In Logical Reasoning, should you read the stimulus first or the stem first? This choice has been the subject of fierce debate in the LSAT instruction community. The question stem first camp argues that knowing the question type first can help you know what to focus on as you read the stimulus. The stimulus firsters say that it's foolish to read the stem first, since the stimulus is the most important part of logical reasoning and you must strive for a complete understanding of it. To them, any attention given to the question stem first is wasted since it may interfere with your reading of the stimulus and you're likely to have to read it again after the stimulus anyway.
In this post, I'll do two things. First, I'll debunk the notion that either one of these reading styles, stimulus first or stem first, is the "key" to doing LR. Second, I'll explain why I read stem first.
Neither Approach Is a "Key" to Logical Reasoning
Some tutors and instructional materials are strangely dogmatic in their advice on stimulus vs. stem first. Perhaps owing to the force of this advice, many LSAT students begin to wonder if the approach they've been using is completely wrong and whether they've been missing out on one of the secrets to doing logical reasoning. That's complete nonsense. Consider the following points:
- You can find many high-scorers who read stimulus first, many who read stem first, and many who do a mix of both depending on the circumstances. Nobody has shown that one of these approaches is correlated with higher scores than the others.
- Doing logical reasoning at an elite level requires a strong understanding of both the stimulus and the stem. No matter which one you read first, you have to master both to answer the question well.
- The only way to figure out which way works best for *you* is to try each approach on at least several logical reasoning sections. If you find that there isn't a meaningful difference in your scores with each approach, then pick the one that feels more comfortable.
That said, as long as you recognize that you must always read the stimulus slowly and carefully, no matter what part of a question you read first, I think stem first has a distinct advantage.
Why I Read Stem First
I read the question stem first for one reason: it lets me know whether the question requires me to identify assumptions. In other words, does the question require me to poke holes in the author's reasoning, or merely to describe the structure of the author's reasoning? With certain question types—Main Conclusion, Role, Method of Reasoning—you can almost always answer the question without having to think about whether and how the author's argument is flawed. This can save you a little bit of mental energy and time. Here are some examples. (Try these problems on your own first if you don't want them to be spoiled.)
June 2007, First LR Section, #10
This question asks us to identify the main conclusion, which is the first sentence. Once you identify and understand that sentence, just look for the answer that restates it. Did it cross your mind that the argument in the stimulus is technically flawed? Double-blind techniques might have some downsides that suggest we actually shouldn't use them all the time. Maybe they're costly? Maybe they cause scientists to be overconfident in the results? Who knows? Does any of this matter to solving the problem? No. Why would you want to waste time thinking about these issues when you've already identified and understood the main conclusion? Someone who reads stimulus first wouldn't realize that the question is only asking for the main conclusion and might instead think about irrelevant holes in the argument.
PT71, First LR Section #11
This asks us to describe the role of a statement near the beginning - "increasing urbanization may actually reduce the total amount of pollution generated nationwide." This statement happens to be the main conclusion, which is supported by the statements below it. Those supporting statements include a premise about how people in large cities rely more on mass transit than people in the countryside, as well as an intermediate conclusion about how a given number of people will produce less pollution if concentrated in a large city than if spread out over a large area. If you understand that you're just looking to describe the role of the claim about increasing urbanization and reduced pollution, then you'd know to just look for an answer that describes a main conclusion.
But did you stop to think about how this argument is flawed? Does the fact people in cities use mass transit more often than people in rural areas really suggest the same number of city-people would produce less pollution than the same number of rural people? Isn't this assuming that the pollution produced by the mass transit is not higher than the pollution produced by the rural methods of transportation? Isn't the argument assuming that being in a city does not lead to engaging in other significant pollution-causing activities that one would otherwise not do in the countryside? Does any of this matter to solving the problem? Of course not. If you read stem first, you would know that these issues aren't important to the problem. But if you read stimulus first, you might spend time and energy thinking about holes in the argument that aren't helpful to solving the problem.
I think these examples, which are just two out of many, demonstrate how reading stem first can help you solve certain problems more efficiently. Now don't misinterpret what I'm saying—reading stem first doesn't give you license to abandon critical thinking on Main Point, Role, and Method of Reasoning questions. You still should strive to understand the author's argument completely, and you'll often have to understand how the author's view relates to another person's argument in the stimulus. So you may still need to understand why the other person's argument is flawed in order to understand the point of the author's response. In addition, reading stem first doesn't mean the stem is the most important part of the problem; the stimulus is still always king and you must strive to master it. But as long as you keep that in mind, stem first can save you some time and mental energy on a few problems in each section.
Future LSAT Reading Comp Passages
This section of the post collects interesting online articles that you might see edited down to an actual LSAT RC passage in the distant future. Read these recommendations every week and I can guarantee that your RC score will improve or you'll learn something interesting about the world, or both.