WitCH 29: Bad Roots

This one is double-barrelled. A strange multiple choice question appeared in the 2019 NHT Mathematical Methods Exam 2 (CAS). We had thought to let it pass, but a similar question appeared in last week’s Methods exam (no link yet, but the Study Design is here). So, here we go. First, the NHT question: The examination report indicates the correct answer, C, and provides a suggested solution:

\Large\color{blue} \boldsymbol{ g(x)=f^{-1}(x)=\frac{x^{\frac15}-b}{a},\ g'(x) = \frac{x^{-\frac45}}{5a},\ g'(1) = \frac1{5a}}

And, here’s last week’s question (with no examination report yet available):

Update (19/06/20)

As commenters have noted, it is very difficult to understand any purpose to these questions. They obviously suggest the inverse function theorem, testing the knowledge of and application of the formula g'(d) = 1/f'(c), where f(c) =d. The trouble is, the inverse function theorem is not part of the curriculum, appearing only implicitly as a dodgy version of the chain rule, and is typically only applied in Leibniz form.

As indicated by the solution in the first examination report, the intent seems to have been for students to have explicitly computed the inverses, although probably with their idiot machines. (The second examination report has now appeared, but is silent on the intended method.) Moreover, as JF noted below, the algebra in the first question makes the IFT approach somewhat fiddly. But, what is the point of pushing a method that is generally cumbersome, and often impossible, to apply?

To add to the nonsense, below is a sample solution for the first question, provided by VCAA to students undertaking the Mathematica version of Methods. So, the VCAA has suggested two approaches, one which is generally ridiculous and another which is outside the curriculum. That makes it all as clear as dumb mud.

WitCH 28: Tone Deaf

We haven’t yet had a chance to go through the 2019 VCE exams, but this question was flagged to me independently by two colleagues: let’s call them Dr. Death and Simon the Likeable. It’s from Mathematical Methods Exam 2 (CAS). (No link yet.)

UPDATE (05/07/20)

Even ignoring the stuff-ups, this question is ugly and pointless; the pseudo-applied framing is ugly and pointless; the CASification is ugly and pointless; the back-to-front integral is ugly and pointless; the matrix equation is ugly and pointless; the transformation is really ugly and really pointless. Part (f) is the pinnacle of ugliness and pointlessness, but the entire question is swill, from beginning to end.

And then there’s Part (e). “This question was not answered well” the examiners solemnly intone. Gee, really? Do you think your question being completely stuffed might have had something to do with it? Do you think maybe having a transformation of x when there’s not an x in sight may have been just a tad confusing? Do you think that the transformation then resulting in a function of t was maybe not the smartest move? Do you think writing an integral backwards was perhaps just a little too cute? Do you think possibly referring to the area of, rather than to the value of, an integral was slightly clunky? And, most importantly, do you think perhaps asking a question for which there is an infinite and impenetrable jungle of answers may have been an exercise in canyon-sized incompetence?

But, sure, those troublesome students didn’t answer your question well.

Part (e) was intended to have students find a transformation of the function f that effectively switches the behaviour on the intervals [0,4] and [4,6] to the intervals [2,6] and [0,2].  Ignoring the fact that the intended question was asked in an absurdly opaque manner, and ignoring the fact that no motivation for the intended question was either provided or is imaginable, the question asked was entirely different, and was ridiculous.

Writing the transformation out,

    \[\boldsymbol{\left\{\aligned &X = ax + c \\ &Y = by + d, \right.\endaligned}\]

we then have

    \[\boldsymbol{\left\{\aligned &x = \frac{X - c}{a} \\ & y = \frac{Y - d}{b}. \right.\endaligned}\]

So, the function y = f(t) y = f(x) can be written

    \[\boldsymbol{\dfrac{Y - d}{b} = f\!\left(\dfrac{X - c}{a}\right).}\]

Solving for Y, that means our transformed function Y = g(X) can be written

    \[\boldsymbol{g(X) = b\, f\!\left(\dfrac{X - c}{a}\right) + d.}\]

Well, this is our function g unless a = 0, in which case g doesn’t exist. Whatever. Back to the swill.

Using the result from Part (d), we have Part (e) asking for a, b, c and d such that

    \[\boldsymbol{\int\limits_2^0 + \int\limits_2^6 \ \left[ b\, f\! \left(\dfrac{X - c}{a}\right) + d\right]  \, {\rm d}X \ = \ \dfrac{15}{\pi}.}\]

What then are the solutions to this equation? The examination report lists a couple of families and then blithely remarks “There are other solutions”. Really? Then why didn’t you list them, you clowns? 

We’ll tell you why. Because the complete solution to this monster is a God Almighty multi-infinite mess. As a starting idea, pick any three of the variables, say a and b and c, to be whatever you want, and then try to adjust the fourth variable, d, to solve the equation. We’ll offer a prize for anyone who can give a complete solution. 

This question is as good an example as there can be of the pointlessness, the ugliness and the monumental klutziness of VCAA’s swamp mathematics.

WitCH 24: The Fix is In

We’ve finally found some time to take a look at VCAA’s 2019 NHT exams. They’re generally bad in the predictable ways, and they include some specific and seemingly now standard weirdness that we’ll try to address soon in a more systematic manner. WitCHwise, we were tempted by a number of questions, but we’ve decided to keep it to two or three.

