Sounds familiar? That’s because at some point during our children’s journey through school, we parents will experience the frustration of how our children have thrown away what appears to be easy-to-earn marks during their tests.
"Why so careless?!" Most children are numb to our exasperated cry. Our first instinct is to pounce on the seemingly obvious problem – that the children were simply not concentrating on their work, and were distracted, day-dreaming, or simply want to rush through the work to get it done so that they can spend more time with things they like.
Indeed, the lack of motivation is a major cause of careless mistakes during normal schoolwork and homework. It is unlikely that children will do well in subjects that they dislike. However, simply lambasting children for not being serious in their schoolwork is unlikely to achieve anything permanent, other than confirming the children’s suspicion that we are but "naggy and long-winded bagpipes". How we motivate our children to like a subject depends very much on the preferences of each child and how effective the educators are in generating interest. There are too many variables and it is not the focus of this article. Also, under examination conditions, lack of motivation is unlikely to be a major cause of careless mistakes.
Instead, we would like to address other factors which may contribute to careless mistakes in tests.
What are Careless Mistakes?
Before we can fix a problem, we must first understand what we are dealing with. There are actually several stages to making errors in schoolwork:
Reading errors. This implies that the child does not understand words or symbols in the question which prevented him/her from continuing the problem solving process.
To uncover these errors, we can make the child read the question out aloud and note any words that he/she is unable to pronounce.
Comprehension errors. The child may have read or understood all the words in the question, but was unable to comprehend the the overall meaning of the question.
Ask the child to say what the question is asking for in his/her own words.
Transformation errors. The child fully understands what the question is asking for, but is unable to identify the necessary sequence of operations required to solve the problem.
Ask the child which method he/she would use to solve the problem.
Process skills errors. The child is aware of what operation is required to solve the problem, but does not know the exact sequence or methods to do so.
Ask the child to go through the steps for solving the problem verbally.
Encoding errors. The child has correctly solved the problem, but did not do so in an acceptable or accurate presentation format.
Ask the child to write down the answer.
If we want to help our children, we must be able to distinguish the exact stage where the error occurred, instead of simply labelling everything as CARELESS MISTAKES. While it is true that Reading and Comprehension errors could also be due to carelessness arising from anxiety or time pressure, we must give our children the benefit of doubt that they really did not understand the words or question, and work on ways to help them improve in these areas. Generally, only encoding errors should be classified as "careless", but even that depends on whether the child has been properly instructed to present his/her answer in the acceptable manner.
All other kinds of errors show a lack of understanding of the problem-solving concept, which has nothing to do with carelessness. When that occurs, we have to do what we can to enlighten the child instead of simply dismissing it as a careless mistake, which might have the child thinking that he/she might really be "stupid" after all, leading to loss of confidence and even dislike for the subject or topic.
Who makes Careless Mistakes?
The answer is, simply, everyone. It is not just the Primary school students. We adults do it all the time, too. Interestingly, our propensity to succumb to careless errors actually increase with our level of understanding of the subject matter! The reason is due to over-confidence. Studies have proven that smarter children are more prone to careless mistakes, simply because they make computations based on approximation to what they already know. For example, for the following equation:
4 + X = 6
the common made mistake is X = 10, because our minds is trained to immediately associate the numerical operators with the operation that we need to conduct.
How to reduce Careless Mistakes?
Proofing, or the checking of completed work, is the primary technique which we try to instill in our children. The success of this techique depends on several factors:
The pride that a child takes in his/her work. "Careless" implies absence of care, or "don’t care". An unmotivated child will take less pride in his/her work, and is therefore likely to make more mistakes. The key would be for parents and educators to think of ways of inspiring children to enjoy the act of producing high quality work. This would be the subject of another article.
The time that the child has remaining to complete the task of checking. This depends on the speed at which the child was able to solve all the problems in the paper. Children who are more careful will take more time to complete the paper and have less time to check – but they should have less careless mistakes to start with. Even so, it is important to train children to manage their time during examinations properly, so that sufficient time is budgetted for checking all the questions towards the end of the test.
Is it a habit? Children can indeed be trained to automatically check their work upon completion. Teachers can encourage this habit by reviewing assignments with students before collecting them for marking. This not only enhances children’s proofing skills, but also help to establish proofing as an integral part of the problem-solving process.
The methods used for checking. Often, children are unaware about how to go about checking their work. Generally, they will simply go through their working for each question to verify the calculations in the same way as they originally solved the problem. This means that if their working was wrong to begin with, their subsequent checking will not uncover the mistake. A better technique would be to encourage children to work backwards from the answer they came up with, and see if they can get back to the original values. For example, if a child gets the answer X=2 for the question 4 + X = 6 by computing X=6-4, then the proper way of checking would be to verify that 4 + 2 will indeed return the value of 6. And in the case of multiple choice questions, the child should be encouraged to prove why the rest of the answers provided are not viable answers for the specific question.
To conclude, carelessness is as naturally occuring in children as in adults. As parents, we should try to understand why the mistakes were made in the first place, and take concrete steps to address them. We should also instill good habits of mind in our children, and train them to do proofing effectively for each of the different types of tests that they will be taking.