Help me end my careless/avoidable mistakes on exams
March 7, 2013 4:20 PM   Subscribe

After a few semesters of college, I am consistently disappointed each time I receive an exam or quiz back. I constantly find myself making mistakes which I consider careless or avoidable; I know this is a widespread sentiment among students everywhere. What's your advice?

The mistakes I make fall under a few different categories. For context, most of the classes I am taking are science: chemistry, physics, math, CS.
- misinterpreting the question
- misaddressing the question (trying to make the question fit a model or nugget of knowledge which isn't entirely correct/appropriate)
- "tuning out" a necessary detail or not understanding the full implications of a detail in a problem
- other mistakes which cascade from previous mistakes (vague description but I'm referring to multipart problems)

When I make genuine mistakes, I am disappointed only because I didn't have a chance to expose that gap in my knowledge before the exam. It's just these pesky avoidable mistakes which really drive me up the wall.

I'm curious to hear how you all cope with this issue when test-taking.
posted by ptsampras14 to Education (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you attend tutoring/office hours hosted by your professors and/or TAs? The things you list kind of fall under this nebulous idea of learning the "language" or headspace of the field. You can drill concepts on your own or with a textbook, but the thing that you're missing is the ability to think about these problems the same way that an expert would. Talking it over with people who think about these kinds of problems for a living helps a lot. Speaking as a chemistry TA, it's also the kind of thing that is often easier to convey in a one-on-one session than in a classroom.
posted by kagredon at 4:32 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You need a mental checklist. So, for a physics type question you would
- identify the type of problem
- identify the variables
- identify the unknowns
- identify the equations needed to solve the question
- do the math
- re-read the question and make sure your result makes sense.

You should write down all these steps, and whatever steps you decide are necessary for other types of problems. Writing everything down will feel like overkill, especially for easy questions. But you should do it every single time no matter how hard the question is.

For a multi-part questions write down a flow chart. You can even make the boxes of the flow chart big and put your calculations in the boxes. Check at each step whether your answer so far is sensible.

I don't know if this applies to you, but for a lot of students I've tutored a big problem is getting lost in the details of calculation and forgetting what the actual problem they're trying to solve is. This often leads to nonsensical answers, answering the wrong question, etc, even when they know the math. The solution is to have a detailed plan of how you're going to solve the problem before you start doing any math.

But I can't emphasize enough that you have to write every little thing down. You have to retrain your brain to think this way. Eventually you'll be able to it in your head without letting little things slip, but you have to put in the work first.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 4:36 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

For multiple choice questions, explain to your self why the right answer is right. Then explain to yourself why the wrong answers are wrong. This forces you to really think about the question, bonus is that it often forces you to remember some detail that answers a different question.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:36 PM on March 7, 2013

Most of your mistakes seem to have their basis in the same basic issue: failing to read the question carefully.

So: read each question carefully. If you have perusal time in an exam - where you're usually allowed to make notes on the exam paper (but not the answer sheet) - then use it. If not, then use some of the exam time instead. Read the question, deconstruct it into its salient points, highlight / underline the important points, and consider answers that rely on those points only (i.e. don't overthink the plate of beans).

In essay or worked questions, that'll help you focus on what the question is actually asking - not what you think it's asking, or whatever related/tangential method you're jumping to apply. In multiple choice questions, that'll usually allow you to immediately strike out one, maybe two or three, incorrect answers.
posted by Pinback at 4:38 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

What are your study habits like? When you do your practice/problems are homework, do you skip steps, especially if they are "easy" ones? I would make a habit of being careful and thorough when you study, double checking math, writing out the full equations you need, etc., to reinforce habits that catch careless mistakes.

And with multiple choice questions - once you mark your answer, don't change it! Students love to over think questions, I have seen far more many answers changed from correct to incorrect than vice versa.
posted by florencetnoa at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2013

There is some niggling bit in my brain that thinks I need to be the first one done with a test in order to prove I am smarter/better than others taking the same test. Did you ever do those timed multiplication chart tests in elementary school? We raised our hands to indicate to the entire class that we were done and better than everyone else still working on it. I can kind of still feel that rush of having to be the first one done, and a little bit of anxiety of having others finish before me. But I'm really good at multiplication.

The side effect of all this is that I fail to read the question carefully. I skim through it quickly and pick the best multiple choice/fill in the right word/write down my long answer before I really understand what is being asked of me. When I review tests after I've completed them I skim even faster. And when I get the score back I feel dumb because I KNEW those answers if only I had comprehended the question.

