” would be correct here, since the argument definitely did that.

Paradox

Reading the question stem first wouldn’t have helped to answer any of the questions above. In each case, it was critical to first understand the argument. From there, dealing with each question type was a mere formality.

Paradox questions are the only ones that tend to have slightly different fact patterns. So for this type, let’s change the passage somewhat:

Reading the question stem first on LSAT Logical Reasoning is unnecessary, time-wasting, and confusing. Nonetheless, some LSAT teachers, websites, and books still recommend it.

Question: “Which one of the following would, if true, help most to resolve the apparent paradox described above?”

Ask yourself: “What’s the mystery, and which answer provides a satisfactory solution to the mystery?”

The mystery here is, “Why the hell do people keep recommending this strategy if it doesn’t work and can actually hurt?”

Good question.

I have a few hypotheses. The correct answer could be, “It’s LSAT dogma. Somebody at Princeton Review or Kaplan or whatever thought it was a good idea in 1978, before Ben was born, and everybody’s followed along since, without actually thinking about it.”

The correct answer could also be, “It’s an easy gimmick to teach, and these people don’t really care whether it helps—the illusion of teaching something is the only thing they care about.”

More generously, the correct answer could be, “It’s the only way they can think of to get people to think about question types.”

Any of these could be the answer because it would explain the paradox of why LSAT teachers keep selling a strategy that doesn’t work.

Question type does matter, but it’s a secondary concern.

Obviously, it’s important to know whether you’re doing a Strengthen question or a Weaken question when you’re picking the answer. But until you know what’s wrong with the argument, how can you possibly strengthen or weaken it? It’s a distracting waste of time to read the question first. Instead, attack the argument. Then read the question to figure out which team you’re playing for.

Taking the June 2021 LSAT-Flex? Like getting yelled at by a well-meaning but definitely kind-of extra LSAT professional? Cool—please come study with me for free. I’m hosting a weekly June 2021 LSAT-Flex study group on Thursday evenings. Registration is open now.

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