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Careless Errors Made by Sixth-Grade Children on Written Mathematical Tasks

Author(s): M. A. Clements
Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Mar., 1982), pp.
Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
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Journal for Research in Mathematics Education
1982, Vol. 13, No. 2, 136-144




Monash University

Mathematics teachers are aware of careless errors. They know that th

themselves have often obtained incorrect answers to problems they k
how to do. Further, most of them have at some time advised student
take more care when attempting mathematical problems. But what
careless errors? And which personality and cognitive characteristics
any, tend to be associated with students who make careless errors o
mathematical tasks? This article addresses these two questions.
Recent research by Newman (1977), Casey (1979), Clements (198
Watson (1980), and Clarkson (Note 1) suggests that when schoolchild
attempt standard mathematical pencil-and-paper tasks the number
careless errors they make is about the same as the number of errors due
systematic weaknesses in process skills. However, while there is a la
and growing literature on process skills errors, and especially on er
due to the application of inappropriate or faulty arithmetical proce
(Brown & Burton, 1978; Clement, 1977; Cox, 1975; Davis, McKnig
Parker, & Elrick, 1979; McAloon, 1979), the literature on careless er
is relatively sparse. This, together with the increasing tendency
writers to maintain that most, or perhaps even all, mathematical err
are systematic (see, for example, Brown & Burton, 1978, p. 157; Col
Gay, Glick, & Sharp, 1971, pp. xii-xiii; Davis & McKnight, 1979, p. 1
Ginsburg, 1977, pp. 50-68; Radatz, 1979, p. 170), suggests that there
need for research into careless errors in mathematics. In the present stud
an operational definition of careless errors is provided and used in
investigation into the mathematical errors made by 50 sixth-grade ch



The students were 50 sixth-grade children (26 boys and 24 girls)

attending an international primary school in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

This paper was written while the author was on study leave at the Mathematics
Education Centre, Papua New Guinea University of Technology (Lae), between
February and July 1980.


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Most of the children's parents were expatriates, from Australia, New
Zealand, or England, and income earners in the families typically held
responsible business or professional positions. All teachers at the school
were expatriates.


The Monash Assessment of Mathematical Performance (MAMP) test

was given to the children twice, on successive days. This test, construct-
ed by the author, contains 20 numeration items, 8 mathematical space
items, and 8 mathematical language and logic items; it has been used in
large research projects involving children between 9 and 14 years of age,
and the difficulties of the questions are such that a large sample of sixth-
grade children in a study involving over 100 schools in Victoria averaged
26 questions correct out of 36.
Kagan's cognitive style test, Matching Familiar Figures (MFF) (Kagan,
1965), was used in order that impulsive (fast) and reflective (slow)
subjects in the sample might be identified. Responses were timed to the
nearest second, and a record was kept of each response until the correct
answer was given.
Three other tests were used for the purpose of measuring the students'
arithmetical competence, their confidence when attempting mathematical
tasks, and their understanding of mathematical language. The first two of
these tests were constructed by the author; the mathematical language
test was constructed by Jones (see Clements & Lean, Note 2). The
arithmetic test consisted of 25 open-ended calculations involving the four
operations and ranging in difficulty from 27 + 4 to 11 - 1.3. The test
contained no words, only numerals and symbols indicating which numeri-
cal operations were to be used. The mathematical confidence test
contained 20 word problems or arithmetical calculations, together with a
Likert-scale response section which required subjects to indicate, by
placing checks in one of five columns, how confident they were that their
answers were correct. The columns were headed thus:

(a) I'm certain I'm right

(b) I think I'm right
(c) I've got a 50-50 chance of being right
(d) I think I'm wrong
(e) I'm certain I'm wrong

The Likert-scale response scores for a question ranged from +2 (for an

(a) response) to -2 (for an (e) response). The mathematical language test
is a pencil-and-paper test containing 17 open-ended questions involving
understanding of comparative terms like more and less and longer and
shorter. The following two questions from the test are typical:

March 1982 137

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Question 6: What is 3 more than 6?
Question 10: Anne has 3 less shells than Gertrude. If Anne has 5 shells,
how many shells does Gertrude have?

