WitCH 14: Stretching the Truth

The easy WitCH below comes courtesy of the Evil Mathologer. It is a worked example from Cambridge’s Essential Mathematics Year 9 (2019), in a section introducing parabolic graphs.

Update

The problem, as commenters have indicated below, is that there is no parabola with the indicated turning point and intercepts. Normally, we’d write this off as a funny but meaningless error. But, coming at the very beginning of the introduction to the parabola, it most definitely qualifies as crap.

WitCH 11: Impartial

The following WitCH comes from (CAS permitted) 2018 Specialist Mathematics Exam 2:

The Examiners’ Report indicates that about half of the students gave the intended answer of D, with about a third giving the incorrect answer B. The Report notes:

Option B did not account for common factors and its last term is not irreducible, so should not have Dx in the numerator.

Update (11/08/19)

The worst kind of exam question is one that rewards mindless button-pushing and actively punishes intelligent consideration. The above question is of the worst kind. It is also pointless, nasty and self-trippingly overcute.

As John points out in the comments, the question can simply be done by pressing CAS buttons. But, alternatively, the question also just appears to require, and to invite, a simple understanding of partial fraction form. Which brings us to the nastiness: the expected partial fraction form is not a listed option.

So, what to make of it? Not surprisingly, many students opted for B, the superficially most plausible answer. A silly mistake, you silly, silly student! You shoulda just listened to your teacher and pushed the fucking buttons.

The trick, of course, is that the numerator factorises, cancelling with the denominator and leading to the intended answer, D. The problem with the trick is that it is antimathematical and wrong:

  • As Damo notes, the original rational function is undefined at x = -1, which is lost in the intended answer.
  • As Damo also points out, there is no transparent, non-computational way to check that the coefficients in answer D would, as demanded by the question, be non-zero. 
  • It is not standard or particularly natural to hunt for common factors before breaking into partial fractions. Any such factors will anyway become apparent in the partial fractions.
  • To refer to the partial fraction form is actively misleading. Though partial fraction decomposition can be defined so as to be unique, in practice it is usually not helpful to do so, and the VCE Study Design never does so. In particular, if answer B had contained a final numerator of Dx + E then this answer would be valid and, in certain contexts, natural and useful.
  • The examiners’ comment on answer B is partly wrong and partly incomprehensible. One can pedantically object to the reducible denominator but if that is the objection then why whine about the Dx in the numerator? And yes, answer B is missing the constant E, which in general is required, and happens to be required for the given rational function. For a specific rational function, however, one might have E = 0. Which brings us back to Damo’s point, that without actually computing the partial fractions there is no way of determining whether answer B is valid.

But of course all that is way, way too much to think about in a speed-test exam. Much better to just listen to your teacher and push the fucking buttons.

BODMAS v USBB

Yesterday, I received an email from Stacey, a teacher and good friend and former student. Stacey was asking for my opinion of “order of operations”, having been encouraged to contact me by Dave, also a teacher and good friend and former student. Apparently, Dave had suggested that I had “strong opinions” on the matter. I dashed off a response which, in slightly tidied and toned form, follows. 

Strong opinions? Me? No, just gentle suggestions. I assume they’re the same as Dave’s, but this is it:

1) The general principle is that if mathematicians don’t worry about something then there is good reason to doubt that students or teachers should. It’s not an axiom, but it’s a very good principle.

2) Specifically, if I see something like
3 x 5 + 2 x -3
my response is

a) No mathematician would ever, ever write that.

b) I don’t know what the Hell the expression means. Honestly.

c) If I don’t know what it means, why should I expect anybody else to know?

3) The goal in writing mathematics is not to follow God-given rules, but to be clear. Of course clarity can require rules, but it also requires common sense. And in this case common sense dictates

USE 

SOME 

BLOODY 

BRACKETS

For Christ’s sake, why is this so hard for people to understand? Just write (3 x 5) + 2 or 3 x (5 + 2), or whatever. It is almost always trivial to deambiguousize something, so do so.

The fact that schools don’t instruct this first and foremost, that demonstrates that BODMAS or whatever has almost nothing to do with learning or understanding. It is overwhelmingly a meaningless ritual to see which students best follow mindless rules and instruction. It is not in any sense mathematics. In fact, I think this all suggests a very worthwhile and catchy reform: don’t teach BODMAS, teach USBB.

[Note: the original acronym, which is to be preferred, was USFB]

4) It is a little more complicated than that, because mathematicians also write arguably ambiguous expressions, such ab + c and ab2 and a/bc. BUT, the concatenation/proximity and fractioning is much, much less ambiguous in practice. (a/bc is not great, and I would always look to write that with a horizontal fraction line or as a/(bc).)

