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My 9-year-old is smart in math. At home exercises and in class exercises he is doing fantastically. Nearly no mistakes for easy and hard questions.

The situation in real exams is totally different; he still manages to solve all of the hard and tough questions BUT he errs in simple and silly questions only.

It is not a timing issue; he always finishes and submits first. It is not that he did not understand the questions correctly, as he is able to solve them again when I review it with him. I suspect that it is concentration issues!

Has anyone experienced a similar situation? Or does anyone have advice on what to do and how to help him?

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    Our primary school in the Netherlands has yearly Cito 'exams' for group 3(6years) and up. Maybe this is the kind of exam the OP has in mind? The idea is to regularly measure progress. It is very different from my time when the exam was only at the end of primary school. Personally i think they are overdoing it, exam-wise.
    – Ivana
    Mar 25 at 10:23
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    Re: "he finishes and submit always the first". Not an answer, but I had this problem as a kid. My 4th grade teacher called me Speedy Gonzalez because I was always rushing to turn tests in... except I'd constantly make small, silly mistakes. For me, it wasn't a concentration issue, but I had to learn to slow down, and review: if I was still the first one done with a test, it meant I had extra time to slowly look everything over and catch those mistakes. Took me a long time to learn that. Mar 25 at 13:27
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    I was also usually first, mostly because I didn't believe in rechecking my work. But I was usually correct, and I felt that I would second-guess myself if I rechecked. Or in subjects that I didn't know well, I just went with my first instinct -- trying again wouldn't help. @ItaiFerber
    – Barmar
    Mar 25 at 14:50
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    Keep in mind that successful test taking is also a "real skill" and one that can be improved with practice.
    – barbecue
    Mar 26 at 22:23
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    @ItaiFerber +1 (for that last sentence: +10)
    – mcalex
    Mar 27 at 15:43

8 Answers 8

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I've seen this a lot, both in my kids and in their friends. My youngest went through this at the start of the year, and got a ton of help from his really excellent teacher on this - maybe that would be helpful here too. All of the below is from that experience and from discussions with teachers on the subject - I'm not an education expert nor a child psychologist, but I am a very involved parent who usually talks to the teachers much more than average.

In particular, from what I've been told when discussing this with teachers, it helps to recognize that not all of the skills you learn in school are "reading writing arithmetic" - in fact, in elementary school it's more important to learn the meta skills. "How to learn", "How to take an exam", that sort of thing. Once you learn those, you are set up for more success later.

For my child, the teacher recognized early on that he was far ahead material-wise; he's in third grade, just turned 9, and tests a few grades ahead in terms of material. But as you describe with your son, he was making skills mistakes, disorganized, and not good at explaining himself, along with poor handwriting for grade level.

As such, she recognized that she needed to change the focus. In his work, he received feedback based on how well he explained himself, on how well organized the answer was, and in particular on handwriting. The concentration seemed to come along with this - I'm not sure if she specifically worked on it or not, but I suspect the focus on organization and explaining the answers helped that a lot. Work with the teacher on this, and ask them if they can work with your son on these elements - and also explain to him why they're important.

I found that he would check his work and sometimes correct mistakes during this process of explaining, and this might be the first place to start for your child. If he's finishing first always, perhaps he should be going back and re-doing the problems. Or, if he's just providing answers, he should add some explanation for how he gets to the answer in the exam (if that's not already asked). Perhaps also explain how to check answers by reversing the problem - especially if he's making mistakes on things like addition/subtraction, those are easy to do (23+14=37; 37-14=23) or multiplication/division (9*5=45; 45/9=5).

For very bright kids, it's pretty common to just write down the answers to the problems they know are easy, and not work them out. That however leads to these silly mistakes. 19+43 = 52. Right? Of course, it's not... but it's easy to forget that carried ten. Explaining how they do the math can help that, because either they show the carried 1 on the paper, or if they do it like I do in my head (43+20-1) they can write that down also - and maybe if they do it wrong (say 43+20=53-1=52) they might spot it on paper when they don't spot it in their head.

Really anything he can do to slow himself down a bit will help - and also perhaps a talk about if he's feeling stress from the exam might also be worth having. Does he have pressure to succeed on these exams, either internally or externally? Does he feel like his self worth is defined by getting a good grade on the exam? That can be tough for a 3rd or 4th grader, and it isn't necessarily anyones' fault - though as a parent it's always worth considering whether you're contributing to that positively or negatively. I catch myself adding pressure sometimes to my kids, who frankly are doing far better in school than I have any right to complain about - but when you're "smart" you feel extra pressure to get even better results, and when your kids are "smart" you think they ought to get better grades, also... Perhaps if you talk to him about it, and see if he does have too much stress to perform well, it might help you find out if that's the issue.