The difficulty level of the test is such that children in grades 2, 4, and 6 in
the two international primary schools in Lae averaged 9, 13, and 15
questions correct, respectively, out of 17.
Two other variables, which did not require additional testing, were
defined. A student's misplaced confidence was measured from the
responses to the mathematical confidence test: A score of 2 was allocated
whenever a student obtained an incorrect answer to a question but
indicated the certainty of being right; a score of 1, if an incorrect answer
was given and the student thought (but was not certain) the answer was
correct; and 0 in all other cases. Scores obtained for the 20 items on the
mathematical confidence test were summed in order to find misplaced
confidence scores. The other variable was the total time, to the nearest
minute, a student took to complete the MAMP test (first administration
only), the arithmetic test, and the mathematical language test.

The MFF test was administered to the subjects individually by two

examiners over a period of 3 days. About 1 week after the MFF testing
was completed the writer administered the four pencil-and-paper tests, as
group tests. This testing occurred on 2 successive mornings-
on the first, the MAMP, mathematical confidence, and mathematical
language tests were given and on the second the arithmetic test was given
and the MAMP test readministered. No time limit was placed on any of
the pencil-and-paper tests, the students being told that they could hand in
their papers as soon as they had finished and thoroughly checked their
work. A careful notation was made of each student's beginning and
ending time so that each one's total time on each test could be calculated.
About 1 week after the pencil-and-paper testing was completed, the
author individually interviewed the students to ascertain, if possible, why
certain errors had been made. The Newman interview technique was used
(Newman, 1977).

A Definition of Careless Errors

In this study careless errors were defined with respect to responses for
the twice-administered MAMP test only. The following procedure was
adopted for identifying careless errors:

1. Attention was confined to students who gave correct answers to

questions on one occasion but wrong answers on the other; these students
were interviewed, the Newman method being used to probe the students'
thinking about those questions for which they had given one right and one
wrong response.

138 Journal for Research in Mathematics Education

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2. If, during the Newman interview, a student once again obtained an
incorrect answer to a question, then the original error was not classified
as careless.

3. If, during the Newman interview, a student obtained the correct

answer to a question without any assistance from the interviewer, the
the error was classified as careless provided further probing did no
suggest the student was unsure whether the answer was right or wrong
As part of the probing procedure the student was shown the two origina
answers and asked which was correct.


Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations of the number of

correct responses on the MAMP test and the arithmetic and mathematical
language tests. It also shows the means and standard deviations of the
mathematical confidence and misplaced confidence scores, the number of

Table 1
Summary Information and Data
Possible Actual
Test or range range Mean Standard
variable of scores of scores score deviation

MAMP (1) 0-36 13-36 26.2 5.7

MAMP (2) 0-36 12-36 27.8 5.8
Arithmetic 0-25 10-24 17.8 3.8
Mathematical language 0-17 8-17 15.4 2.2
Mathematical confidence -40-+40 + 1-+40 25.0 10.4
Misplaced confidence 0-40 0-13 5.4 3.7
MFF (errors) 0-50 0-13 4.7 2.9
MFF (time) (seconds) 10.2-54.9 23.0 9.3
Total time (minutes) 44-100 61.9 12.7

errors on the MFF test, and the time, in

they made first selections of pictures
row shows the mean and standard d
nearest minute, students took on the
the arithmetic test, and the mathema

A total of 903 incorrect responses were given on the two occasions

students took the MAMP test. Of these 638 were double errors, that is to
say, students missed on both occasions; the other 265 were single errors,
that is, students got correct answers on one, but not both, occasions.
Although double errors cannot, for the purpose of this paper, be regarded
as careless errors, 76% of these were stable double errors, that is, the
same incorrect answer was given twice.
The Newman interviews revealed that 190 of the 265 single errors were,
in fact, careless errors. Thus, 21% of the 903 errors made on the MAMP

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test were careless. In fact, 122 (64%) of the careless errors occurred the
first time, and 68 (36%) occurred the second time.
Table 2 shows Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients be-
tween the number of careless and double errors and scores for arithmetic,
mathematical language, mathematical confidence, misplaced confidence,
and total time. It also shows the correlations between the proportions of
errors that were careless and the scores for arithmetic, mathematical
language, mathematical confidence, misplaced confidence, and total time.

