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Passing the Exam--An Interview with Amanda Rowan, LCSW of The Therapist Development Center

Amanda Rowan, LCSW is the founder of SWTP partner site, The Therapist Development Center--a place for exam coaching, content, and all-around exam prep.  She talked to SWTP via email about what drives her to help people pass the exam and how she does it.  

What's your background?  What do you do now?

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  I received my Masters in Social Work at UCLA.  I completed my undergraduate education at Dartmouth College where I majored in Psychology and Biology. I have worked as a clinical social worker in a number of different settings including community based practice with the homeless population, teenagers, and families with young children. Currently, I have a private practice in West Los Angeles. In addition to direct social work practice, I also have a passion for teaching.  My honors thesis at Dartmouth was on the neuroscience of the learning process.  In high school, I would host study groups at my house. After college, I worked for Kaplan Test Prep helping people pass the SAT, GRE, MCAT (medical school exam) and DAT (Dental Exam).  My background in neuroscience and my experience at Kaplan taught me the value of learning strategies over content memorization. When I started studying for the LCSW exam I was really disappointed in the various study materials out there (and I reviewed all of them!).  The exam companies all overwhelmed me with content, but didn't give any clear strategies for taking the test. I studied for five months and felt that only 10% of what I had studied was actually on the exam. After passing, I went to work for one of the major test prep companies, hoping to change things.  I kept telling them that a lot of what they were teaching wasn't on the exam and should be removed from the curriculum. They didn't listen.  So I decided to start the Therapist Development Center and offer a different approach-one more focused on strategies and essential content.

What kinds of strategies and content do you focus on at TDC?

Our main focus is how to think through the questions.  This is a multiple choice test.  Basically there are three types of multiple choice questions: recall, application, and reasoning.  Recall questions are straight memorization, for example, "What is the definition of assimilation?"  Application questions go one step further and take something you have memorized and ask you to apply it to a situation, for example, "If a client has a hard time forming trusting relationships, what stage of development is most likely unresolved for them?"  Both recall and application type questions have an absolute right answer. Reasoning questions are different.  They require critical thinking because they don't have an absolute "right" answer.  They have a best answer based on the options given.  Your brain has to be prepared to weigh different options.  Sometimes all the options seem good--so people need to be properly prepared to prioritize. The real exams are about 80% reasoning, 15% application, and 5% recall. However, what we found when we purchased other prep materials test banks was that their questions were about 90% recall/application and  10% reasoning.  This means people train their brain for the wrong type of thinking. Our approach focuses on the reasoning questions so that people learn how to use their critical thinking skills to weigh the answers and find the best one for the giving situation in the questions. We make sure people know the essential content through our Top 50 Topics, which gives people a clear guide of the themes that will be tested in a format that doesn't overwhelm them.  We also have quick study sheets and quizzes that build people's knowledge in those content areas. The best feature of our program is that it is all on-line, on-demand.  This means that people can listen to our workshops when they want, as many times as they want.  This counters the main problem with live-workshop--live workshops are too long (our brains stop learning around 90 minutes) and in live workshops you only get to hear the information once, then you're done. Lastly, if people need extra help, we actually have coaches available for individual and group coaching sessions.  We are the only company that offers this option.

How do you go about writing sample questions? How do you keep tabs on the real exam as it changes over time?

Writing good reasoning type questions is harder than most people realize. That is why most companies have recall and application type questions. Unlike other companies, all of our questions are written by people who have recently taken the exam.  My head coach, Bethany Maher, LCSW,  is super smart--she passed the national LCSW with a 94%, so she really knows her stuff.  The two of us write every question together.  This ensures high quality questions and avoids the contradictions that are common on other test banks. We work hard to stay on top of the exam themes.  We do this by scheduling optional debriefing sessions with everyone who takes the exam.  This allows us to ask people how prepared they felt using our materials and whether there was any content they felt they were missing.  We are the only company that does this. There are a lot of different options out there for study materials.  I think one criteria people should have when they are looking to spend money on a prep system is whether or not the people selling the product have taken the exam recently or at all.  Most of the big companies' materials aren't written by LCSWs or if they are, the LCSWs have been licensed for so long that they never took this actual exam.  To me that is the equivalent to paying someone to teach me how to ride a motorcycle who has never actually ridden one.

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