Error Analysis

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When reviewing exam or test errors, it's helpful to try to categorize them. Each type of error suggests a different type of remedy — it's not always just a matter of studying more. Sometimes students need to study differently, or they need to change their exam writing strategies.

Errors of Omission

Do you recognize the material as being from a class you missed or a chapter in the text you didn't read?

If so, then focus your attention on making sure that you attend class and keep up to date with course readings. This isn't really a study issue — it's a work load and time management issue.

Did you run out of time when preparing for the exam and have to skip important material, even though you knew it might be on the exam?

  • Integrate a weekly review period into your study routine
  • Consolidate your lecture and text notes into a one or two page summary for the week
  • Begin each week's review period by looking over the summary sheets, beginning with week one every time
  • Try to begin to prepare for the exam sooner
  • Get advice and information on planning study time for exams from the Learning Commons

Careless Errors

Did you make a simple error in something like adding or subtracting that cost marks?

This is the type of error that makes you feel silly — you could kick yourself for getting the question wrong when you get the exam back because the error was unnecessary — you could have gotten it right if you had been more careful. No magic formula here — we're all human and everyone makes these mistakes. If you're prone to this kind of error, try to plan your exam time so you have some time at the end to check over your paper.

Did you answer too many or too few questions, skip a question unknowingly or misread directions?

Plan your exam time carefully — slow down when reading directions. Use stress management strategies so you enter the exam calm and focused.

Errors of Priority

Did you decide for some reason that this material was not important enough to study in detail?

Review the criteria you used to decide what was important enough to study thoroughly. Did you make conscious, informed decisions about what to emphasize or was your approach random? What sources of information are you using to create your selection criteria – instructor hints, previous tests, course outlines, old exams, what you've heard from other students? Also, try to become more "cue aware": ie. listen actively for any information that the instructor gives, subtly or overtly, about the exam. Attending class regularly is a must.

Insufficient Mastery

Do you remember studying a topic but just can't remember it in enough detail in the exam?

Could you see in your mind the page where the information was, but just couldn't recall it?

This is one of the few situations where simply studying more is needed. Be sure to test yourself as you're studying to ensure that you know the information thoroughly. Plan study time strategically to allow enough time to do the studying you need to do. Keep up with day-to-day course work so exam time doesn't become "catch up" time. Integrate a weekly review period into your study routine so you can avoid cramming at the last minute.

Going Beyond the Facts

Were you unable to come up with an answer for a question that went beyond a simple recall of fact — a question which asked you to apply, analyze, synthesize or make a judgement?

In order to make the jump in thinking that is necessary to answer questions like these, mastery of the material is necessary. You can't figure out how to go beyond the facts if you're struggling to remember or understand the facts themselves. There is also some research evidence to suggest that the stress created by cramming impedes the higher cognitive functions necessary to come up with an answer for questions that go beyond recall of information. Use old exams to acquaint yourself with the type of questions you might be asked and broaden your thinking about how the course content can be applied or analyzed.

Approaches to Learning and Studying

When you looked at the question in the exam, did you feel that you had no idea how to answer it, even with unlimited time? When you look at the question after getting the exam back, do you still not know how to answer it?

Each course has some combination of content (factual information) and concept. As a learner in a course, part of your responsibility is to analyze the learning demands and determine how it makes sense to learn and study in that particular course. Courses which have a focus on factual information require very different approaches to learning and studying than do courses which focus on analysis, problem solving, and concepts and the application of concepts.

If you don't have an idea how to answer a question, the chances are that your studying has focused on understanding facts and details (called a “surface approach” to learning) when the question requires an understanding of concepts, deeper underlying theories or assumptions, or as some students say, "the big picture." This is known as the "deep approach" to learning. To be successful, students need to understand the difference between deep and surface learning, and have a range of study strategies, appropriate to the demands of the course, at their disposal. The Learning Commons can provide more information and advice on developing your repertoire of study strategies.

Exam Anxiety

Do you block, freeze or forget information during the exam, but then recall it shortly afterwards? Does this happen often or has it been a long-term problem?

Everyone get nervous before an exam, but for some students the nervousness is so intense it affects their exam results. Blocking or forgetting information during an exam only to have it come flooding back shortly afterward is a symptom of exam anxiety. The best way to address this problem is from two directions. The Learning Commons can help with study and preparation strategies, to ensure that the way you're preparing for the exam isn't creating the anxiety or making it worse. Counselling Services provides strategies on how to manage anxiety when it occurs during an exam.