Erasing Careless Mistakes on the ACT and SAT

Erasing Care-less Mistakes on the ACT & SAT

Years ago when I took the SAT as a high school student, I got a single problem wrong on the math section. One. I remember exactly what the problem was as well as the mistake I made. Especially frustrating was that fact that the only thing standing between a perfect SAT math score and me was a single, careless error.

I wasn’t unprepared. I had the skills to answer the question correctly. That said, I overlooked a simple calculation and, sure enough, the perfectly wrong answer was right there waiting me to select. I picked ‘B’ and moved on…never gave it a second thought (more on that later).

With standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, it does not matter why a test taker’s answer is wrong. A careless mistake costs the same amount of points as an incorrect guess. As such, it behooves test prep tutors to equip students with strategies to prevent these types of mistakes in order to maximize scores and showcase students’ true skills.

Show the work

One of the critical habits to instill in test prep students as soon as the first session is to get them to show their work. This should be the expected practice not just on the difficult problems, but every problem.

On the math section, this means students should be recording every calculation, every formula, and every equation. For reading, writing, and science sections, students should be marking text, identifying evidence, and referencing authors’ claims.

When students are actively demonstrating and documenting their thought processes, both test prep tutors and the students themselves are able to do the crucial diagnostic work to identify where and why mistakes are happening. On the other hand, when students just fill in a bubble or click an answer choice without showing the work, it leaves too many unknowns to find the right fixes easily.

The Clear Choice Prep ACT and SAT curricula make it possible for students to break down every problem step-by-step and compare their answer choices with the pathways to the correct ones. Our software includes a database of thousands of practice problems each with clear and engaging video solutions to eliminate the question of, “Why did I get that wrong?”.

This allows for self-assessment opportunities both during and between sessions so that students get more reps evaluating their own work. Moreover, it demonstrates the value of showing work by making the process immediately useful.

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Content mistakes or procedural mistakes?

Once students have a reliable way of recognizing the errors in their processes, the next step is classifying the nature of those errors. There are ultimately two types of mistakes a student can make: content mistakes and procedural mistakes.

Content mistakes occur when a student does not have the requisite skills, knowledge, or understanding to address what a question or prompt is asking. These errors require remediation that involves both exposure to the applicable content and targeted, deliberate practice.

Procedural mistakes, on the other hand, are the errors caused by a missed or incorrect step in the solving process. Students have the content knowledge to respond correctly, but they fell short somewhere in the pursuit of identifying the right answer. Careless errors belong to this camp.

When assessing student work, be sure both you and your students are able to make this key distinction as it determines the type of corrective action required.

Finding the fix for the “silly mistake”

Just because an error is careless doesn’t mean it isn’t fixable. Odds are, there is an underlying glitch in the student’s problem-solving process that made the mistake possible.

Just as a golfer can train to take a hitch out of a swing or a furniture maker can learn to make a tighter dovetail joint, a student can use deliberate practice strategies to work his or her way out of careless mistakes.

In each of the aforementioned cases, the practitioner has the ability to perform the task, but there is still distance between their ability and perfection. The key is finding the small tweaks that lead to the larger improvements.

A golfer can lean on film and motion-capture analysis to target wasted motion. An artisan can upgrade tools and techniques to better manipulate materials and create higher-quality products. Similarly, a student making careless mistakes can become proficient in analyzing and identifying his or her own incorrect answers for patterns of error so that they become avoidable.

To strengthen this skill, make the self-assessment process part of the test prep equation. After completing a problem, students should pause to evaluate their procedures for accuracy and make adjustments if necessary (this process alone can become a beneficial habit on test day!). If the answer turns out to be incorrect but the content is familiar, odds are the mistake is procedural.

During test prep, tutors and students should then search for patterns in these procedural errors. In all likelihood there is a common incremental step or skill that is the culprit. These particular areas should then garner extra focus in subsequent practice and self-evaluation.

Additionally, the student should learn to identify these types of troublesome problems and know to immediately slow their pace and increase their focus to reduce the chances of a slip-up.

Do you have the right tools for the job?

On my test day, I fell into a trap that had snared me many times before. A larger, irregular shape was circumscribed inside another irregular shape and I had to find the area of a shaded portion. I knew what to do: find the area of the smaller shape, subtract it from the area of the larger shape, and then subtract whatever unshaded space remained. It was that last piece that got me.

I knew that triangular sliver was there. I knew how to account for it. I just didn’t. What’s worse, it turns out I had made this same mistake on my geometry midterm, on the PSATs, and probably countless other times without even realizing it.

The Clear Choice Prep program would have helped “high school me” to recognize and avoid this issue (and get an 800 in the process…). Using targeted curriculum and cutting-edge technology, students not only have detailed solutions to reference, but patterns of error are easily identified so that subsequent practice can be tailored to fit student needs.

Students making careless mistakes is not a novel concept. Yet, many students still lack the wherewithal to do anything meaningful about them. Empower students to erase careless mistakes from their test day performance by giving them the protocols for self-assessment and the tools to try them out during their test prep experiences.

Make sure your students don't show up unprepared for the test. Download your free copy of the Illustrated Test Day Checklist.  

P.S.  Good luck to all you tutors out there taking the March 10th SAT!

Matt McCorkleComment