Cognitive Failure and Mathematical Ability in Third-Year Students

Cognitive failure refers to absent-mindedness, which involves mistakes or errors resulting from slips in attention or memory failure (Reason and Mycielska, 1982). These errors can be attributed to memory issues, attention deficits, difficulties in implementing intentions, or disruptions caused by distractions. Additionally, cognitive failure may manifest as clumsiness, challenges in social interactions, or problems with information processing. Students are particularly susceptible to cognitive failure.

Cognitive failure has the potential to affect cognitive processing and brain function, which makes the mathematical ability of a student crucial.

Thus, this study aims to explore the connection between cognitive failure and the mathematical ability of third-year students in order to address this problem.

The researchers are resolute and unwavering in their objective to educate students on the assessment and prevention of cognitive failure.

Statement of the Problem

The main goal of this study is to examine how cognitive failure relates to mathematical ability in third-year students. To achieve this, the study will assess the participants' current level of cognitive failure using the Cognitive Failure Questionnaire.

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Additionally, it will evaluate their proficiency in Geometry and analyze any potential correlation between cognitive failure and mathematical ability.

The hypothesis statement is as follows:

The null hypothesis posits that there is no significant correlation between the cognitive failure of 3rd year students and their mathematical ability, while the alternative hypothesis proposes a significant relationship between these two variables.

The scope and delimitation of the study refer to the boundaries and parameters in which the research is focused on.

This study examined the impact of cognitive failure, including lack of attention and memory loss, on students' mathematical ability.

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The study did not take into account the age and gender of the students.

This study investigates the correlation between cognitive failure and mathematics ability test performance among third-year students at Saint John of Beverley. Its main goal is to propose solutions for addressing these issues. Each student receives Cognitive Failure Questionnaires and a math ability test to complete. The collected data will be analyzed using the coefficient of correlation to determine if there is a relationship between the variables being studied.The following text provides a definition of terms.

1. Cognition is the term used to describe the process of thoughts and information being processed in the human brain. 2. Cognitive failure, as measured by the Cognitive Failure Questionnaire, occurs when a person makes mistakes or errors due to lapses in attention or memory failure, as well as interference-induced errors. 3. Mathematical ability refers to the scores achieved by students on a mathematical ability test, which is considered a task rather than a subject for this study. 4. The researchers used a 20-item test called the mathematical ability test to determine the scores of 3rd-year students. 5. The Cognitive Failure Questionnaire was created in 1982 by Broadbent, Cooper, FitzGerald, and Parkes as an assessment tool for measuring an individual's cognitive failure score. 6. Social desirability bias occurs when respondents answer questions in a way they believe will be seen favorably by others (Wikipedia).


The literature review in this thesis supports the studied variables and also gives a brief background on the various branches of cognitive failure.

Cognitive Failure

According to the researchers, cognitive failure refers to errors that happen during a task that a person is usually able to perform successfully. These errors include problems with attention, memory, and motor function. When cognitive failure occurs, it unintentionally impacts a person's ability to complete a task (Martin, 1983 c.f. Wallace, J. Craig; Chen, Gilad, 2005).

Despite the absence of a specific individual's incompetence and the task's level of complexity, the mentioned lapses occur when there is both ability and a remarkably straightforward task (Reason, 1977). Cognitive failure is somewhat connected to cognitive aspects such as an excess of short-term memory capacity, diminished cognitive focus and alertness, unintentional learning, and divided attention (Broadbent, Cooper, Fitzgerald, and Parkes, 1982).

Over the years, researchers have identified various factors of cognitive failure using the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire (Broadbent et al., 1982). Matthews, Coyle, and Craig (1990) identified seven factors of cognitive failures: physical clumsiness, people's names, planned social interaction, language, lack of concentration, absentmindedness, and a final factor based on one item from the CFQ. However, due to an insufficient number of items for each factor, Matthews et al. (1990) consolidated them into two factors: General Cognitive Failure and recall of people’s names. These findings align with Larson, Alderton, Neideffer, and Underhill (1997), who also identified two general factors of cognitive failure: general cognitive failure and name processing.

Another group of researchers has identified five factors: distractibility, misdirected actions, spatial/kinaesthetic memory, interpersonal intelligence, and memory for names (Pollina, Greene, Tunick and Puckett, 1992). This study focuses on three factors: Cognitive failure, attention lapses, and memory lapses caused by interference or distraction (Reason, 1977; Norman, 1981; Broadbent et al., 1982; Mycielska, 1982; Martin, 1983), which have been well-established by numerous researchers. This chapter will provide a detailed discussion of these factors.

