Sloppiness Is Not a Marketable Skill

Out of 41 students (in two sections), 36 lost points on the mini-quiz because they didn’t notice one of the questions. The question was accompanied by a picture that occupied almost a quarter of the page. (This is Spanish Elementary II, we describe pictures a lot.) Mind you, the students knew how to do the assignment because the absolute majority did four very similar tasks perfectly. They just didn’t notice this question. When I asked them why they thought the huge picture was even there if it wasn’t supposed to be addressed as part of the mini-quiz, they just stared at me blankly.

There were several ways of realizing that the question and the picture were part of this mini-quiz. Yet, most students just skipped it. These are very good students, people. They could have all gotten As and Bs if they had done the entire set of assignments. And there was time aplenty. The students rushed out of the classroom at least 10 minutes before the time had run out.

Of course, the students were unhappy about losing points. I, however, think that I was right in reducing their grades. Sloppiness is not a marketable skill. No matter how bright you are, if you can’t be careful and meticulous about your work, you will not be very successful. I say this from personal experience. I don’t find it hard to generate ideas and come up with interesting new readings of the works of literature that I analyze. It’s the sloppiness that often gets me down. Checking all quotes, dates of publication, names, places, spellings – what a drag! I realized, however, that my carelessness was an act of disrespect towards my own work.

Believe me, it is very humiliating to get a response from a reviewer who mentions that I used the word “faucet” instead of “facet” (my written English is very good, so I really know the difference) and that I quoted the title of the novel I analyze incorrectly.

Now that I have learned for myself how detrimental sloppiness can be, I think it’s my duty to transmit this knowledge to the students.

What do you, people, think? Was I right to reduce the grades because of this act of sloppiness?

18 thoughts on “Sloppiness Is Not a Marketable Skill”

  1. I work in accounting, so people are expected to pay close attention to detail. I’ve noticed that sloppiness will count against you when you’re a newbie, but that we have a lot of people at our top levels who will misspell practically every single word in a workpaper. Mostly these are typos, but just today I saw someone spell “since” as “sense” and that’s simply not knowing how the word is really spelled.

    So, I think that you’re doing them a service because they need to learn attention to detail to do good work, but in reality, that’s not going to be what makes it or breaks it for them making it to the top. I do think that the people who don’t have the charisma it takes to make it to partner of the company *do* need to be extra meticulous in their work, because that is their selling point.

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  2. A question not answered by mistake is the same as an intentionally unanswered question. They need to learn to take the time to check their work, and to recognize that mistakes have consequences, too.

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      1. Only because at the end of the exam, I’m mentally and physically exhausted. And even if I did notice that I missed a question, I have nothing left to answer it. But that’s at the end of a 4hr exam after a regular 10 hr work day. It’s not an in class quiz.

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        1. Wow, that sounds like a really tough exam. Four hours sound intense. Good luck at the exam!

          My mini-quiz, however, was a very simple, basic 20-minutes-long affair that we had practiced for extensively.

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  3. Ha, this used to happen in my exams, so I made a joke out of it. In the instructions before every quiz I used to add something like: “While handing back your quiz, discover in a moment of sheer terror that you forgot to take a look at the problem on the back of the page”.

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  4. In what proportion that they don’t follow the instructions in your experiences?

    That varies, David Gendron. I suspect that it depends on how much the format is a surprise. Students under stress can be tricked more easily by the unexpected. Sometimes, I am not sure whether someone did not follow directions or just did not notice them, or did not understand them.

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  5. I never did that on an exam after grade seven, thanks to my teacher in that grade. What happened was, she gave us a surprise pop quiz in math, which annoyed us, and then we noticed that all of the questions were addition and subtraction of single digit numbers. We were all speedily filling them out (there were about 50 questions and it was timed to do them all in under 5 minutes) and then POW, done! Our teacher smirked, collected them, and nearly all of us got Fs. Why? Because we neglected to read the special “key” at the top, which told us that for the purpose of this test, 1=2, 3=5, 6=9, and so on and so forth, so our calculations were all kaput.
    After that, I always triple-read everything I got and followed directions fastidiously on exams. It’s probably one of the reasons I broke my school’s record for highest SAT/ACT scores.

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  6. I’ve had an unusual work history. I spent a year teaching middle school, and spent more than 10 years before that doing typography, layout, and design (finally winding up in healthcare). It can be very easy to lead the eye past something important (in this case possibly your test question, but in advertising, that can be used to openly conceal things you’d rather people not really notice).

    I don’t know that it was your test design, but it’s possible. A majority of your students did not see the question, so unless they are terrible students and generally turn in sloppy work, you might look at the way you set the test up, or even have someone not involved in the class take a look at it.

    I think it is really more fair to grade people on their ability to do the required work, and not their ability to avoid being misled, unless you are teaching a class in consumer alertness or something similar.

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  7. When I was in high school, we had to line up in single file for every new class. As we marched into our geography class, the teacher, a dragon from Ireland, was holding something up. We went inside and sat down. Her first question was about the image on the postcard she was holding. Only one student out of thirty odd could answer that. She gave us a long lecture about using our capacities for observation. It seemed pointless at the time, since so much of what we did was clearly arbitrary in the first place — the lining up, the saying prayers or singing hymns. I can’t say I learned any lesson from that.

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