Error Analysis: A Self-Reflective Habit for Learning and Achievement

Test preparation can be daunting for many students. While resources are abundant online, implementing an empirical assessment of test readiness is often difficult. Pretesting and error analysis are among the LAS study tools useful for self-directed learning and study planning. Whether students are taking the ACT, SAT, or other exams, self-assessments and subsequent error analyses provide helpful and empirical information about test preparation.

The error analysis procedure is a self-reflective exercise that enables students to understand their individual test-taking accuracy and achievement outcomes. LAS coaches categorize errors into two types of knowledge:

  • Content knowledge refers to knowledge about the subject(s) tested and is intertwined with lower and higher-order thinking skills, including rote memorization, comprehension, synthesis, and application.
  • Process knowledge refers to knowledge about the test format, test-taking, and the executive functioning skills needed to demonstrate all that you know. In addition to content knowledge, process knowledge is needed to respond accurately and efficiently to test questions within the allotted time. Skills associated with process knowledge include memory, time management, sustained attention, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-regulation.

After a practice test, when students reflect on an incorrectly answered question, they can identify if they have an insufficient fund of knowledge [content error] or if the error was the result of a test-taking difficulty/executive functioning challenges [process error].

For example:1

It is not difficult to understand why a cash-strapped, understaffed publication might feel pressure to cut teams of investigative reporter’s—their work is expensive and time-consuming.

  2. reporters:
  3. reporters,
  4. reporter’s;

A student may not recall the rules for hyphens or commas and will incorrectly mark this as A or C. This choice would represent a content error. Alternatively, running out of time to answer a question or feeling fatigued and distracted by the end of a section may also occur. Students may mark D because the semicolon would be correct, however, they will have overlooked the possessive on reporter that should not be present. [The correct answer is B, as it accounts for both punctuation and grammar errors].

As educational coaches, we sometimes see that errors students attribute to missing content may represent a combination of both, and the error stems from a process mistake, like compromised decision-making because of test anxiety.

The error analysis can take time. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile because reflection is “a form of practice.”2

“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time” 2

With this insight, students can also prioritize test-taking strategies that target their individual concerns. At LAS, we use this reflective process to discuss and implement specific strategies to improve achievement. These strategies include:

  • Completing practice blocks in a timed, test mode to build time awareness
  • Implementing a self-care routine to mitigate stress and test anxiety before an exam
  • Adjusting study plan to prioritize targeted learning and recall practice in high-yield areas

This reflection engages learners with cognitive activities that support empirical achievement over time.

While an error analysis is an essential self-reflective exercise, this type of analysis can be uncomfortable for students when they receive a score below their goals. The score and the subsequent close analysis may elicit feelings like shame, embarrassment, and anxiety regarding their preparation. Throughout coaching, LAS coaches address these emotions and work with students to cultivate a ‘growth mindset’ perspective regarding their learning.

Psychologist Carol Dweck explains how students with a growth mindset will embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as the path to mastery—as opposed to a student with a fixed mindset who avoids challenges, gives up, and sees the effort as fruitless.3

Additionally, students with growth mindsets will learn from errors. In contrast, students with fixed mindsets may ignore useful feedback and remain stagnant in their progress—compromising their achievement. Negative emotions and self-talk may also exasperate test-taking challenges and cause progress to plateau.

Dweck explains further: “In the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from. We can still learn from our mistakes.”3

Ultimately, an error analysis prompts students to evaluate errors and see them as opportunities to learn and achieve at higher levels. Through this process, students will look unflinchingly at their test-taking habits and errors to build mastery of learning and confidence.

  1. College Board SAT Practice Test 5: Writing Section
  2. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Chapter 2: Testing Effect, To Learn and Retrieve
  3. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck

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