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Common misconceptions

Significant figures and decimal place rounding are often confused.

Some students may think 35 877 = 36 to two significant figures.

Reporting proper number of significant figures

Many students do not recognize that the rules of significant figures are an efficient
means of error propagation and estimating the precision of the calculated result
based on the precision of the available data. Most textbooks do not explain the
rationale of significant figures and the connection between significant figures and
relative uncertainty. Even when confronted with this connection (via WebAssign's 1%
tolerance), a large fraction of students (~90%), and even many instructors, cannot
recognize the relative uncertainty that corresponds with the implied uncertainty in a
measured value.

Students typically report calculated values with more precision than can be justified,
but directly measured values are often reported with less precision than is possible.
Students who write down all the digits displayed on their calculator report that they
do so because they to do not want to lose any information (or grade points for an
incomplete answer). For the case of measured values, the reason for too few
significant figures comes from lack of sophistication in experimental measurement

Students also tend to give imprecise explanations when discussing sources of error.
Why this apparent inconsistency?

When an explicit uncertainty is stated, the measured value is often not properly
rounded to be consistent with the amount of uncertainty

Students often report uncertainties with too much precision (only 1 or 2 significant
figures are valid based on the fact that the uncertainty is a rough estimate that is
generally only about 50% accurate)


They may have trouble with zeros past the decimal point or in between numbers. They may
also have trouble with zeros before the numbers (after a decimal) and after the other

Students might not know that there is a difference between accuracy and precision

Students might confuse whether they should apply the rules of addition or multiplication
with significant figures.


Students believe that calculating a number several digits after a decimal is more precise
than using significant figures