Some relevant reading, perhaps: on test anxiety, on gifted students testing poorly.

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    I used to have the same issue, for a different reason: it wasn't so much confidence as boredom. The hard questions were interesting, but the easy questions, meh. This actually got worse over time, in high school I'd regularly get dunked a few points on harder questions because I used the right theorem, but forgot to prove one of the pre-requisites held. Hence I can only concur with your answer: it's not a content issue, it's a form issue. And it needs to be addressed, and the sooner the better. "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well", "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast". Mar 25 at 10:39
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    Excellent answer, especially the part about figuring out exactly how the child is arriving at the answer. I, like you, have 'mental shortcuts'. One of my children learned on their own similar, yet different, ones and the other none at all. It's good to know the mental process involved.
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 25 at 11:33
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    Rechecking/validating and explaining are also useful skills on their own. Only one disagreement: redoing an exercise or problem will tend to not work, because we tend to have the same ideas and make the same choices (and the same mistakes) the second time around.
    – Pablo H
    Mar 25 at 15:06
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    @PabloH At the third grade level (so, addition/multiplication/subtraction/some division/some fractions) it can help, because a lot of these sloppy mistakes are just that - sloppy - and not a misunderstanding of the problem. I've seen it in my 9 year old, he will do it in his head and forget to carry a ten (or whatever), and then the second time will get it right.
    – Joe
    Mar 25 at 16:49
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I've been in that position for a long time, basically up until the last two years of German Gymnasium (High School, I guess).

It was agreed upon, that I was one of the most skilled at doing maths, still in almost all my exams I came rather average with 2,5 out of 1 to 6.

I think there were two contributing factors (which can be different for everyone):

I had build up some self pressure: "I got to finish first, because I'm the best at math" - so instead on focusing on getting a good mark, I was rushing through to finish first.

Later on, in order to improve, I tried double checking my results. But my checking was usually as sloppy as my first time doing the tasks. I rarely found a mistake.

What did improve my marks in the end were these things (yes it took me most of my school days to get there):

  1. realize that I'm doing this for myself (this might be hard early on in life) - this took the pressure in a different direction. The focus then was getting a good mark and not to care about the finish first thing. And while everyone in class would see me getting up first - in the end everyone would only see the mark I got.
  2. improve my strategy to double check. Use a different approach in checking than the way used to solve the problem in the first place. Often enough a problem can be solved in different ways. Even the simple thing of 9 + 13 switching around to 13 + 9 can make a difference. Playing around with the easy things might help - make it 20 + 9 - 7 or 10 + 9 + 3
  3. Realize that follow up mistakes are often less grave - so write down how you get to the answer instead of just writing down the "obvious" answer. You'll get one point less if your mistake was the addition right at the start, but you get zero points if all the teacher has got is the wrong answer.
  4. getting fast at ballpark estimates to find big mistakes fast (this helped later on, when I wasn't able to double check every single step).

I don't have any kids, so I can't give advice on how to motivate children to move in the "right" direction. But maybe this can be of help nonetheless.

I think it helps getting to the root cause of this issue, but it's probably a tough road exploring the "Why are these mistakes happening" without creating pressure in the direction of "Making mistakes is bad" or "Your grades aren't good enough". It takes a lot of self reflection and openness to realize what is happening during the exams with yourself and give that feedback to someone else.

Questions like "What are you feeling when solving these tasks?" might get you closer to the cause.

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    Re mistakes: perhaps something along the lines of "Making mistakes when learning is irrelevant, that's just the way of the Tao. Learning wrong is what one must avoid. And for that, one should recognise mistakes and correct them."
    – Pablo H
    Mar 25 at 17:02
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    "average with 2,5 out of 1 to 6." For those not accustomed to German notes : 1 is the best note, 6 the worst. Mar 27 at 13:09
  • Also a German Abiturient, I now see a big difference of German school to the school my child is in now: When testing they say "We test to find the topics we will focus on next time" So "making mistakes" becomes an opportunity to learn, instead of the "bad tag" it was in traditional German school (in my experience) Apr 29 at 7:48
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My son did the same, including on homework. His teacher got him into the habit of going back and checking his answers, and that's definitely done the trick.

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I ended up reading Maths at Cambridge, so school maths exams were never terribly challenging ... but I had a similar problem.

In the end the only solution I ever found was to just do the test twice:

Once I finished, I would go back to the start and cover up my first answer get some scrap paper (ask the teacher for some blank printer paper before the test starts) and then repeat the entire paper from scratch without looking at my original answers. If I got the same answer twice, then all good. If not, then I'd need to compare the 2 answers to find where I'd done something different and decide which version had the silly mistake in.

