Common Maths Mistakes and How to Learn From Them

Did you know that making mistakes in maths can actually enhance learning? Discover some of the most common mistakes in primary maths and how to solve them.

Maths can be pretty challenging for a lot of us and children can often end up struggling with the same mistakes repeatedly. There are a lot of common maths mistakes that are easily made, and that’s okay – there’s nothing bad about getting the wrong answer first try. The wrong answer can often be used as a great learning opportunity.

Explore Learning tutor and student work on maths at the computer


Is it normal to make mistakes in maths?

It’s absolutely normal for children to make mistakes in maths. What’s important is trying to understand the type of error being made and where your child is struggling between the question and the answer. 

That way you can work together on their maths problems, helping them understand and reach the correct answer.


Maths mistakes allow thinking to happen!  

While the answer your child gave to the question might not be right, that doesn’t mean making mistakes is wrong. Mistakes should always be seen as a chance to learn and get a deeper understanding of maths concepts and problems.


The value of making mistakes in maths

Children often see their mistakes as a failure, and it’s important to help them understand that making mistakes in maths is all part of the journey. In fact, common maths mistakes can actually be a really helpful way to get a better understanding of complicated things like writing fractions correctly.

By working together with your child on the mistakes they’re most commonly making in their maths work, you can get a better understanding together of why the mistakes are being made and how to avoid making them in the future.


How making mistakes is good for learning

Before your child tells themselves they “can’t do it”, teach them how mistakes are a great chance to learn more and grow. Maths is challenging sometimes. Teaching children that it’s okay to ask for the extra help they need will go a long way towards helping them excel in maths.


Spotting mistakes in working out

Maths teachers will always teach their students to show how they worked out the answer. So even if the answer is wrong students can look back and see where the mistake happened. They can see where they might’ve put a decimal in the wrong place or where they might be using the wrong symbols, dividing rather than multiplying or putting numbers in the wrong order.


Make learning fun, even with mistakes

Making learning maths more fun is one of the best ways to help children overcome maths challenges. Turn equations into games and reward learning every step of the way, so that even if the final answer is wrong, you can go back and have fun getting to the correct answer. That way even mistakes can be part of an enjoyable journey in learning maths.


Normalising mistakes

The fear of making mistakes in maths can be a huge barrier for children. That’s why it’s important to normalise mistakes.

Try something like this – go over some maths problems that you know your child is confident with. Work out the problem together, but then give the wrong answer yourself and see if your child agrees if that’s the correct answer. 

Because they’re confident with the problem they’ll be able to tell you what the answer should be, and why. So not only have you shown them that it’s okay to make a mistake, but you’ve given them the confidence to assert the correct answer themselves with the knowledge to back it up.


Common mistakes in Primary Maths

A lot of the mistakes children make in primary school maths are fairly common; 

  • using the wrong symbols 
  • struggling to add multiple numbers 
  • writing fractions wrong
  • incorrect workings out for longer sums. 

That’s okay, of course, making mistakes is part of the journey. Let’s take a look at some of the common primary maths mistakes and how to overcome them.


Maths misconceptions in KS2

The most difficult KS2 maths misconceptions arise with new maths concepts. Things like algebra and fractions.


Common algebra mistakes

Early algebra introduces some new maths concepts, like working with negative numbers. It can all be quite confusing at first, especially “adding” negative numbers. 

Students will often default to what they know, for example, students might see this sum and come out with this answer: 


It’s easy to see how they got to the answer, and the number isn’t entirely wrong. So you can give them some credit there, then show the correct answer: 


When it comes to things like working with negative numbers you can make learning quite visual, try this number line for example: 

chart showing two negative numbers being added together

Showing confusing maths concepts like this visually really helps children understand what’s happening, and can make learning a bit more exciting. 


Common misconceptions in primary maths: fractions

Fractions are an essential part of maths but understanding them early on can be a little tricky. Visual learning can be a great tool when it comes to dealing with some of the common misconceptions around fractions. 

Denominators and fraction sizes are a big sticking point. For example, children will often see ¼ as larger than ½ because they’re taught early on that 4 is greater than 2. So there’s logic in their thinking, another mistake that shows an understanding of numbers. 

But lets a visual example to make this easier, take this cake for example: 

illustration of a full cake

Show your child that if you split the cake directly down the middle, each side of the cake is ½ :

illustration of a cake split in half to show fraction 1/2

But if you split the cake again, each piece becomes ¼ : 

illustration of a cake split into quarters to illustrate factions 1/4

They can see visually that ¼ is smaller than ½, which is a great way to help them understand denominators in fractions; the number of parts that make a whole. 

You can show visually that the more you split something, the higher the denominator but the smaller the part. So while whole numbers go up in value the higher they get, when denominators for fractions get higher the piece that fraction represents is smaller. 


Early years maths misconceptions

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that in the early years children aren’t ready to start learning maths at all. It’s actually good to start early, learning simple maths and numbers is vital early. This helps children understand important things later on in life that requires mathematical knowledge, like money.

There are a lot of maths concepts that can be confusing at first. For example, words and numbers that sound the same. “Eight” sounds exactly like “ate” and can be very confusing for children at first.

You can use misconceptions like this to get children thinking early on about language, and context – if you’re counting something, for example, you’ll probably be using the word “eight” rather than “ate”. 

But then you can make things a little more complex. Try a sentence like this: 

“Brian ate eight apples.”

Mix in numbers with words that sound the same to get children thinking about and talking about language in relation to maths.

Again, visual learning is very useful for solving early years maths misconceptions. Using real objects is a great way to help with counting; get your children to count their toys or ask them to bring you a specific number of their toys and see if they can count the right number.


How to avoid making simple mistakes in maths

Students make mistakes, but we want to learn to avoid them in the end. There are a lot of common mistakes when it comes to primary maths:

  • writing wrong numbers 
  • using the wrong symbols 
  • conceptual errors in long sums
  • not being to analyse their mistakes. 

So how do we catch those mistakes? Fortunately, a lot of the mistakes we mentioned are simple. This means there are a lot of simple ways to catch them.


Slow down

Take a second slow down and read the question. Then read it again. Encourage children to take their time with the answer, and work it out in as many steps as they need.


Check their working out

By working out the answer in as many steps as they need, it means that even if children get the wrong answer they can look back and see how and why the answer was wrong. There might just be a simple mistake somewhere along the way. 


Develop a growth mindset 

Teach children that everyone learns at a different pace and will grow in their ability over time and with effort. Mistakes are okay and should be seen as a learning opportunity and not something to be scared or ashamed of. 

Teach them that natural talent isn’t the be-all and end-all of maths, everyone can develop their own talent with practice.


Get a good night’s sleep 

It sounds simple but a good night’s sleep can make all the difference, especially when it comes to tricky concepts in maths. Make sure children are getting the rest they need and their brains are recharged ready to keep learning the next day. 


How to improve confidence in Primary Maths

The most important thing to start with is to teach children that making mistakes is okay and that they’re a learning opportunity. Getting some extra online maths tuition with particularly tricky maths problems never hurts either. 

Making the same common mistakes in maths can be frustrating but our award-winning maths tutors can boost confidence by helping children understand how to avoid making those mistakes in future. Find out how our expert maths tuition can support your child today.

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