Analysing students’ mistakes

Making mistakes is good for learning

Thinking back to traditional maths teaching, the aim often seems to have been to stop errors from happening in the first place.  The damning red cross was to be avoided at all costs!

In fact, allowing learners to make mistakes so that we can uncover their misconceptions is an important teaching approach.  Be prepared to let learners take risks and try new approaches, reassuring them that they will be able to learn from their mistakes.

Tutors should be skilled and confident at spotting errors and analysing where a student has gone wrong.


Reasons students make mistakes:

Students can make mistakes for a number of reasons.  It is possible that they:

  • don’t understand a mathematical process
  • are confused between methods and/or concepts
  • cannot follow a mathematical process
  • have a learning disability or difficulty that makes certain concepts and methods difficult for them to understand
  • have language or literacy difficulties


Identifying mistakes and misconceptions:

The best way to find out where a student has gone wrong is to ask them how they did the task.  Ask them to talk you through it step by step.

If the student is not there to ask, it is possible to analyse written work to find out where someone might have gone wrong.


[1]From the Numeracy Energiser training materials developed by NIACE and the Scottish Government (2005/6)

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