It took me a long time to recognize this pattern, and now I make an effort to read the entire question all the way to the end even if I think I know the answer halfway through reading the question. If it's multiple choice, I make an effort to not read the options until I finish reading the question. When I can write on the questions I underline terms and points and make notes to help me determine what's important. And I make an effort to not pay attention to how quickly others are doing because it doesn't matter to my score.
posted by rhapsodie at 5:11 PM on March 7, 2013

One thing I do on tests (on the odd occasions I have to take one any more) is to try to figure out what mistake the question is trying to get me to make. For multiple guess questions, the wrong answers will not usually be completely random -- they'll be an answer you might get if you made a mistake. So I ask what that mistake is.

It's not completely a silly mental game: if you know what mistakes the professor expects you to make, you can watch out for the same mistakes in non-multiple-guess questions too.
posted by spacewrench at 5:22 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

In addition to all the things said above, if you have time left over after you finish a test or quiz, use it. Go over your answers. Read the questions again. Make sure you haven't left a question off or gone completely off the deep end.

There is no prize for being first done or not using all the time given to you.
posted by cooker girl at 5:22 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have/had this same problem, too. And it's bitten me in the ass quite a few times, the most noteworthy being a test I would have received the highest score on, but I got the median because I forgot to divide by three. econ for you.

BUT I've stopped making stupid mistakes in math. It's been like, four tests now without a single stupid error. I did it by, one, making "no stupid mistakes" a goal (as opposed to "get a 90%") and then, if I made stupid mistakes but still got a good grade, I didn't let myself feel as happy. I would say something to myself like "Yeah, you got a standard above, but you would have gotten three more points if you had remembered that the square-root of two isn't one."

The second thing I do is...kinda morally questionable. Basically, I glance at other tests. Obviously, I don't copy what the person is doing, but every once in a while I glance around and make sure that I'm on the right track, work-wise. If I answered the problem with one number, and two people around me are on their third derivation, then I probably misread it and should start over.
posted by obviousresistance at 5:55 PM on March 7, 2013

I would suggest that you may be compounding the problem by your framing. In particular I wouldn't file these as "careless/avoidable mistakes" -
-misaddressing the question (trying to make the question fit a model or nugget of knowledge which isn't entirely correct/appropriate)
- "tuning out" a necessary detail or not understanding the full implications of a detail in a problem
Both of those errors speak to either misunderstanding or incompletely understanding the source material, especially at the framework level. To fix those in particular I'd pay more attention to the context that surrounds what you're learning, rather than the nuts and bolts of (eg) manipulating equations. For example, in my field it's incredibly common for students to be able to algebraically work the crap out of Ohm's Law (V=IR) but have little to no mental model for what it describes (this is a tool that describes the relationship between voltage and current in a resistor, it contains the unintuitive fact that voltage drops are a consequence of current flow, etc), and therefore reflexively pull it out anytime they see V, I, and R anywhere near each other, with no real rationale for doing so.
posted by range at 5:57 PM on March 7, 2013

Do you do practice exams? One reason these kinds of mistakes can persist is that you're always being tested on new material, so your focus naturally goes to the novel information rather than the core test-taking skills. If you do practice tests—multiple practice tests—you give yourself time to learn about both the patterns of questions that the professor asks, and your responses to those patterns.
posted by vasi at 6:02 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

IME a lot of students pull all night study sessions before tests. Don't. When you are sleepy or on an adrenaline rush, you make silly mistakes.

The best way to avoid careless mistakes on tests is to study consistently and calmly throughout the semester, so that the week before the test you are REVIEWING material instead of learning it for the first time. The night before, do your review, get some sleep, have a healthy, light breakfast, and then test.

The second best way is to use the first few minutes of the test to "mind vomit" -- write in the upper right hand corner of the page the formulas and figures you are going to need, before they are clouded with your anxieties. Refer to that as you answer questions.
posted by spunweb at 6:54 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slow down? When I had that issue it was usually associated with working too quickly.
posted by COD at 7:35 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being good at taking tests is a learned skill, and a big part of it is understanding what the motivation is for the test, and the questions. There's a lot of psychology involved. Often the teacher will point out in the class something like this: "A lot of people confuse these concepts, so be careful". Make a note of it, because you will likely be given an opportunity to confuse them on the test.

If you're confused by a question, take a moment, think about what the key concepts you studied in the previous section of the class, and whether they're being asked about on the test. If you're missing anything important that you studied for the test, there's a decent chance that you misunderstood one of the questions.
posted by empath at 7:53 PM on March 7, 2013

Try annotating the question. Bracket it into the necessary steps, circle what the question is looking for (and its units), or even rewrite it in outline form.