I could reliably do that for the entire paper before the end of the allotted time.

Obviously all of this requires that your child is sufficiently invested to want to score very highly.

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Here my interpretation: it is a (different) timing issue, he works too fast. So some strategies are needed. Discuss it with your child, one possibility is:

  • work through the exam, take a short break after every page
  • after completing then take a 2-3 minute break, eat something sweet, drink some water
  • read every question with index finger following the text, and slowly check if things were right

every child might need a different strategie.

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    Agreed: "he finishes and submit always the first" is strong suggestion that he's confident in his abilities and rushing it. I'd also suggest that this is something the teachers should be picking up on.
    – deworde
    Mar 25 at 8:45
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I'm a kind of person who tends to make simple mistakes. On top of it I was not much interested in math so I often was just happy to know how things work on the high level and not exercise a lot.

There are excellent answers from Joe and Arsenal, which are worth a lot.

What helped me personally was:

  • always double check but in a different way. e.g. 13 + 68 = 81..-13 = 68 (this is also in Arsenal's answer)
  • exercise on the simple tasks to get used to them

I only realized the latter one in the university where I had subjects that I understood well but had bad grades at due to lack of time.

This experience helps me today. I work as a programmer and I double check almost everything. Especially iterating over lists, sub-strings, etc. which are very prone to mistakes. I run the expressions in an interpreter with example data to be sure. Of course writing tests for projects that are to stay.

And I must tell you that the math example above, I triple checked it in a calculator, just to be 100% sure O:-)

P.S. when I started my carrier I made some 10 mistakes in 10 lines of code. At some point I was wondering whether something is wrong with me. Maybe within an year or two things became dramatically better.

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I think the main issue with this type of people is that they are great conceptual thinkers but not very good at algorithmic tasks. It is actually not easy to test uniformly on student's concepts as lower levels of education are dry of them. Take for example the methods of operation which a child learns in lower grades, conceptually there is actually not too much of it. Everything about it can be said in five lines or less.

The issue is using these concepts in practice. I myself struggled with this issue and I'd like to share a few points which had helped me:

  1. One should focus on attaining the skill of turning of the conceptual part of the brain when calculating. For example, I found it often that my brain would go over thinking "This calculation is too hard.. I should search for another way to calculate" and in process forgetting the original question in itself.

    This sort is sort of thinking is good in general, but lower level classes there isn't actually too many opportunities or new 'shortcuts' to be found for calculating.

  2. Do a lot of worksheet exercises. To be good at algorithmic tasks, one needs to practice with executing the algorithms on conceptually trivial problems. For example, an exercise of multiplying numbers. I found Khan Academy exercises to be quite helpful for this.

  3. Since the person is a conceptual thinker, one could try give a different algorithms for doing the same goal, and, see if alternate algorithms give less mistakes.

    For instance, there are many ways once could understand the algorithm we use when we multiply two numbers eg: The Japanese lines method, the foil method etc.

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  • Is that supposed to be ironic? :P
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 25 at 21:17
  • It should have been I haven't proof read it a 100%, so if there is any part which doesn't make sense please comment Mar 25 at 21:23
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M

One possibility for your son is that he ‘thinks differently’ from everyone else and that during stressful events, thinking differently goes into overdrive. Simple questions become overthought.

The same pattern you mentioned above was happening to my son when he was at school (now uni), and identical to me when I was at school. I consider ‘thinking differently’ to be a hidden ‘super-power’ and once you know about it and learn to harness its signification anything becomes possible :-). Unfortunately medical-science likes to label it incorrectly as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

Whilst many famous persons acknowledge they have this ‘super-power’, there will always be many children/adults who might struggle and go through life never knowing why.

I am not suggesting your son has ADD/ADHD, only that there may be value in at least ruling it out :-)

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  • That is a very interesting answer. Thanks for sharing. Are there any resources (books, articles) that I need to read in order to help and support him to him based on your notice?
    – M.M
    Mar 30 at 6:47
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    Hi @M.M. Welcome back. First stop would be his teacher. Many teachers are skilled in observing 'gifted' children. Next look at his diet, as my son would be heavy triggered by the blue coloring found in M&M's. An online test/guide can be found here. But the best guide is always a 'mother's intuition' :-). Should your path lead you down the ADD route, find yourself a paediatrician who specializes in ADHD! And most importantly don't fret, because it truly is a hidden 'super-power'. And doesn't every child ❤️ having one :-).
    – SarahJ
    Mar 31 at 2:25

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