This post concerns a question on the 2019 VCE Specialist Mathematics Exam 2 and, in particular, the solution and commentary for that question available through the Mathematical Association of Victoria. As we document below, a significant part of what MAV has written on this question is confused, self-contradictory and tendentious. Thus, noting the semi-official status of MAV solutions, that these solutions play a significant role in MAV’s Meet the Assessors events, and are quite possibly written by VCE assessors, there are some troubling implications. Question 3, Section B on Exam 2 is a differential equations problem, with two independent parts. Part (a) is a routine (and pretty nice) question on exponential growth and decay.* Part (b), which is our concern, considers the differential equation
for t ≥ 0, along with the initial condition
The differential equation is separable, and parts (i) and (ii) of the question, worth a total of 3 marks, asks to set up the separation and use this to show the solution of the initial value problem is
Part (iii), worth 2 marks, then asks to show that “the graph of Q as a function of t” has no inflection points.** Question 3(b) is contrived and bitsy and hand-holding, but not incoherent or wrong. So, pretty good by VCE standards. Unfortunately, the MAV solution and commentary to this problem is deeply problematic. The first MAV misstep, in (i), is to invert the derivative, giving
prior to separating variables. This is a very weird extra step to include since, not only is the step not required here, it is never required or helpful in solving separable equations. Its appearance here suggests a weak understanding of this standard technique. Worse is to come in (iii). Before considering MAV’s solution, however, it is perhaps worth indicating an approach to (iii) that may be unfamiliar to many teachers and students and, possibly, the assessors. If we are interested in the inflection points of Q,*** then we are interested in the second derivative of Q. The thing to note is we can naturally obtain an expression for Q” directly from the differential equation: we differentiate the equation using the chain rule, giving
Now, the exponential is never zero, and so if we can show Q’ < 1 then we’d have Q” > 0, ruling out inflection points. Such conclusions can sometimes be read off easily from the differential equation, but it does not seem to be the case here. However, an easy differentiation of the expression for Q derived in part (ii) gives
The numerator is clearly smaller than the denominator, proving that Q’ < 1, and we’re done. For a similar but distinct proof, one can use the differential equation to replace the Q’ in the expression for Q”, giving
Again we want to show the second factor is positive, which amounts to showing Q > t. But that is easy to see from the expression for Q above (because the stuff in the log is greater than ), and again we can conclude that Q has no inflection points. One might reasonably consider the details in the above proofs to be overly subtle for many or most VCE students. Nonetheless the approaches are natural, are typically more efficient (and are CAS-free), and any comprehensive solutions to the problem should at least mention the possibility. The MAV solutions make no mention of any such approach, simply making a CAS-driven beeline for Q” as an explicit function of t. Here are the contents of the MAV solution:
Part 1: A restatement of the equation for Q from part (ii), which is then followed by
Part 2: A screenshot of the CAS input-output used to obtain the conclusion of Part 1.
Part 3: The statement
Solving .˙. gives no solution
Part 4: A screenshot of the CAS input-output used to obtain the conclusion of Part 3.
Part 5: The half-sentence
We can see that for all t,
Part 6: A labelled screenshot of a CAS-produced graph of Q”.
Part 7: The second half of the sentence,
so Q(t) has no points of inflection
This is a mess. The ordering of the information is poor and unexplained, making the unpunctuated sentences and part-sentences extremely difficult to read. Part 3 is so clumsy it’s funny. Much more important, the MAV “solution” makes little or no mathematical sense and is utterly useless as a guide to what the VCE might consider acceptable on an exam. True, the MAV solution is followed by a commentary specifically on the acceptability question. As we shall see, however, this commentary makes things worse. But before considering that commentary, let’s itemise the obvious questions raised by the MAV solution:
- Is using CAS to calculate a second derivative on a “show that” exam question acceptable for VCE purposes?
- Can a stated use of CAS to “show” there are no solutions to Q” = 0 suffice for VCE purposes? If not, what is the purpose of Parts 3 and 4 of the MAV solutions?
- Does copying a CAS-produced graph of Q” suffice to “show” that Q” > 0 for VCE purposes?
- If the answers to the above three questions differ, why do they differ?
Yes, of course these questions are primarily for the VCAA, but first things first. The MAV solution is followed by what is intended to be a clarifying comment:
Note that any reference to CAS producing ‘no solution’ to the second derivative equalling zero would NOT qualify for a mark in this ‘show that’ question. This is not sufficient. A sketch would also be required as would stating for all t.
These definitive-sounding statements are confusing and interesting, not least for their simple existence. Do these statements purport to be bankable pronouncements of VCAA assessors? If not, what is their status? In any case, given that pretty much every exam question demands that students and teachers read inscrutable VCAA tea leaves, why is it solely the solution to question 3(b) that is followed by such statements? The MAV commentary at least makes clear their answer to our second question above: quoting CAS is not sufficient to “show” that Q” = 0 has no solutions. Unfortunately, the commentary raises more questions than it answers:
- Parts 3 and 4 are “not sufficient”, but are they worth anything? If so, what are they worth and, in particular, what is the import of the word “also”? If not, then why not simply declare the parts irrelevant, in which case why include those parts in the solutions at all?
- If, as claimed, it is “required” to state (which is indeed the key point of this approach and should be required), then why does the MAV solution not contain any such statement, nor even the factorisation that would naturally precede this statement?
- Why is a solution “required” to include a sketch of Q”? If, in particular, a statement such as is “required”, or in any case is included, why would the latter not in and of itself suffice?
We wouldn’t begin to suggest answers to these questions, or our four earlier questions, and they are also not the main point here. The main point is that under no circumstances should such shoddy material be the basis of VCAA assessor presentations. If the material was also written by VCAA assessors, all the worse. Of course the underlying problem is not the quality or accuracy of solutions but, rather, the fundamental idiocy of incorporating CAS into proof questions. And for that the central villain is not the MAV but the VCAA, which has permitted their glorification of technology to completely destroy the appreciation of and the teaching of proof and reason. The MAV is not primarily responsible for this nonsense. The MAV is, however, responsible for publishing it, promoting it and profiting from it, none of which should be considered acceptable. The MAV needs to put serious thought into its unhealthily close relationship with the VCAA.
*) We might ask, however, who refers to “The growth and decay” of an exponential function?
**) One might simply have referred to Q, but VCAA loves them their words.
***) Or, if preferred, the points of inflection of the graph of Q as a function of t.
The Examination Report is out and is basically ok; none of the nonsense and non sequiturs of the MAV solutions are included. The solution to (b)(iii) correctly focuses upon the factoring of Q”, although it needlessly worries about the sign of the denominator. There is no mention of the more natural approach to obtaining and analysing Q” but, given the question is treated by the VCAA and pretty much everyone as just another mindless exercise in pushing buttons, this is no surprise.