Simple Steps For Avoiding Careless ACT/SAT Errors

In this post you'll learn how to prepare for the SAT or ACT and eliminate careless errors. Veridian College Test Prep.

Eliminate Careless Errors To Improve Your ACT/SAT Scores

When Vickie and I tutor students for the ACT/SAT, we hear this all the time: “I knew that, but I just made a careless error,”  or “my son/daughter makes a lot of careless errors.” It’s one thing to lose points on something you simply don’t know, but students and parents find it incredibly frustrating when they lose valuable points on things they do know because they’re making careless errors.  So what are careless errors and what can you do to prevent them?   

It could be omitting a digit, mixing up units (cents instead of dollars), transposition of numbers, misreading a comma for a semicolon, not reading a question completely, or answering an entirely different question than what was asked.   ACT and SAT writers anticipate students will do this and write their tests accordingly.

SAT/ACT Question Writers Are Trying to Distract You!

SAT and ACT question writers include incorrect answers – called “distractors” – knowing what students who misread or who skip steps are likely to do. Here’s an example from math education website Maplesoft:

Sample SAT Math question.png

The answer choices below include correct answer, of course (d), and four “distractors:” errors the test writers think you are likely to make:

(a) -7 the student takes the intercept from the wrong factor, x + 7
(b) -1 the student uses the correct factor, but makes a mistake with the sign
(c)  0 the student thinks that crossing any axis means x = 0
(d) 1 the correct answer
(e) 7 the student uses the incorrect factor, and makes a mistake with the sign 

Choice (b)  - correct factor, but incorrect sign is the perfect example of a careless error type “distractor.” 

Why Do Students Make Careless Errors?

There are a few theories out there on the subject, based on brain science and massive amounts of observational data.  Let’s take a look at what I consider the primary causes of careless errors.

Working In Your Head Can Lead To Missed Steps

A sixth grader I know gets frustrated doing her math homework. The teacher wants her to go through very specific steps before she can even start doing computations—and that bugs this kid. She can do the math in her head, easy breezy. Why write stuff down?

Here are the steps teachers require; see if you understand their thinking:

  1. Circle the parts of the problem that are actually asking the math question.

  2. Cross out extraneous information—the distractors.

  3. Make a list of the steps and math processes necessary to come to the answer.

Only then do numbers get involved.

In earlier school grades—and sometimes even through much higher level math—some students can easily do computations in their head. But the mantra of math teachers everywhere, throughout the ages, to show your work, is for a reason. There are many steps involved in most math problems and getting off track at any point leads to careless mistakes. (For some math-specific advice, I love the Art of Problem Solving’s post “Stop Making Stupid Mistakes.”)

Test Anxiety Can Negatively Affect Working Memory

Worrying about tests may cause mental fatigue and lead to a loss of working memory just when a student needs it most, according to research published by the Association for Psychological Science. 

That means that being unprepared for the stress of testing may leave a student prone to making careless errors. We have long-term memory and short-term memory; working memory is part of short-term memory dealing with immediate linguistic processing. In computers, that’s where things are stored that are currently in use. There’s a limited capacity here; we need it for reasoning and remembering things like a set of instructions.

There can be negative consequences if your student worries about tests. Test prep can help build confidence and alleviate fears, as well as hone subject area skills. That’s why test prep can be so crucial for not just working on subject area skills. Building confidence and alleviating fears can help your student keep his working memory at optimal levels.

Insufficient Sleep Affects Academic Performance

There’s a tremendous body of evidence about the connection between memory and cognitive function and the quantity and quality of sleep.

If you look at mistakes and accidents in surgery, public transportation and even operating nuclear power plants, lack of sleep is one of the primary reasons for human error.
— Kimberley Fenn, Associate Professor of psychology and director of the Michigan State University Sleep and Learning Lab

I’ve actually seen this first hand during tutoring sessions.  Tired students who know their semi-colon uses, command-of-evidence question process, or triangle formulas, suddenly seem like completely different people.

They make a lot of careless errors. Questions and problems they were solving one day, are now impossible.  Their work is filled with errors and even we tutors can’t always tell if a knowledge gap persists, or if it’s just the work of a tired brain.  Students feel as if all their progress has been erased.  But then they return the next week rested, and the “old” student is back.

Many people consider teens immune to fatigue, or at least better protected from it, but therehere are serious cognitive consequences for young people who miss sleep, especially if it is a chronic problem. We all lose our ability to make good judgements when we are sleep deprived—we can’t tell if something makes sense – and it will affect ACT/SAT and general academic performance.

7 Tips For Eliminating Careless Mistakes

1. Write Things Down!

Sometimes students forget to, or feel strange about, marking up their test booklets. When they don’t write things down, they have to rely even more heavily on their working memories.  Some students think it adds time to their work, but once they get in the habit of circling key words, or units, if there are multiple steps involved, it becomes second nature and won’t add any more time.

2. Practice Time Management.

I work with most of my students on pacing and time management. Many students rush through certain passages or math sections, fearing they won’t make it through a test section on time, Though you do have to work relatively quickly, you don’t want to work too quickly.  For some students, slowing down is the answer.

3. Analyze & Correct Your Patterns.  

This requires rigor!  One way I can be invaluable to your student is identifying error patterns -- the first step to fixing them! 

4. Develop A System & Follow It Every Time.  

Consistency is key! People who know they tend to forget things, or often make mistakes try to develop a process.  For some, that may include always circling the words “NOT” or “EXCEPT,” for example.

5. Check Your Work.  

You may not have time to check all of your work, check yourself, but you can circle some questions you find tricky and go back to those.

6. Get Enough Sleep.  

Sleep deprivation can make you error-prone.  Teens need a minimum of 8 hours per night for optimal health and academic performance.

7. Try Mindfulness or Meditation to reduce general stress and test anxiety.  

Mindfulness is a form of meditation and there’s some evidence that it helps improve performance on high-stakes academic tests.

Do you have a great system for avoiding careless mistakes?  Please share it with us below!