Monday, April 30, 2012

CART Problem Solving: Test Nerves

CART Problem Solving Series

Sitting Apart
Handling Slides
Classroom Videos
Superscript and Subscript
Schlepping Gear
Late Hours
Expensive Machines
Communicating Sans Steno
Cash Flow
Test Nerves
Speech Recognition, Part I
Speech Recognition, Part II
Speech Recognition, Part III
Speech Recognition, Part IV

CART PROBLEM: Nerves can make it harder to pass steno tests

Like many of my steno brethren, I'm signed up to take a National Court Reporters Association Certification Test this Saturday. I've already passed the only test for CART providers (the CCP, which is five minutes of dictation at 180 words per minute at 96% realtime accuracy -- a very low bar to clear, considering that in my daily CART work I strive for at least 200 to 220 words per minute at 99.9% accuracy. To put that in perspective, the average paragraph is 100 words long, so a 96% accuracy rating means 4 errors per paragraph, whereas a 99.9% accuracy rating is one error every 10 paragraphs.) I also hold CBC and CRR certification, but the CBC is just a written test once you've passed your CCP, and the CRR is granted automatically when a stenographer holds either the CBC or CCP plus the RPR, which is a non-realtime test (after the five minute take, testers are given an hour to clean up the transcript) at speeds ranging between 180 to 225 words per minute. For more information about NCRA certifications, check out my FAQ.

I spoke a little bit about my experience with steno testing in my article How I Got Out of Steno School. In the fine print at the bottom of that article, I mention that I began my apprenticeship as a CART provider, subcontracting under an experienced provider, in 2007, while I didn't pass the CCP until 2009. Why? Well, a number of reasons. First, the CCP test is given only twice a year. Secondly, I tend to have terrible test nerves that fortunately have never kicked in at an actual CART job; they seem to be exclusively bound up with the test-taking process, for which I have to say I'm grateful. Beats the alternative by a mile, at least. So on the first two CCP tests I took, I crashed and burned out of sheer nerves. The third one I'm pretty sure I passed, but I was so light-headed at the thought that I'd done it I didn't follow one of the formatting rules and failed on a technicality. The fourth one I finally passed officially, and then I decided to go for the next step up. Unfortunately the NCRA only offers one level of CART exams, so I had to set my sights on the court reporting exams. This was challenging, because I've never done court reporting, so I don't have any brief forms for common phrases like "to the best of your recollection" or "the preponderance of the evidence". They're so rarely encountered in my academic work that when they come up at all I just write them out.

I passed the RPR, the prerequisite for the RMR (currently the hardest skills test offered by the NCRA) on my first try; it was substantially easier than even the quite easy CCP, as I'd expected. The RMR has proven to be a tougher nut to crack. The 200 literary was a snap; I passed it on the first go with my eyes closed. (Actually, I recommend taking steno tests with your eyes closed. It cuts down on distractions.) The 240 Jury Charge and 260 Q&A have still stymied me up to this point, but I'm hoping to nab at least one of them (most likely the 240 Jury Charge) this weekend. The thing is, I have the speed. I'll be flying along at 240 WPM, note-perfect, easy as anything, and then all of a sudden my fingers will make a slight stumble, I'll misstroke a word, and everything derails. See, I'm a realtime writer by training and by inclination, and it goes against all my well-honed CART provider training to leave a misstroke on the screen. Whenever I see a wrong word during my day job, my top priority is to fix it so that the error doesn't confuse my clients. They should never have to read through my sloppy mistakes. If necessary, I'll cut out a non-essential word -- like "y'know" -- in order to make up time after fixing the error. My ultimate goal is 100% verbatim accuracy, but if the choice comes down to putting down a steno stroke (no matter how incorrectly it translates) for every single word in the transcript versus making my realtime feed as readable as possible, readability wins, no contest.

So it's tough for me to try to bend my brain back into steno school mode, where all that matters is whether I can read through the slop during the transcription phase of the test, where I can leave out punctuation willy-nilly, knowing that I'll put it in later (an abomination for any self-respecting CART provider), and of course the ever-present threat of test nerves. Why should it be so much harder to recover from an error gracefully during a test than it is during an actual CART job? For one reason, test dictation is highly unnatural. Every word is spoken at precisely even intervals, like bullets out of a machine gun. Fall a beat behind and you've got to write precisely twice as fast to get back on top of the word without dropping anything. Actual speech isn't like that. Sometimes people put on bursts of speed where they're talking at 280 words per minute, but then they'll take a short pause to arrange their notes or take a sip of water, and I'll use those few seconds to write out the 8-to-10-word buffer I always keep in my verbal memory. When people speak, they slow down for emphasis, speed up when they get excited, slow down when they're thinking, speed up when they're reading, and it becomes this push-and-pull experience, like riding on a camel -- coasting through the fast sections and catching your breath on the slow ones. Steno tests, on the other hand, are like the mechanical rabbit at a dog track. You've got no choice but to sprint at top speed for the whole five minutes, with absolutely no room for variation in your pace.

I've been practicing RMR mp3s and gradually helping myself learn how to recover from errors without correcting them or getting thrown off my pace. A great web-based app called Beeminder has kept me honest about my practice sessions each day. The largest part of all this just consists of convincing myself and my muscle memory that I actually do have the speed for this stuff. When I'm able to relax my fingers and just stroke every word loosely and naturally, it feels remarkably slow, and I get it all down no problem. It's only when I make that first mistake and start tensing up, pounding the keys and flailing my arms like a T-Rex, that the audio suddenly feels like it's been flipped to double speed. There are just three vital things to remember: Keep writing, keep breathing, and don't look back.


  1. This is precisely the reason the damn CCP keeps coming to bite me in the butt. Actually this time, I think the reason I got such a low score (since you said a 96 @ 180 WPM is a meager standard, my 93 must be complete failure) is because I made changes to my dictionary too soon before the exam. One example is I write KW-BG for comma but I kept shadowing the K to the point where I just defined W-BG as comma a few days prior. Well, I forgot that my "welcome" according to muscle memory is W-K and not the newer W*K. They said "welcome" twice in the dictation and when I looked up after the dictation was over, of course I see two stinking commas where the word "welcome" was supposed to be.

    Also, from the quick glance I took before I had to turn in the text, I also saw that I stacked "by it" as "bit." Infuriatingly trivial mistakes.

    In order to train for these tests, all I have been doing is mock RMRs and other test materials which sustain their word barrage at a single high speed, training myself to just feel the stroke and not look back at all costs. Normally, like you, I'm watching my realtime like a hawk and say "welcome" had come out as a comma on a CART job, I would have caught it and fixed it before I moved on.

    But like you said, once you start doing fancy stuff on tests, it's a gamble. If you lose, you drop the next four words in an attempt to fix the one you mucked up in order to catch up (unless you can write perfectly at precisely twice the speed with arms and fingers that for me on test day, move with the nimbleness of rusty iron joints).

    Meanwhile, I handle speech and advanced formatting like this in my daily work which frequently exceeds 250WPM when the teacher and students relentlessly pop off back and forth like it ain't even a thang:

    I hate that test. Did you subcontract under the other CART provider because you were working for a school that required you to have a certification?


  2. And that mechanical rabbit analogy was absolutely PERFECT.

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