How To Learn From Your Errors

Stacey Koprince —  September 2, 2011 — 12 Comments

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

Errors can come in several different forms: careless errors, content errors, and technique errors. We’re going to discuss something critical today: how to learn from your errors so that you don’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. First, let’s 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, it’s 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. What’s 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 didn’t 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 can’t figure out why, then you can’t 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 didn’t 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, you’re 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 you’ve made in the past and already tried to fix? Go back to steps 3 and 4 again.

The simple fact that you’re now aware of your tendencies will allow you to notice when those kinds of problems pop up on the test. When you’re already aware, then it’s 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?

Let’s talk more about figuring out why you made a mistake. Careless mistakes will usually be pretty obvious. When you’re 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. Don’t 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 aren’t 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 aren’t 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: it’s the only one left!)

There’s one type of careless error I want to address specifically: when we meant to choose one answer (the right one!) but accidentally chose another. It’s 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 I’m done with the work, I run right into my x=___? circle and I’m 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 I’ve 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 you’re 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, you’re ready to learn from your mistakes. Go start that error log right now!

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She also co-manages the company's GMAT curriculum and product line. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

12 responses to How To Learn From Your Errors

  1. Loved the write-up . Keep it up!

  2. Such a lovely piece of advice. Thanks!

  3. What an effective and efficient way to study! Thanks for the great advice. I look forward to more useful pieces of information again.

  4. basic content of this article is good but the last para i cant understand what you say

  5. Thank you for this article. The tips might seem obvious but I do keep making some of these mistakes! Thanks for supporting your students with exactly what we need.

  6. Is there a Error Log template available to MGMAT students? Thx.

  7. asnat, try actually doing what that last paragraph describes. Write down ABCDE vertically, not horizontally. Now pull out a verbal problem and start doing it. Let’s say that you decide that answer A is wrong. Put an X next to answer A on your scrap paper. Let’s say that you decide answer B might be right – it’s a “maybe.” Put a little squiggle next to B on your scrap paper. Keep going until you’ve evaluated all of the answers. If you have more than one “maybe” at the end, then compare the “maybe” answers until you’re down to one. Circle that one. If you were taking the test, your next step would be to pick that bubble on the screen.

    You can use any symbols you want as long as you’re consistent.

  8. muri, there isn’t a template available, no. There aren’t that many categories listed in the article, though – it shouldn’t take you more than a minute or two to set up your own template. :)

  9. Stacey, this is an absolutely great article, thank you. Would it be possible to illustrate some aspects of the error log with an example of a quant problem?

  10. Thanks, Adt. I’d recommend reading any of my How To Analyze articles (I’ll link to a couple for quant below). Do this analysis first, which includes figuring out any errors and why they were made, and then figuring out what to do about them. Then write down just a brief summary in your error log.

    http://www.manhattangmat.com/articles/analyze-PS-problem.cfm
    http://www.manhattangmat.com/articles/analyze-DS-problem.cfm

    So, for example, for the PS article, I did get the problem correct but took too long. I would still include this problem in my error log because taking too long is a problem even if I get the question right. I also figured out why I took too long and what I could do next time to save some time, so I’d put a note in my error log about “look for max/min language and try to max/min throughout while solving!”

    For the DS article, I’d have a couple of entries: I need to learn the official math, just in case, but I also need to learn how to recognize when I can apply the shortcut. In my error log, I’d make a note that I need to practice the “official math” way to do weighted average, but I’d also make a note that, if a weighted average problem gives me both the overall average and the two “sub-averages,” as well as one of the real amounts, then I can use the “ratio shortcut” to solve.

    Note: I realized in the course of writing this response that the original solution article to the problem analyzed in the Analyze DS article is not linked in the article. I’ve emailed our blog folks and asked them to take care of this next week sometime. The solution article explains the shortcut method I referenced above.

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