Table 2
Correlations of Five Variables with Number and
Proportion of Careless Errors, and with
Number of Double Errors (n = 50)
Correlation with ...
Number of Number of Proportion
careless double of careless
Variable errors errors errors

1. Arithmetic -0.39** -0.74** 0.33*

2. Mathematical language -0.36* -0.75** 0.29*
3. Mathematical confidence -0.17 -0.59** 0.31*
4. Misplaced confidence 0.30* 0.47** -0.29*
5. Total time 0.17 0.50** -0.28*

* Indicates the coefficient is significantly differe

** Indicates p < 0.01.

From Table 2 it can be seen th

obtained between the numbers
ance on the arithmetic and ma
ly positive correlations were o
double errors and misplaced c
dence and total time correlate
errors but not with the numb
Thus, students who were we
mathematical language tended
double errors. Such children t
solve mathematical problems,
do problems, their confidence
supported by the high correla
confidence (r = 0.54) and mathematical language and mathematical
confidence (r = 0.70). Table 2 also suggests that students who take less
time on mathematical tasks make fewer errors (although only marginally
fewer careless errors).
Entries in the column in the right-hand side of Table 2 indicate that
moderate, but significantly positive, correlations were obtained between
the proportion of errors that were careless and three of the variables-
arithmetic, mathematical language, and mathematical confidence; also,
significantly negative correlations were obtained with two variables, total

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time and misplaced confidence. This suggests that students who had a
sound grasp of arithmetic and mathematical language, who worked
relatively quickly on mathematical problems, or who believed they knew
how to obtain correct answers, tended to make a higher proportion of
careless errors than slower, less confident, and mathematically weaker

MFF Results

A modified form of Kagan's method of using a median split on both

errors and mean time on the MFF test was followed (Kagan, 1965), th
median response time being 22 seconds and the median number of erro
being 5. An impulsive student was defined as an individual who respond
ed on the MFF test in less than 22 seconds on the average but who mad
five or more errors on the 10 test items; a reflective student was defined as
one who took 22 seconds or more to respond but made four or fewer
errors. Using these definitions, 29 of the 50 students were either impulsive
or reflective, 17 being impulsive and 12 reflective.
Table 3 shows the mean number of careless and double errors and th
mean proportion of careless errors made by impulsive and reflecti
students on the two occasions they took the MAMP test. (Note that fo
the purposes of analysis a double error has been counted as two error

Table 3
Mean Number of Careless and Double Errors, and Mean Proportion
of Careless Errors, Made by Impulsive and Reflective Subjects
Subject Mean number of Mean number of Mean proportion
type careless errors double errors of careless errors
Impulsive 4.53 15.88 0.21
(n = 17) (SD = 2.35) (SD = 11.99) (SD = 0.20)
Reflective 3.08 9.00 0.23
(n = 12) (SD = 2.44) (SD = 6.69) (SD = 0.23)

None of the differences between the means of impulsi

students shown in Table 3 is statistically significant (p
the trend for impulsive students to make more mathem
reflective students is in accord with findings of other
example, Cathcart & Liedtke, 1969). Note that there is
Table 3 that impulsive students make a greater propor
errors than reflective students.
An interesting and surprising observation arising from the present study
is that mean time taken by students to select a picture in Kagan's MFF
test does not correlate significantly with total time on the first MAMP and
the arithmetic and mathematical language tests. Indeed, the Pearson
product-moment correlation coefficient which was obtained was negative
(r = -0.19). Many students who were classified as impulsive on the basis

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of their MFF responses were certainly not impulsive when doing mathe-
matical tests; similarly, many MFF reflective students were not reflective
on mathematical tests.


The study described is essentially an exploratory one in which ra

blunt statistical tools have been used. The analysis given has been ma
correlational; therefore, interpretations are fraught with the difficu
that arise with this type of analysis. Sharper correlational procedur
such as partial correlation and multiple regression, have not been u
because neither the sample size nor the design of the study warran
Despite these limitations, the results should be of interest to mathem
ics teachers and researchers concerned with analyzing children's mat
matical errors. The Newman interviews revealed that over 20% of the
errors made on the MAMP test were careless, in the sense that the
students knew how to do the questions and there were no obvious
reasons why they had erred. Recent research using the Newman method
has consistently produced data indicating that between 20% and 40% of
schoolchildren's mathematical errors are careless, and this emphasizes
the need for research into the nature and causes of careless errors.
Casey's (1979) study is the only other study known to the author in
which the question of why children make careless mathematical errors
has been investigated. In Casey's study 3206 errors made by 116 seventh-
grade boys were analyzed, an interview technique being used, and,
according to the analysis, 673 of the errors were what Casey termed
unknown block errors, a category which would include careless errors (in
the sense of the present paper). In a multiple regression analysis, with the
number of unknown block errors as the dependent variable and verbal
I.Q., nonverbal I.Q., reading comprehension, and arithmetical skill
manipulation as independent variables, only 5% of the variance in the
dependent variable was accounted for. This led Casey to conjecture that
unknown block errors were largely noncognitive in origin. The results of
the present study suggest, however, that the number of careless mathe-
matical errors correlates negatively with arithmetical and mathematical
language competence and positively with misplaced mathematical confi-
dence. Perhaps this could be summed up by saying that mathematically
weak students who do not know that they do not know are especially
likely to make careless errors. Data from the present study would also
indicate that such students make even more systematic errors than they
do careless errors.
The use of the proportion of careless errors as a variable in the present
study should be noted. When other variables were correlated with this
variable and with the variable defined by the number of careless errors,
very different patterns emerged. It seems that mathematically competent