Also you can try solving the question with variables first, then plugging in the numbers.

Take practice exams so that you familiarize yourself with the wording and complexity of the professor's questions.
posted by acidic at 7:58 PM on March 7, 2013

As others have said, the issue seems to be that you misread the question. It sounds like you are probably rushing to latch on to key concepts in the question, and answering based on your understanding of those concepts, without pausing to address exactly what the question is asking you to do. This is a common problem, and there are simple things you can do to address it.

1. Learn the language of the questions. There are common structures that you can learn to identify. I teach in humanities, and I explicitly teach my students the different "action" words in questions (identify/describe/explain/compare/assess/evaluate/etc) as well as particular forms of question (for example, exams in my main subject frequently use the form "Evaluate Concept X. In your answer, explain Concept Y."). The common question forms for science are no doubt different, but they will exist and you can either ask your tutor for help or look at past papers and analyse them yourself.

2. Use some of your exam time to analyse the questions. Break them down, identify the key knowledge/skills being tested, and either systematically circle/underline/highlight different elements or jot a list in the margin of the elements you need to include in your answer. Simply taking that time to plan before you write will make you take two passes at the question in your mind, and that will help you avoid the "silly" errors you are worried about. When I'm marking papers, there is a clear difference between the students who plan their answers (even on short questions) and those who don't.

3. Complete practice tests. Alternate between taking the time you need and working under a time limit. When you mark your answers, cross-reference and categorise your errors to see what you need to work on. It's great that you seem to be doing this (hence your question) but it is far better to get that feedback before sitting a test that matters. Practice.
posted by robcorr at 9:49 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

As robcorr states:

underline the verb in the question, circle the noun.

No matter how convoluted the question might be, there is one activity [the verb] and one subject [the noun]
posted by ohshenandoah at 10:24 PM on March 7, 2013

All your problems come back to the same thing, you're not reading and understanding the question properly. I used to grade undergrad biology assignments and this is so obvious from the other side. There are several reasons *why* you may be doing this, but this is *what* is happening for all the points you mentioned up there.

So when you turn over that exam: take a deep breath, calm and focus yourself, slow down a bit, read the question carefully, break it down into parts, think about what exactly they are asking before you decide what to answer, underline or highlight key phrases or sections, plan out your answer (if it's going to be long enough), then answer it. Spending five minutes at the start of an essay-question based exam thinking about the questions has never been time badly spent for me. Neither has a couple of extra seconds per question for multiple choice actually focussing my eyes on the words and going through the sentence carefully rather than just jumping my eyes along the words that seem interesting or important.

And yeah, if you have time at the end definitely go back over things and double check as much as you can. I used to practise writing back when I was taking exams, partially to get better at putting together an argument on the fly but also just to get faster at writing so I had more time for thinking. Reading comprehension is also something you can practise, although I think a lot of the time just slowing down a touch and focussing is all that's needed.

The second thing I do is...kinda morally questionable. Basically, I glance at other tests. Obviously, I don't copy what the person is doing, but every once in a while I glance around and make sure that I'm on the right track, work-wise. If I answered the problem with one number, and two people around me are on their third derivation, then I probably misread it and should start over.

For what it's worth, at the Universities I've taught at and supervised exams at this isn't 'morally questionable', it's explicitly not allowed and will get you a big fat fail in the course when you get caught (and it's pretty obvious to an observant exam supervisor which students are looking at other papers) and go on your permanent record and doing it more than once will get you kicked out of the University. So yeah, don't do this OP.
posted by shelleycat at 1:15 AM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find that it sometimes takes me as much as twice as many practice problems to be able to work problems quickly and accurately in a time-pressured test situation as to understand how to do them given unlimited time and no pressure.

If you work more problems, including ones set up in a variety of ways, and keep doing this until you can quickly identify relevant approaches and concepts, you'll find that in a test situation those things will come more automatically and you can focus better on what the question is asking for. You'll also be left with more time at the end to check your work, in case you did miss anything.

If you're still having trouble setting up and correctly solving some of the problems even with unlimited time, that's a point at which it makes sense to ask for help from the professor, TA, or your classmates, who can help you figure out how to understand and apply those specific concepts better.
posted by beryllium at 6:52 AM on March 8, 2013

« Older Everything from A-Z including a job for ME!...   |   We can rebuild it; we have the technology! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.