By: Rich Wang
We all make silly mistakes. Even the best of us cannot avoid reading the problem incorrectly at times, or making a simple arithmetic error on a math test. Yet while one can never completely get rid of silly mistakes, it seems as though some are able to cut down on them extremely effectively. But it isn’t because he or she is smarter than the rest of us. Rather, they simply take the time to check their work.
But wait! You might’ve heard from your teachers millions of times that checking your work is crucial, and you might be tired of hearing it. There’s a good chance that you’ve tried it before, but it never works as well as it does for others, and you may believe that checking just isn’t right for you. However, this may simply be because the method of checking you attempted to use was ineffective. Checking, just like test-taking, has different ways to optimize its usefulness.
The Trap of Rereading your Work
An error that many students make, especially in courses such as math or physics, is to simply reread their work while checking. The main issue with this is that, as humans, we all tend to believe that the work we do is right. As a result, our brain tends to simply skim over what we have done, instead of ensuring that every detail is correct. Oftentimes, this is what leads to students missing problems that they have “checked,” as they aren’t really checking their work; they’re just rereading it.
Redo the Problem
In the many different methods I have tried to use to check my work, I have always found simply redoing the problem to be the most effective. With this strategy, you will have to redo your calculations or rethink your logic, instead of just rereading what you have already done, forcing your brain to stay active and making it easier to catch certain silly mistakes. If in the end, you get the same answer as you did before, then great! Most likely, this means that you did the problem correctly. However, if you get different answers, then be sure to check to see if you actually did do something wrong the first time, or if you made a mistake while checking. Either way, you will be able to validate your answer.
Still, you must be careful to not fall back into the trap of rereading! While you can look back at your old work to see what you did, and replicate the process while checking, DO NOT just “copy down” your old work. It is vital that you try and completely redo the problem, without your original work affecting you too much.
Solving the Problem in Two Ways
While this strategy may not be applicable in more memorization based tests (for example, writing down the first twenty elements of the periodic table), solving a problem in two different ways significantly increases the chances that you get the problem right. After all, if two different methods both point to the same answer, then what you did is most likely correct.
As a simple example, if you were asked the question: “What is 1 x (1 + 1)?”, you could use both order of operations as well as the distributive property.
With order of operations, we have that: 1 x (1 + 1) = 1 x 2 = 2, which is our answer.
With the distributive property, we have that: 1 x (1 + 1) = 1 x 1 + 1 x 1 = 1 + 1 = 2, which is our answer.
Since both methods gave us 2, we know that there is a very good chance we did not make any mistakes while solving the problem.
Application to Multiple Choice Tests
However, the strategy of “solving a problem in two ways” has an extremely powerful application to multiple-choice tests in every subject. We can both see that the answer choice we chose makes sense, as well as check that the other answer choices don’t work!
For a simple example, if we were asked the question:
“Which of the following is a noun?”
We could both check that answer choice, A. Fish, is a noun (as it is something we can touch), as well as check that the others are not nouns, as, B. Fast, is a word that describes something (an adjective), C. Flying, is an action that someone does (a verb), and, D. Boring, is again a word that describes something (an adjective).
While this may seem obvious, many don’t take the time to actually check that the other answer choices do not make sense, and only check that the answer choice they chose works.
Hopefully, by now, you all understand the importance of checking your work, and some of the common tips to follow and traps to avoid. Perhaps, just maybe, utilizing the powerful strategy of “checking your work” is just what you need to finally get the grade that you want. 🙂