5) Extending that, brackets can also be overdone, if people jump to overinterpret every real or imagined ambiguousness. The notation sin(x), for example, is truly idiotic; in this case there is no ambiguity that requires clarification, and so the brackets do nothing but make the mathematics ugly and more difficult to read.

6) The issue is also more complicated because mathematicians seldom if ever use the signs ÷ or x. That’s partially because they’re dealing with algebra rather than arithmetic, and partially because “division” is eventually not its own thing, having been replaced by making the fraction directly, by dealing directly with the result of the division rather than the division.

So, this is a case where it is perfectly reasonable for schools to worry about something that mathematicians don’t. Arithmetic obviously requires a multiplication sign. And, primary students must learn what division means well before fractions, so of course it makes sense to have a sign for division.  I doubt, however, that one needs a division sign in secondary school.

7) So, it’s not that the order of operations issues don’t exist. But they don’t exist nearly as much as way too many prissy teachers imagine. It’s not enough of a thing to be a tested thing.

Signs of the Times

Our second sabbatical post concerns, well, the reader can decide what it concerns.

Last year, diagnostic quizzes were given to a large class of first year mathematics students at a Victorian tertiary institution. The majority of these students had completed Specialist Mathematics or an equivalent. On average, these would not have been the top Specialist students, nor would they have been the weakest. The results of these quizzes were, let’s say, interesting.

It was notable, for example, that around 2/5 of these students failed to simplify the likes of 81-3/4. And, around 2/3 of the students failed to solve an inequality such as 2 + 4x ≥ x2 + 5. And, around 3/5 of the students failed to correctly evaluate \boldsymbol {\int_0^{\pi} \sin 5x \,{\rm d}x}\, or similar. There were many such notable outcomes.

Most striking for us, however, were questions concerning lists of numbers, such as those displayed above. Students were asked to write the listed numbers in ascending order. And, though a majority of the students answered correctly, about 1/4 of the students did not.

What, then, does it tell us if a quarter of post-Specialist students cannot order a list of common numbers? Is this acceptable? If not, what or whom are we to blame? Will the outcome of the current VCAA review improve things, or will it make matters worse?

Tricky, tricky questions.

PoSWW 5: Intelligence is not a Factor

The following PoSWW comes courtesy of Franz, who states that “when it comes to ‘stupid curricula, stupid texts and really monumentally stupid exams’ no Western country, with the possible exception of the US, is worse than Germany.” We take that as a challenge, and we’re waiting for Franz to back up his crazy-brave claim.

Franz’s PoSWW, however, has nothing to do with Germany. This PoSSW follows on from two of our previous posts, on idiotic questions appearing in New Zealand exams. Franz wrote to us, noting that the same style of question appears in the Oxford Year 8 text My Maths. Indeed, a number of versions of this ludicrous question appear in My Maths, all inventively awful in their own way. The two examples below are enough to give the flavour:

PoSWW 4: Overly Complex

This PoSWW comes courtesy of a smart Year 11 VCE student who, it appears, may be a rich source of such nonsense. It’s an exercise in the Jacaranda text MathsQuest 11, Specialist Mathematics (2019).

To be honest, we’re not sure the exercise below is a PoSWW. It may simply be a minor error, the likes of which are inevitable in any text, and of which it is uninteresting and unfair to nitpick. But, for the life of us, we have no idea what the authors might have intended to ask. Make of it what you will:

UPDATE: For those hoping that context will help make sense of the exercise, the section of the text is an introduction to factoring over complex numbers. And, the text’s answer to the above exercise is A = 2, B = 5, C = -1, D = 2.

An Untrustworthy T-Shirt

Among the many Australian mathematics organisations that are making matters worse rather than better, the Australian Mathematics Trust must not be included. AMT is great, a rare beacon of hope. A beacon somewhat dimmed, it is true, by the fact that the AMT guys have an average age of about 95. Still, any beacon in a storm, or whatever.

Apart from their wonderful work on the Australian Mathematics Competition and their associated endeavours, AMT sells excellent books on problem-solving, as well as some very cool (and some very uncool) mathematical t-shirts. One shirt, however, is particularly eye-catching:

This shirt celebrates Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel and his 1824 proof of the non-existence of a solution in radicals of the general quintic equation. That is, in contrast to the quadratic formula, and to the cubic and the quartic analogues, there does not exist a quintic formula. It’s a pretty shirt.

It’s also a pretty weird shirt. AMT’s blurb reads

This T Shirt features Abel’s proof that polynomials of order five or higher cannot be solved algebraically.

