The 4 Kinds of “Careless Errors” and How to Fix Them

We get a lot of questions about careless errors from parents, tutors, and students alike. In my experience, these are the four most common careless errors I’ve come across along with some effective, field-tested solutions for you to try:


1) Dropping Negative Signs – This can also mean switching the sign mid problem or copying down the wrong sign at the start. Lots of kids have this problem, and this is the only permanent solution I’ve found:

  • Have the student say out loud “positive” or “negative” in front of each number. This will seem bothersome at first but it absolutely works if you’re persistent.
  • So instead of “12 divided by 4,” have them say “positive 12 divided by positive 4”
  • This links the sign to the number in the child’s mind, and trains the brain to not separate the two. The result is that sign and number are permanently linked in a student’s internal monologue, which is the ultimate goal here and the only chance at a long term solution.

2) Not copying problems correctly, or not reading directions – The key here is to not be negative or judgmental. Students learn when they are comfortable and when behavior is encouraged positively. Here’s what to do:

  • Draw a box in the top right corner of the page. Each time the student remembers to read the directions, or double check what she has copied, tell her to give herself +1 point (or a tally) in the box.
  • The first few times all you have to say is, “Did you remember to double check so you can get a point?” and the usual response is along the lines of, “Oh yeah, lemme check.” This is so much more effective than “Hey, you forgot again. Stop that,” for this very reason:
  • Something positive is being associated with the behavior. If you can create a comfortable scenario where a child will want to double check his work, it will be fixed faster than you think.

3) Too much (or incorrect) mental math – Some students can’t wait for the chance to use their calculators, but I’ve worked with many students who feel the need to do as much work as possible in their heads, even difficult multi-step problems. This can come from the misconception that being able to do problems in your head means you are smarter, or that it’s expected of them. Some just don’t want to use up paper!

  • If I notice a heavy reliance on mental math, I make a deal with the student up front. I’ll say “Looks good so far, but if you make a mistake in your head you have to write it out.”
  • The student immediately becomes more careful, because she knows she will have to write it out if she makes a mistake. More importantly, it makes her responsible for the work.
  • Now, instead of, “He’s making me write it out,” it becomes, “I’m writing it out because I made a mistake and that was my fault.” This simple re-framing makes a huge difference.

4) Squeezing too much work into a small space – This happens frequently on math tests, especially for younger students learning multiplication. They’ll try to crunch everything into the space provided, and the work gets jumbled and confused.

  • Give the student graph paper, draw lines on his paper, or tell the student to flip the page over for more space.
  • Tell them know that a piece of paper costs about two hundredths of a penny! They can use as much as they need.
  • Keeping numbers separate and letting the student know it’s OK to use lots of room is a quick fix for a lot of students, and it means a lot more points on homework and tests.

I’ve been using these strategies in the field for the past few years with great success. Give them a shot, we’d love to hear your results!

Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder of Educational Connections Tutoring in Fairfax and Bethesda. Her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, she offers proven solutions to help make homework less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at