A smart student that struggles in exams

I am tutoring a grade 8 student that failed his math exam, but surprisingly it seems that he is more than smart enough: he understands everything I say really quickly, and he knows most of the ideas from class before I even say them.

When he solves some exercises beside me he does very well, so I was thinking why he failed the exam, and I couldn't find a reason. Also when I give him some homework and he does some parts wrong, then when I just point them out without saying anything more, he knows what is wrong and how to correct it.

So my question is, how do I help such a student?

1. He understands all the ideas in his lessons (parms, right triangles, first degree equations, identities and real number operations)

2. He finishes his exams on time (he is not slow in solving)

3-He said that he does not have exam anxiety, and he does not stress out in his exams.

So what is the problem?

I think he is just reluctant, but how do I solve that?

• That student seems very similar to me when I was in grade 8 (except that I didn't have a tutor). In my case, the problem was the third on the list in vonbrand's answer, overconfidence and sloppiness. Aug 20, 2021 at 2:08
• What does "Grade 8" mean in the schooling system of your country (which you have not specified)?
– TRiG
Aug 20, 2021 at 11:38
• @TRiG OP's profile says Lebanon, so grade 8 is intermediate level, cycle 4 - ages 12-13.
– J...
Aug 20, 2021 at 13:03
• What are "parms"? Aug 22, 2021 at 23:31
• "Also when I give him some homework and he does some parts wrong, then when I just point them out without saying anything more, he knows what is wrong and how to correct it." - um, to succeed at a test, you have to self-correct.
– Yakk
Aug 23, 2021 at 0:52

There are several possible explanations. Without much more information, it is impossible to give a clear-cut answer.

• Perhaps your student is able to "read" your unconcisious reactions very well, and you are telegraphing the solution.
• Some people just go blank in stressful situations, like an exam (you say it's not the case, but it might be anyway).
• Some people are just overconfident, and don't read exam questions carefully (solving the wrong problems, making stupid mistakes by not reviewing their work).
• Care only for the "big picture", understand what it is all about and not slogging through doing detailed work to really get proficient in applications.
• The problems you solve while studying are just different than the exam. E.g., you review how to solve equations, and the exam asks to set up the equations (and solve them).
• Perhaps there are language problems in understanding the exams.

I'd try to set up some exam-like study sessions (leave the student to solve a sequence of problems by themselves, and then go over the result together with a fine toothed comb). That would help train for exams, and highlight any problem areas/origins). Also review the exams given to see where the problems lie.

• I can add another one, feel free to include or not: "Caring only for the big picture." I had a tendency in math to be really fast in understanding concepts on the superficial level, but once I understood them I had no desire to train with exercises (I knew after all the interesting part, had understood it, no reason to waste time with doing the same thing all over again). That means however, you cannot solve questions covering topics from the last month(s) fast, because you need to derive everything again. And you will be sloppy in general because you lack the practice and eye for details. Aug 20, 2021 at 15:12
• @FrankHopkins, good point. Added in. Aug 20, 2021 at 15:15
• It's funny, my instinct would be essentially the opposite: something like not caring for the big picture. E.g., someone who does "just drill", sees math only as algorithm-execution, and hence has a fragile understanding and no way to justify or sanity-check. Aug 22, 2021 at 23:34

I had a similar student, these 2 things helped.

1. Take mock tests with different criteria, like a test where questions are easy but paper is too lengthy to complete in time or sometimes very few questions but too difficult to solve and you`ll be able to filter out the exact problem.

2. Ask your student to explain concepts to you or take a theoretical test.

I was this student throughout school and University. Professors would comment that I was smart, that I knew the material, but I'd still do poorly on exams. I made careless mistakes: I would sometimes forget to finish questions half-way through, clearly make simple arithmetic errors and just otherwise not give the exam the attention it deserved.

Studying was also a struggle, it was the worst part of school for me. It'd sap time and energy, and I'd get frustrated that I was spending so much time studying and getting nowhere.

The forgetting stuff on the exam, the difficulties studying and the overall carelessness. I'm not saying your student has ADHD, but it's something that could be worth looking in to. From experience, I can tell you that none of the usual strategies for studying worked for me, and I tried a lot over my 10-year undergrad career.

• It would be interesting to see if the student has problems on all exams or just in math. Aug 22, 2021 at 14:18
• I was going to make a similar comment about my son with ADHD. Normal strategies don't work. It's like he needs someone else to jog his brain. Aug 22, 2021 at 20:30

When he solves some exercises beside me he does very well, so I was thinking why he failed the exam, and I couldn't find a reason. Also when I give him some homework he do some parts wrong, but when I just point them out without saying anything he knows what is wrong and how to correct it.

This is the problem. Carelessness.

I too have this problem a lot, I think the thing is being unable to focus the attention into the task at hand (there are sometimes where there is just lack of knowledge as well). It may be due to the following issues : psychological issues, stress, attention disorders, anxiety disorders.

A diagnostic test one could do is to do is to observe the student when they solve and see how their body language/ posture changes. Another is to simply ask them to speak out their thought process as they work through the exercises. Funny enough, I find myself to make the lesser mistakes when I am speaking aloud what I am doing.

Another thing is to see where the mistakes are made and try to find practical solutions for it, for example I remember making a lot of mistakes when copying information from the problem onto the paper. I would get the digits all messed up.