Stylewise, it is probably a good thing that Abel’s “proof” doesn’t actually appear on the shirt. What is not so good is the sloppy statement of what Abel supposedly proved.

Abel didn’t prove that “[polynomial equations] of order five or higher cannot be solved algebraically”. What he proved was that such equations could not generally be solved, that there’s no general quintic formula. In particular, Abel’s theorem does not automatically rule out any particular equation from being solved in terms of radicals. As a very simple example, the quintic equation

    \[\boldsymbol{x^5-2x=0}\]

is easily shown to have the solutions \boldsymbol{0,\pm\sqrt[4]2,\pm\sqrt[4]2i}.

Which brings us back to AMT’s t-shirt. Why on Earth would one choose to illustrate the general unsolvability of the quintic with a specific equation that is solvable, and very obviously so?

Even good guys can screw up, of course. It’s preferable, however, not to emblazon one’s screw-up on a t-shirt.

Polynomialy Perverse

What, with its stupid curriculastupid texts and really monumentally stupid exams, it’s difficult to imagine a wealthy Western country with worse mathematics education than Australia. Which is why God gave us New Zealand.

Earlier this year we wrote about the first question on New Zealand’s 2016 Level 1 algebra exam:

A rectangle has an area of  \bf x^2+5x-36. What are the lengths of the sides of the rectangle in terms of  \bf x.

Obviously, the expectation was for the students to declare the side lengths to be the linear factors x – 4 and x + 9, and just as obviously this is mathematical crap. (Just to hammer the point, set x = 5, giving an area of 14, and think about what the side lengths “must” be.)

One might hope that, having inflicted this mathematical garbage on a nation of students, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority would have been gently slapped around by a mathematician or two, and that the error would not be repeated. One might hope this, but, in these idiot times, it would be very foolish to expect it.

A few weeks ago, New Zealand maths education was in the news (again). There was lots of whining about “disastrous” exams, with “impossible” questions, culminating in a pompous petition, and ministerial strutting and general hand-wringing. Most of the complaints, however, appear to be pretty trivial; sure, the exams were clunky in certain ways, but nothing that we could find was overly awful, and nothing that warranted the subsequent calls for blood.

What makes this recent whining so funny is the comparison with the deafening silence in September. That’s when the 2017 Level 1 Algebra Exams appeared, containing the exact same rectangle crap as in 2016 (Question 3(a)(i) and Question 2(a)(i)). And, as in 2016, there is no evidence that anyone in New Zealand had the slightest concern.

People like to make fun of all the sheep in New Zealand, but there’s many more sheep there than anyone suspects.

UPDATE (04/02/19): An Oxford school text joins in the fun.

Factoring in the Stupidity

It is very brave to claim that one has found the stupidest maths exam question of all time. And the claim is probably never going to be true: there will always be some poor education system, in rural Peru or wherever, doing something dumber than anything ever done before. For mainstream exams in wealthy Western countries, however, New Zealand has come up with something truly exceptional.

Last year, New Zealand students at Year 11 sat one of two algebra exams administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. The very first question on the second exam reads:

A rectangle has an area of  \bf x^2+5x-36. What are the lengths of the sides of the rectangle in terms of  \bf x.

The real problem here is to choose the best answer, which we can probably all agree is sides of length \pi and (x^2+5x-36)/\pi.

OK, clearly what was intended was for students to factorise the quadratic and to declare the factors as the sidelengths of the rectangle. Which is mathematical lunacy. It is simply wrong.

Indeed, the question would arguably still have been wrong, and would definitely still have been awful, even if it had been declared that x has a unit of length: who wants students to be thinking that the area of a rectangle uniquely determines its sidelengths? But, even that tiny sliver of sense was missing.

So, what did students do with this question? (An equivalent question, 3(a)(i), appeared on the first exam.) We’re guessing that, seeing no alternative, the majority did exactly what was intended and factorised the quadratic. So, no harm done? Hah! It is incredible that such a question could make it onto a national exam, but it gets worse.

The two algebra exams were widely and strongly criticised, by students and teachers and the media. People complained that the exams were too difficult and too different in style from what students and teachers had been led to expect. Both types of criticism may well have been valid. For all of the public criticism of the exams, however, we could find no evidence of the above question or its Exam 1 companion being flagged. Plenty of complaining about hard questions, plenty of complaining about unexpected questions, but not a word about straight out mathematical crap.

So, not only do questions devoid of mathematical sense appear on a nationwide exam. It then appears that the entire nation of students is being left to accept that this is what mathematics is: meaningless autopilot calculation. Well done, New Zealand. You’ve made the education authorities in rural Peru feel very much better about themselves.

UPDATE (04/02/19): Lightning strikes twice, and thrice.