“I got the easy ones wrong”

This morning my daughter told me that she did well on a spelling test, but she got the easiest words wrong. Of course that’s not exactly true. The words that are hardest for her to spell are the ones she in fact did not spell correctly. She probably meant that she missed the words she felt should have been easy. Maybe they were short words. Children can be intimidated by long words, even though long words tend to be more regular and thus easier to spell.

Our perceptions of what is easy are often upside-down. We feel that some things should be easy even though our experience tells us otherwise.

Sometimes the trickiest parts of a subject come first, but we think that because they come first they should be easy. For example, force-body diagrams come at the beginning of an introductory physics class, but they can be hard to get right. Newton didn’t always get them right. More advanced physics, say celestial mechanics, is in some ways easier, or at least less error-prone.

“Elementary” and “easy” are not the same. Sometimes they’re opposites. Getting off the ground, so to speak, may be a lot harder than flying.

6 thoughts on ““I got the easy ones wrong”

  1. I think your daughter is on to something that you are discounting.

    I don’t have an exact handle on it, but it seems that “easy” and “hard” apply a task, its context, and the combination. Perhaps she should have said “I got the words that are easiest when there’s no pressure wrong in the test, and got the words that are hardest when there’s no pressure right in the test”

    I agree with your point that since she got them wrong in the test context they were not easy in the test context, but the difficulty may lay in the context rather than basic spelling ability.

    Our perceptions of what is easy are often upside down due to context as well as the factors you mention.

    It’s not uncommon to fail to focus on “easy” tasks and make mistakes that are not due to task-related skill, nor is it uncommon to bear down and do better in hard circumstances.

    “Clutch” players admired for performing well under pressure are sometimes also known for not doing well in more relaxed circumstances.

    Sometimes people intentionally load themselves up a bit to improve performance. I know of a very senior guy who would have just one too many glasses of scotch and stay up just a little too late the night before a big day, to help himself focus. Not recommended for grade school spelling bees though.

  2. Your daughter’s statement could be tested: how many of her classmates got right the ones she got wrong (if that’s a small fraction, the ones she got wrong were hard after all), and how many of he classmates got right the ones she got right (if large, those ones were in fact easy).

    The folks who study multiple choice tests look at the correlation between the score on a question and the total score, taken over all the people who wrote the test. A high correlation means that the question concerned was good at “discriminating” the high scorers from the low scorers, which is a different issue than how hard the question was (as measured by what fraction of people got it right).

  3. I wonder whether the easy and hard words come from different sources. I wouldn’t be surprised if the longer words are mostly Latin and Greek derived, through Norman French and scholastic philosophy, while the shorter ones are Anglo-Saxon.

  4. Benjamin: I think you’re right, that the shorter words are often Germanic and the longer words are often Latin or French. And the really hard words to spell are none of the above.

    ***

    There have been a lot of empirical studies in software development, and these show that what we think of as hard and what is actually hard (as measured by how often it’s implemented wrongly) are pretty different.

    ***

    Going back to the physics example, I remember a mechanics problem in my freshman physics class that stumped us all. None of us were able to work it, nor were most of the people we asked for help. One of my friends called his father, a physics professor, for help. The professor was able to solve the problem, but only by using techniques beyond freshman physics.

    This was an extremely valuable exercise. I didn’t learn much physics from it, but I learned that a fairly simple problem can stump a lot of smart people.

  5. Easy is often boring, so focus is lost (as lens rightly point out). So, what is hard about ‘easy problems’ is to pay sufficient attention.

    On my first school report for mathematics: “Sylvia does very well, but she should also complete the easy sums correctly”. Six-year old me was attracted to the optional, harder problems, so I was always speeding through the easy ones, not paying enough attention.

    In any case, I am sure your daughter will do well. ;-)

  6. Sylvia: I think you’re right about boring things being error prone.

    There’s a study that shows subjects were more likely to get solve some problems correctly when the problems were written in a light gray italic font that was hard to read.

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