A way I fixed this was to know actively tell myself to look at the digits in the question paper when copying them. Yes, this sounds simple but this is something I had to train myself to do.. my eyes would fly all over the place

• Do let me know if my suggestions worked out for him :)
– Babu
Aug 20, 2021 at 12:46
• I will try and I will let you know, even though I am o ly tutoring him for one exam😂, so I am trying every possible solution, I can't wait for the result of this exam to know what I can change. But thank you for the suggestion. Aug 20, 2021 at 13:25
• @FareedAbiFarraj, try to get earlier exams for this course, ideally from the same instructor. Use those as training exercises. Aug 20, 2021 at 15:28

•Have him create a short 10-question exam for you and/or for some younger students. (just to give him different perspective - from that of the test maker) Explain why some missed some questions and some missed others.

•Give him the challenge of creating a math test by giving him the answers first and he has to create a question to get that answer.

•Discuss with him what it means to be indifferent. Then discuss his indifference about completing tests. Explain how the test is REALLY a way to give the teacher a grade. It is a tool teachers use to determine how well they are able to convey the information to the students. Isn't that the truth? :)

•Have him learn about the skill of test-MAKING. Maybe that will help with his interest.

•Create a game of creating a word problem by going back and forth between you and him. You start off by writing "find x" then he adds a variable or a number, then your turn to add a symbol or number, etc... back and forth... This will turn into a random string of statements, variables, numbers etc.... This will illustrate how test questions are hard to make and some DO NOT have an answer.

•Create a test for him where ONE of the 5 questions is not solvable. If he can spot the UNSOLVABLE one then he doesn't have to do the other 4. But he does have to show on paper how that unsolvable question is unsolvable. This might help him to look at tests as ways to show the teacher they wrote good questions and all of them were solvable.

Just some random thoughts.. I really hope this helps or inspires. You are precious for asking and wanting to help this young person.

Blessings.

Khan Academy has great problems for drill. I have often used it for careless students. Advantages are:

1. there are no clues from you
2. if it's wrong the computer will say so and he doesn't get credit for understanding, so he will learn to focus on accuracy
3. he will have a chance to correct it which will reinforce his understanding and accuracy.
4. he can do this on his own.

Bottom line is many motivated kids often outgrow their carelessness. I was very careless at 12, but by 14 I was no longer making careless mistakes. Of course this doesn't help the present, so I suggest trying Khan academy.

• Thank you !! Can you please send a link? Aug 24, 2021 at 12:52
• @FareedAbiFarraj www.khanacademy.org Aug 25, 2021 at 13:15

That same thing happened to me when I was in school. Even in University it still happened to me. Even now as a programmer I still see the same pattern happening to me.

I was conscious of the problem, but had no solution. In fact, I don't think of it as a problem, but as an advantage (I'll discuss about this below).

When I do maths exams, I like so much maths problems that I always remember (like in video) all of the exam, including the questions and the answers I gave, and even remember all of my mental process to derive such answers.

But I don't like so much reading the exam itself. And when I don't like something, I'm not very interested in it, to the point I don't care what I do with it or what results/consequences it has.

One of the first examples of the above that I remember is the following: I remember doing an exam when I was 11 when after exiting the exam room I remembered the whole exam and I did it perfect... I did, but didn't read one question that was very short between two long questions, and therefore didn't answer that one. It simply hadn't reached my attention. The rest of the exam was perfect.

Another example I remember very well is the following: I did another maths exam when I was 17, and even though I like them, I don't like to lose 2h of my time in an exam; it simply bores me, and my performance decreases considerably. And at that age, exams start being 2h in Spain (and at university I had 4h exams, in which more like this happened). In those kinds of exams, either I nail it in a very short time (<<1h) and I get out of the exam room immediately, or I'm doing it really bad. In that exam, when I was 17, I almost nailed it in maybe 30 minutes or so. But that day I preferred sleeping in the exam chair rather than going to the corridor, so after giving the teacher the exam paper I simply slept on the exam chair (my teacher was OK with that). After some long sleep, I suddenly woke up and told my teacher that there was a mistake in my deduction and I told her the exact place on the exam paper, and asked her if I could fix it. As she knew for sure that I hadn't talked to anyone or cheated at all, and I was still inside the exam time, she allowed me to fix it. She was very amused that I had been reviewing all of my exam while sleeping.

Other times I may forget part of the question while I'm answering it. I may have already answered the "interesting" (to me) part of the question, and then I (unconsciously) lose interest on the rest of the question, maybe because the rest of it is very obvious, or some other reasons...

The conclusion I got for myself after so many years of repeating these things, is that it's not a problem. I simply can't concentrate my attention on things that don't really interest me, but I can concentrate exceptionally on things that I like. So, OK, I can live with that, I'll simply accept it, and try to continue working on things that attract me, and avoid those that don't. I can make a very good profit of that ability of mine to live. And in the end, not everyone can do what everyone else does; trying hard to "fix" it is probably only going to bring unhappiness, because there's nothing to be fixed.

What I'd do with this kid if I were a teacher, I'd make as much of an exception as I can (as much as the laws allow), and grade him according to the understanding of maths that he shows in reality, and not just in the exams.

As per myself, I had to change schools when I was 12 due to this. Later on I continued getting much lower grades in high school and university than I could have gotten (still had quite good ones), and even in the end I didn't finish my degree because of 1.5 ECTS (out of 240 ECTS) because I lost interest in it. And have I had any serious problems due to that? Nope; I'm very happy, and have had very good jobs. Even if he may have the same problems in the future, I'd just not try so hard to fix them, or at least not so hard that it demotivates him to do what he likes. Specializing is not bad; in fact it's a good thing, IMO.