Why “silly mistakes” are more important than you think (and 4 ways to avoid them)

As a teacher and tutor, we hear these sorts of phrases a lot:

I understand all of it, I just lose marks for silly mistakes

“It was all correct, just lots of silly mistakes

He’s really clever, he just rushes and makes lots of mistakes

Careless errors, silly mistakes, missing words, the wrong sign, misreading the question; These are all really frustrating ways in which students, especially those in science subjects, lose marks that are not directly related to their understanding or recall of the subject. So how do we address this?

Here are a few ways in which you can address that mark-eating monster in your own revision, (or for teachers to implement in lessons):

1. Include common errors in your revision and retrieval practice

In order to avoid doing something, we need to be made aware that we’re doing it – or at least that we’re likely to do it. Whether you’re making notes, flashcards, mind maps or anything else to help you revise a topic – include a section on where you’re likely to make mistakes. 

How do you know the mistakes you might make? There are some good ideas for this below, but also think about:

  • Are there words that sound similar but have different meanings? (e.g. chlorine and chloride)
  • Are there details I might forget to include? (significant figures, signs, units)
  • Are there new ideas I might confuse with old ideas? (bonding vs. intermolecular forces)
We’ve all been there!

2. Learn from your mistakes

When you’re learning a topic, you will probably have homework assignments, class activities, quizzes and maybe a written test. Unless you’re getting 100% on every one of these, they are a fantastic mine of information – use them! 

When you get feedback on a piece of work, there will be some things you got wrong because you need more help on the topic. While it’s good to focus on these, do not ignore the “silly errors” and assume you won’t make them again. Add them to your notes, think about why they happened and try to think of how you’ll avoid them next time (more ideas on how to do this below).

3. Learn from other people’s mistakes

A Levels move ahead pretty fast, and there won’t be time to cover every practice question there is. Examiner’s reports are a freely available resource for you to download from your exam board’s website (obviously you can’t download them for the more recent exams that are restricted access). Examiner’s reports give you (and your teachers) information about which questions students found hardest, what the most common errors were and where the most marks were lost. They’re a great thing to look at when you’ve got more content covered and are revising for mock exams or end of year assessments.

For more specific examples of mistakes, some textbooks and exam board websites give good and bad examples of student work. You can also look for “find and fix” exercises like my Fix It Friday YouTube playlist.

4. Develop good habits during tests and exams

Exam situations are not the same as sitting in class answering a question. You will be more stressed, and stress causes us to make mistakes. The best way to avoid this happening is to:

  • Practice exam questions thoroughly, so you feel more prepared
  • Practice techniques to relax, including mindfulness and breathing techniques
  • Have strategies in place to help with focus and mistake avoidance

Some simple strategies include underlining and highlighting: highlight numbers and units given in the question, command words (such as describe, explain, calculate, deduce), words in bold and any information from earlier in the question that might be relevant.

You can also write yourself little notes and reminders for things you’re likely to forget – make a list of key words before you tackle a long descriptive answer, or make a note of the correct significant figures or decimal places at the bottom of a space for a long calculation question. The video below gives some examples of this:


Feeling inspired? Follow me on Instagram for more A Level Chemistry tips and look out for #FixItFriday and #TopTipsTuesday. Below you can download my free guide – ‘Top ten chemistry terms students get wrong and how to get them right’.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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