Memory Lapses

Memory is an essential component of cognition, including perception and reasoning (Reed, 2004). The significance of memory is evident in the common occurrence of forgetting something and experiencing difficulty in recollecting it. This highlights the indispensability of memory as without it, our presence in the world would be unattainable. Tulving (1985) argues that memory plays a vital role in formulating future plans. In essence, memory encompasses all aspects of our existence.

The research study titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" reveals that individuals have a limited ability to retain information in their memory. This limitation affects their performance in different tasks (Miller, 1956 c.f. Reed, 1996). The study categorizes memory storage into two types: Short term memory (STM) and Long term memory (LTM), with STM having a limited capacity to store items.

According to Atkinson and Shiffrin (1971 c.f. Reed, 1996), if information in short-term memory (STM) is not rehearsed for around 20-30 seconds, it can be forgotten. However, the brain can transfer this information to long-term memory (LTM), but the challenge lies in recalling it over time. For instance, when going shopping without rehearsing the items you plan to buy, there is a chance of forgetting them. Conversely, even if these items are thoroughly rehearsed and stored in LTM, there may still be situations where recalling them becomes difficult.

Memory retrieval is affected by the retention interval, which is the time between experiencing something and trying to remember it (Ebbinghaus, 1964 c.f. Reed, 1996). An example of this can be seen in item 12 of the CFQ, where it asks if someone forgets how to turn on a road they know but rarely use. Because a significant amount of time has passed since their first experience with that road, it is likely that they have forgotten.

Attention lapses

James (1890 c.f. Reed, 1996) proposed that attention can be described by two primary aspects: focalization and concentration. Focalization pertains to our capacity to selectively focus our attention. Selective attention is a common occurrence as individuals tend to ignore things that do not capture their interest. For example, students frequently choose daydreaming over actively listening to a tedious lecture given by their teacher.

The study titled "Absent-mindedness: Lapses of conscious awareness and everyday cognitive failures" reveals that momentary lapses of conscious awareness significantly impact daily activities and feelings of well-being (Cheyne, Carriere and Smilek, 2006).

This study provides evidence that being easily distracted can significantly impact an individual's task performance. For instance, in our previous scenario involving daydreaming, if a student who was not paying attention during the class discussion is suddenly given a quiz on the same topic, they are likely to receive a low score on the quiz.

One aspect of attention is concentration. When actively engaged in a demanding task, the brain filters out any external messages, allowing you to focus solely on the project at hand. Distractions are effectively blocked as long as your attention remains fixated.

Several researchers have come up with theories known as bottleneck theories in an attempt to explain the selection process of information, specifically when an information processing stage becomes overloaded with too much information (Reed, 1996). One of these theories is the Filter Model, proposed by Broadbent, which demonstrates how individuals choose important information from a multitude of overwhelming information. For instance, when you visit a shop to make a purchase, initially it can be difficult to identify the items you need due to the presence of numerous other items in the shop.

Action Slips

Another aspect contributing to cognitive failure is action slips, which refer to absentminded errors in action. There are several characteristics associated with action slips. Firstly, they tend to happen while performing highly-practiced tasks that have become automatic. Secondly, they often occur when individuals are preoccupied or distracted. Additionally, action slips frequently involve the intrusion of other habitual actions that share similarities with the intended action. Lastly, these habit intrusions are more likely to occur under the following circumstances:

• We deviate from our usual routine, such as when we stop adding milk and sugar to our coffee but still do it out of habit. • The situation changes and requires us to adjust our routine, like when a frequently visited shop relocates but we keep going to its previous location. • The situation resembles a familiar one, like attempting to unlock a friend's car with our own car key.

There are other types of action slips:

The text discusses three types of errors that can occur during tasks: place-losing errors, blends, and reversals. Place-losing errors happen when you lose track of where you are in a sequence of actions, potentially leading to omitting or repeating steps. Blends occur when you mix up two different tasks, such as writing an email while thinking about another email and addressing the current one incorrectly. Reversals happen when you confuse different parts of the same task, like putting an empty ice cube tray in the freezer instead of filling it first.

According to the source (, it is evident that everyday errors occur within action sequences. These sequences consist of actions that have been practiced to the point of becoming automatic, such as dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, and even following complex recipes.The topic of discussion is "Mathematical Ability and Cognitive Failure."

Mathematics and reading/spelling both involve thinking with numbers, imagery, and language. According to Bell and Tuley (2003), mathematics is the essence of cognition as it involves thinking with numbers, imagery, and language, while reading/spelling involves thinking with letters, imagery, and language.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Cognitive Failure and Mathematical Ability in Third-Year Students. (2016, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Cognitive Failure and Mathematical Ability in Third-Year Students essay
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