Many of us face the same problems—small calculation errors, forgetting to keep track of positive and negative numbers, rounding errors, or any number of other small things that we all need to keep track of when taking a test. Most times these errors are even more frustrating because we understand the concept, think through the problem, plan our attack, and feel confident that we are doing everything right. That’s why we call them silly mistakes—even stupid mistakes.
What’s going on here? Why does this happen when you do all the hard stuff perfectly? Well, don’t despair! With a little reflection and focus, we can eliminate these errors.
What’s the Real Issue?
First we need to diagnosis the issue. Ask yourself where the error happened. Was it at the end of the problem or at the beginning of a problem? Many times I see students make errors right at the end of the problem. They work the whole problem, set it up perfectly, and make a small addition or division error near the end! Or they forget the crucial last step to the problem! Or they mark the wrong answer!
This is a natural human tendency that you must fight. How many times have you seen a team ahead an entire game only to lose in the final seconds? Or a runner ahead in the race who loses in the final stretch? This all comes from the same tendency: we drop our guard when we see the finish line. We relax. Our focus wanes. We rush. All of which does not help us to succeed.
This brings us to our first rule: when you see the finish line, when you are nearing the end of the problem, focus even more. Don’t rush. Don’t drop your guard. When you see the finish line, take a half second to breathe and really focus on the last part of the problem. Slow yourself down.
All people make mistakes when they are tired. Pilots, train conductors, astronauts, professional athletes, and test takers are all susceptible to fatigue, which negatively affects their focus. Are you tired or well-rested when you make these errors? Have you had a power session, studying for hours and hours?
If so, take a short break to stretch, move around, and drink some water to refocus on the task at hand. We need oxygen to function properly and stretching and focused breathing is a great way to deliver a jolt of oxygen to your body.
Our second rule: be mindful of your fatigue and focus. Yes, you need to think about your timing and making inferences and fractional powers, but none of this matters if you can’t focus. So always keep a running tab on your focus and exhaustion. Pay attention to your thoughts. Are they drifting from idea to idea? Do you keep reading a question without understanding anything? These are telltale signs of fatigue and a lack of focus.
During your practice, it’s easy to stop and take a five minute break to stretch and refocus. For every hour of study, I recommend a five minute break. Get up and walk around. Step outside. Let your mind drift off to somewhere else for five minutes. Then return to answering problems.
But you won’t be able to walk around in the middle of the test. So just close your eyes momentarily. This will offer a simple, easy respite from the test. Keep them closed and count to 10 or 20. Try to push all thoughts out of your mind and just focus on taking long, purposeful breaths. This will help fight off exhaustion and focus your mind. Not looking at the computer screen too is enough to provide you with a break so you can return invigorated.
With these simple tools—refocus at the finish line and monitoring your focus—you’ll be able to perform at your best during your study sessions and on test day. You’ll stop making those silly errors. You’ll be more confident. And you’ll see your your scores start to inch higher and higher.