Note: This is the last of a 4-part series from our Manager of Instruction, Jodie Westerman, on overcoming common barriers to learning. 

Last week we discussed how to overcome biases against certain academic subjects, such as math, reading, and science. Sometimes, however, a student’s struggles arise not from subject-specific weakness but from what the test prep industry has labeled as “carelessness.”

Today we’ll conclude our Breaking Barriers blog series with a look at why students struggle with careless errors on high stakes exams and how ArborBridge tutors use proven pedagogical theory to position these students for success.

What are careless errors?

 “Careless errors” are perhaps the most casually used words in test prep language. From students describing their own work to tutors and test prep professionals attempting to understand lapses in student performance, it’s always tempting (and easy) to label something a “careless error” without much further thought. But saying that an error was made carelessly does little to fix the problem. Instead, it creates the misguided notion that as long as a student “cares” enough, he or she won’t make the same mistake again.

In truth, a so-called careless mistake does not occur simply because a student does not care. In fact, on high stakes exams like the SAT or ACT, students usually care a great deal! Rather, a careless error occurs when a student understands a concept but does not understand how to properly apply that concept to the SAT or ACT.

Let’s consider the following algebra problem:

Student 1:

Student 2:


Believe it or not, both students who solved this problem knew to flip the inequality sign when dividing a variable by a negative number. However, only the first student remembered to properly apply that knowledge. Is the second student simply “careless,” or is there more to this than meets the eye?

Why do students make careless errors?

In standardized testing, students usually miss questions for one of two reasons: they don’t understand the content or they don’t properly solve. Careless errors fall into the latter category. Students who make so-called “careless errors” may have the technical know-how to solve a problem, but they make some sort of procedural error along the way. These errors don’t just come out of nowhere. Examine a student’s careless error closely enough, and you’ll discover a bad habit she picked up at some point in her education.

Take the question above, for example. The second student technically already knew to flip the inequality when dividing a variable by a negative. However, she apparently forgot to do so when solving this problem. While some tutors would be tempted to label this as “carelessness,” a closer look might reveal that the student learned to equate inequality signs with equal signs, and therefore confuses the two when solving. Or that same student might have learned to rush single variable equation problems to make time for higher-level content later in an exam. Whatever the case, her errors are not simply materializing out of thin air. As such, she will need to actively and mindfully address her carelessness if she wants to improve her score.

Of course, on a standardized exam like the SAT or ACT, there isn’t much time to fixate on any given problem. Students who want to eliminate carelessness and increase precision therefore need a clear set of directives for how to approach a given problem and how to solve. We can leverage insights from flow theory to do just that.

What is flow theory?

A relatively recent theory in the field of positive psychology, flow theory posits that when a person is both extremely challenged and extremely capable, she can achieve optimal results. Challenge helps the individual stay interested and engaged,whereas having the skills to fulfill the requirements of a task allows the individual to remain confident and adept. By amplifying both challenge and ability in any given area of interest, an individual can reach a mental state of “flow” characterized by full immersion in an experience, energized focus, and even enjoyment!

Of course, flow theory was not created with test prep students in mind. In fact, its founder, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, developed this theory in an effort to explain the almost trance-like quality great painters, performers, and other leading public figures assume when doing wonderful work. However, we think this theory provides us with valuable clues for banishing carelessness and helping students reach their true potentials.

How do ArborBridge tutors use flow theory to eliminate careless errors?

Flow is characterized by seven traits. Our tutors work to apply insights from each to reduce carelessness and leverage student success.

  1. Complete immersion

A key component of flow theory is complete immersion in a task. Whether it’s painting a portrait, singing an opera, or taking the SAT, optimal performers know how to zero in on a single activity and focus. Of course, staying completely focused on something as laborious and tedious as a standardized exam is no mean feat! Our tutors work to equip students with much-needed skills to maintain focus.

One example that comes to mind was an ACT student of mine. We’ll call her “Jamie.” Jamie was a strong and insightful reader but had a lot of trouble staying focused on long reading passages. As a result, she would often misremember details from a passage and carelessly select the wrong answer. To rectify this problem, Jamie and I worked on staying engaged with the passage by taking active and reflective notes after every paragraph. Soon, Jamie learned that her earlier mistakes were not simply “carelessness” but an indication that she was not actively reading the material. With a simple shift in strategy, she increased her focus exponentially, earning a whopping ten-point increase on the test section!

