How To Learn From Your Errors

by , Apr 7, 2010

errorWhen I make an error, I get excited. Seriously you should be excited when you make errors, too. I know that Im about to learn something and get better, and thats definitely worth getting excited!

Errors can come in several different forms: careless errors, content errors, and technique errors. Were going to discuss something critical today: how to learn from your errors so that you dont continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. First, lets define these different error types.

Careless errors

Remember those times when you were sure you got the answer right, only to find out that you got it wrong? For a moment, you even think that there must be a mistake in the answer key. Then, you take a look at the problem again, you check your work, and you want to slap yourself on the side of the head. You knew exactly how to do this problem and you should have gotten it right, but you made a careless mistake!

By definition, a careless mistake occurs when we did actually know all of the necessary info and we did actually possess all of the necessary skills, but we made a mistake anyway. We all make careless mistakes (yes, even the experts!); over 3.5 hours, its not reasonable to assume that we can completely avoid making careless mistakes. Our goal is to learn how to minimize careless mistakes as much as possible.

Content Errors

Content is the actual knowledge we need to know in order to answer a question. Whats the formula for the area of a circle? What are the rules for noun modifiers? Content errors typically come in two forms: knowledge you did know but forgot, and knowledge that you didnt know, or didn't know well enough, in the first place.

Technique Errors

Beyond the content itself, we can typically work through any quant or sentence correction problem in multiple ways; the particular method we choose to use is the technique. For reading comprehension and critical reasoning, of course, all we have is technique; no actual knowledge is being tested on these question types. We also need to employ timing techniques, in terms of both individual questions and the overall section.

The Error Log

Your first step is to create an error log. You can do this in a notebook or an electronic file, but have one consistent place where you can record your errors. I typically record careless mistakes separately from all other mistakes, but you can organize things however you want, as long as the organization is consistent. Then, you can use the error log to learn from your errors!

For each problem, keep track of this data:

1) The basics: where the problem can be found again in your materials, the question type to which the problem belongs (as specifically as possible), the content category being tested (if applicable), the time you spent, and the current date.

2) The error: describe the error in specific detail; if applicable, actually copy into your file the part of the work where you made the error. (Note: one problem could have multiple mistakes; include them all.)

3) The reason: figure out WHY you made this error and write that down; if there are multiple reasons, note them all. The next step hinges on this step, so make sure you really dig deep to figure out why! If you cant figure out why, then you cant figure out how to fix the problem. (See more on this, below.)

4) To Do: figure out what habits you need to make or break in order to minimize the chances of making that particular mistake again. For example, you might:

  • create flashcards to help you memorize some content or technique that you didnt know or messed up
  • re-write your work for this problem in its entirety and try the problem again in a week
  • do several problems of the same type, or drill certain skills, in order to build a new, good habit
  • decide that whenever you see a certain type of hard and relatively infrequent problem, youre just going to make an educated guess and move on so learn how to make an educated guess and practice moving on!

Whatever it is, do the necessary work to create good habits and destroy bad ones.

5) Review and reinforce: at least once a week, review your log. Are there certain types of mistakes you tend to make repeatedly? Are you continuing to make mistakes that youve made in the past and already tried to fix? Go back to steps 3 and 4 again.

The simple fact that youre now aware of your tendencies will allow you to notice when those kinds of problems pop up on the test. When youre already aware, then its easier for you to double-check the parts of your work where you're most likely to make a mistake - or, if necessary, to let the problem go.

WHY did I make that mistake?

Lets talk more about figuring out why you made a mistake. Careless mistakes will usually be pretty obvious. When youre looking through your work, something will jump right out at you. You added when you should have subtracted. You thought something out in your head instead of writing it down. You calculated area instead of circumference. You missed the word not, which negated the entire answer choice.

Quant content errors also tend to be more straightforward, but quant technique errors can sometimes be tricky to fix. Dont assume that the first technique you tried is the one you have to use. Read the explanation, check out some online forums, and try to find different, better ways of tackling the problem.

Verbal errors can be even trickier to understand. Whenever you pick a wrong answer (or you guessed and got lucky), ask yourself several things:

1) Why did I pick the wrong answer? Something about it looked good; something about it made me think it was right. What was that thing (or those things)? Now I know those arent good reasons to choose an answer.

2) Why did I eliminate the right answer? Something about it looked wrong. What was that thing (or those things)? Now I know those arent good reasons to eliminate an answer.

3) Why is each wrong answer wrong? (As specifically as possible!) Why is the right answer right? (Sometimes, the answer to that is: its the only one left!)

Theres one type of careless error I want to address specifically: when we meant to choose one answer (the right one!) but accidentally chose another. Its especially disheartening when this happens, and it often happens because of sloppy scrap paper technique.

On quant, it is critical to write down what the problem asks for you to solve. On problem solving questions, I leave a little space for me to do the work, and then I write what I want to find and circle it. Then I go back and do the work in the space I left above. When Im done with the work, I run right into my x=___? circle and Im much less likely to, for example, pick the answer that actually represents y. On data sufficiency questions, I write the question at the top and the two statements below, and Ive made it a habit to check the question after each step.

On verbal, it is critical to keep track of your thinking for every answer choice. First, write down ABCDE vertically, just as the answer bubbles appear on the screen. Next, you need three consistent symbols. One means "definitely wrong," one means "maybe..." and one means "right!" As you think through each answer, make the corresponding symbol on your scratch paper. You can use any symbols you want, as long as you always use the same symbol for each category. When youre ready to choose an answer, circle that letter on your scrap paper, then immediately look up and select the corresponding bubble on the screen.

Okay, youre ready to learn from your mistakes. Go start that error log right now!