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and confident children, who know that they know, tend to make a greater
proportion of careless errors than other children.
Indications from the present study are that the cognitive style variable
MFF will not be of much use in further investigations into mathematical
carelessness. Indeed, the data suggest that many MFF reflective children
are not reflective when attempting mathematical tasks. Similarly, many
MFF impulsive children are not impulsive when placed in a mathematical

This study, and Casey's study, would seem to have opened a Pand
box. Much more needs to be known about the nature, extent, and
of careless errors before we can begin to take effective steps to era


1. Clarkson, P. C. The Newman error analysis-some extensions. Paper presented to

fourth annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Austral
Hobart, University of Tasmania, 1980.
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schools in Papua New Guinea: Some cross-cultural perspectives (Report no. 1
Mathematics Education Centre, Papua New Guinea University of Technology, 1980


Brown, J. S., & Burton, R. R. Diagnostic models for procedural bugs in basic mathemat
skills. Cognitive Science, 1978, 2, 155-192.
Casey, D. P. An analysis of errors made by junior secondary pupils on written mathema
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Cathcart, W. G., & Liedtke, W. Reflectiveness/impulsiveness and mathematics achi
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Clement, J. Patterns in Joey's comments on arithmetic problems. Journal of Childre
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Clements, M. A. Analyzing children's errors on written mathematical tasks. Educat
Studies in Mathematics, 1980, 11 (1), 1-21.
Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J. A., & Sharp, D. W. The cultural context of learning
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populations. Journal for Reseach in Mathematics Education, 1975, 6, 202-220.
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number arithmetic problems. Journal of Children's Mathematical Behaviour, 1979, 2

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Children's Mathematical Behaviour, 1979, 2 (2), 91-112.
Ginsburg, H. The psychology of arithmetic thinking. Journal of Children's Mathematical
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[Received September 1980]

Call for Research Papers and Proposals

Program space at the 61st Annual Meeting in Detroit, Michigan, 13-16 April 1983, has
been reserved by the Conventions and Conferences Committee for those interested in
research and its implications for classroom teachers and curriculum builders. Three types of
sessions will be offered: reporting, research analysis and critiques, and implications for
Reporting sessions will be short presentations of the findings of previously unreported
research. These sessions will have direct implications for mathematics educators. Research
analysis and critiques sessions will be of longer duration and will deal with recent
developments in the field of research. These sessions should be of interest primarily to those
who are actively engaged in research activities. Implications for teaching sessions will
present an opportunity for researchers to discuss with classroom teachers the findings,
results, and practical implications of a body of research on a currently important issue.
Sessions on implications for teaching will be selected from among submitted proposals as
well as by invitation from the Detroit Program Committee.
Those wishing to be considered for a place on the program must submit seven copies of a
typewritten, double-spaced abstract or proposal not exceeding 1000 words. The following
should be included in the mailing:
1. The name and professional affiliation of the author. If more than one person is involved,
complete information about the anticipated responsibility of each contributor must be
2. The preferred mailing address of the contributor(s).
3. The title of the paper or presentation.
4. An abstract of the paper, or an outline of the presentation, clearly describing the purpose
and significance of the research, the conceptual framework, and the procedures, design,
analysis, findings, and conclusions.
5. A designation as to which of the three types of sessions the proposal is directed.
With each abstract or proposal submitted, the sender should enclose two self-addressed
postcards; one will be used to acknowledge the receipt of the proposal, the other to notify
the sender of the decision of the screening committee.
All materials submitted will be reviewed by persons selected by the NCTM Research
Advisory Committee and the Detroit Program Committee.
All submissions should be sent to Henry S. Kepner, Jr., Department of Curriculum and
Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201;
they must be postmarked by 1 July 1982.

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