  1. A sense of excitement

We totally get that there is nothing less exciting than the prospect of spending four hours on a Saturday morning taking the ACT or SAT! However, to maximize performance and presence of mind, it’s essential that students find ways to feel at least enthusiastic about the material they’re tackling if they want to improve. One way our tutors work to encourage student enthusiasm is through fun and personalized challenges.

One of my first test prep students is an excellent example. This particular student was a high-achieving student whose 32-composite score on the ACT just wasn’t budging. He needed a score between 33 and 36 to be competitive at his school of choice. Yet, the day-to-day task of studying for the ACT simply wasn’t engaging enough for him. That is, until I presented him with a fairly straightforward proposition: go head-to-head with me on a timed ACT math selection of his choice. Suddenly, I couldn’t tear his eyes from the page! As he and I worked meticulously through the problems, I caught him doing all the things I’d been so painstakingly urging him to do throughout the program: implementing strategy, writing down steps, and checking his work. He didn’t beat me, but he did beat his personal score! And from that moment forward he saw the ACT in a whole new light.

  1. Clarity

One of the biggest sources of carelessness for test prep students is simply not knowing which questions to expect or how to approach them. Being clear on test composition is therefore integral to mastering any standardized exam.

ArborBridge tutors foster test clarity by teaching every student how to identify a question type before teaching how to solve it. After all, it’s no good knowing how to solve a problem if you can’t identify it on test day.

  1. Ability

Knowing that one’s own talents and abilities are equal to the task is essential for flow. This is especially true for students who struggle with careless errors. If a student occasionally makes errors on questions she would otherwise get correct, she may start to believe her skills are inferior. By equipping students with concrete steps they can apply every time to a given question type, tutors can help students understand that any challenge is well within their abilities.

For example, suppose the same student from earlier who carelessly forgot to flip the inequality sign was told to (a) check every algebra problem for inequality signs and (b) write a dark smudge on the paper the second she spots an equality problem to remind herself to flip the sign. Not only would that student feel more confident about her ability to solve similar problems, she would also be far less likely to make that same error again!

  1. A place of Zen

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of flow is finding a calm and manageable intersection between challenge and ability. When challenge is high, it is easy to grow anxious and worrisome. Yet, on a high-stakes exam like the SAT or ACT, students simply can’t afford to grow flustered.

One way I help students understand that they are more than capable of managing the challenges of a high-stakes college admissions test is by scheduling them frequent and regular practice tests. These exams should be as realistic as possible to fully replicate the testing experience. As the student experiences the exam again and again, she will learn to feel more comfortable and at ease in a testing environment. By finding her personal place of Zen, the student is more likely to remain engaged with the test material and less likely to make careless errors.

  1. Timelessness

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the study of flow is that successful flow practitioners tend to lose “a sense of time.” Instead of focusing on the clock, these individuals are fully immersed in what they are doing. As a result, they perform better and generate better results.

Of course, applying this insight to a timed standardized exam is both tricky and counterintuitive. Students can’t simply forget about the time because they could realistically run out of it! Instead, we recommend devising a time management plan. Consider wearing an SAT or ACT-approved watch to the testing site. By having a way to track the passing of time, students will be less focused on guessing what time it is and more focused on the content in front of them. Also, consider setting “benchmarks” for how far along in each section a student should be at a given point in time. Once a benchmark is made, the student should “lose herself” in the material until her time is up. The less a student fixates on time, the more a student can concentrate on the correct procedures for carefully and precisely solving problems.

  1. Motivation

The final component of flow is motivation. Look at any highly accomplished person and you’ll find true, unyielding passion. When a person cares about what he does, he is more likely to work toward it. And if there’s one thing we hope this Breaking Barriers series has proven, it’s that hard work reaps reward.

Still, we’ve found that the students who improve the most find ways to get motivated. Some students choose to focus on the result, reminding themselves that hard work will be their ticket to college. Others treat the process like a game, challenging themselves to earn higher and higher scores. Whatever your method, you don’t have to go it alone. ArborBridge tutors work one-on-one with students to find and maintain motivation.

What does this mean for students?

Careless errors are perhaps the final frontier of test prep. Students and tutors have agonized over ways to help students be “more careful,” but we think the correct approach should be more scientific than that. By using flow theory to find the perfect intersection between challenge and ability, tutors can help students reach a state of mental “flow” characterized by intense focus, clarity, capability, and calm. It is in this state that carelessness melts away to reveal a student’s true scoring potential.