Our first NHT WitCH is from the final question on Exam 2 (CAS) of Mathematical Methods:

As usual, the NHT “Report” indicates nothing of how students went, and little of what was expected. In regard to part f, the Report writes,

p(x) = q(x) = x, p'(x) = q'(x) = 1, k = 1/e

For part g, all that the Report provides is the answer, k = 1.

The VCAA also provides sample Mathematica solutions to schools trialling Methods CBE. For the questions above, these solutions are as follows:

Make of it what you will.

WitCH 23: Speed Bump

Our second WitCH of the day also comes from the 2017 VCE Specialist Mathematics Exam 2. (Clearly an impressive exam, and we haven’t even gotten to the bit about using inverse trig functions to design a brooch.) It is courtesy of the mysterious SRK, who raised it in the discussion of an earlier WitCH.

Question 5 of Section B of the (CAS) exam concerns a boat and a jet ski. Though SRK was concerned with one particular aspect, the entire question is worth pondering:

The  Examiner’s Report indicates an average student score of 1.4 on part a, and comments,

Students plotted the initial positions correctly but significant numbers of students did not label the direction of motion or clearly identify the jet ski and the boat. Both requirements were explicitly stated in the question.

For part i, the Report indicates an average score of 1.3, and comments,

Most students found correct expressions for velocity vectors. The most common error was to equate these velocity vectors rather than equating speeds. 

For part ii, the Report gives the intended answer as (3,3). The Report indicates that slightly under half of students were awarded the mark, and comments,

Some answers were not given in coordinate form.

For part i, the Report suggests the answer {\sqrt{(\sin t - 2\cos t)^2 + (1 + \sin t + \cos t)^2}} (with the displayed answer adorned by a weird, extra root sign). The report indicates that a little over half of the students were awarded the mark, and comments,

A variety of correct forms was given by students; many of these were likely produced by CAS technology, including expressions involving double angles. Students should take care when transcribing expressions from technology output as errors frequently occur, particularly regarding the number and placement of brackets. Some incorrect answers retained vectors in the expression.

For Part ii, the Report indicates the intended answer of 0.33, and that 15% of students were awarded the mark for this question. The Report comments,

Many students found this question difficult. Incorrect answers involving other locally minimum values were frequent.

The Report indicates an average score of 1.3 on part d, and comments;

Most students correctly equated the vector components and solved for t . Many went on to give decimal approximations rather than supplying the exact forms. Students are reminded of the instruction saying that an exact answer is required unless otherwise specified.

Lots there. Get hunting.

WitCH 22: Inflecting the Facts

We’re back, at least sort of. Apologies for the long silence; we were off visiting The Capitalist Centre of the Universe. And yes, China was great fun, thanks. Things are still tight, but there will soon be plenty of time for writing, once we’re free of those little monsters we have to teach. (Hi, Guys!) In the meantime, we’ll try to catch up on the numerous posts and updates that are most demanding of attention.

We’ll begin with a couple new WitChes. This first one, courtesy of John the Merciless, is a multiple choice question from the 2017 VCE Specialist Mathematics Exam 2:

The Examiners’ Report indicates that 6% of students gave the intended answer of E, and a little under half the students answered C. The Report also comments that

f”(x) does not change sign at a.

Have fun.

WitCH 15: Principled Objection

OK, playtime is over. This one, like the still unresolved WitCH 8, will take some work. It comes from Cambridge’s Mathematical Methods 3 & 4 (2019). It is the introduction to “When is a function differentiable?”, the final section of the chapter “Differentiation”.

Update (12/08/19)

We wrote about this nonsense seven long years ago, and we’ll presumably be writing about it seven years from now. Nonetheless, here we go.

The first thing to say is that the text is wrong. To the extent that there is a discernible method, that method is fundamentally invalid. Indeed, this is just about the first nonsense whacked out of first year uni students.

The second thing to say is that the text is worse than wrong. The discussion is clouded in gratuitous mystery, with the long-delayed discussion of “differentiability” presented as some deep concept, rather than simply as a grammatical form. If a function has a derivative then it is differentiable. That’s it.

Now to the details.

The text’s “first principles” definition of differentiability is correct and then, immediately, things go off the rails. Why is the function f(x) = |x| (which is written in idiotic Methods style) not differentiable at 0? The wording is muddy, but example 46 makes clear the argument: f’(x) = -1 for x < 0 and f’(x) = 1 for x > 0, and these derivatives don’t match. This argument is unjustified, fundamentally distinct from first principles, and it can easily lead to error. (Amusingly, the text’s earlier, “informal” discussion of f(x) = |x| is exactly what is required.)

The limit definition of the derivative f’(a) requires looking precisely at a, at the gradient [f(a+h) – f(a)]/h as h → 0. Instead, the text, with varying degrees of explicitness and correctness, considers the limit of f’(x) near a, as x → a. This second limit is fundamentally, conceptually different and it is not guaranteed to be equal.

The standard example to illustrate the issue is the function f(x) = x2sin(1/x) (for x≠ 0 and with f(0) = 0). It is easy to to check that f’(x) oscillates wildly near 0, and thus f’(x) has no limit as x → 0. Nonetheless, a first principles argument shows that f’(0) = 0.

It is true that if a function f is continuous at a, and if f’(x) has a limit L as x → a, then also f’(a) = L. With some work, this non-obvious truth (requiring the mean value theorem) can be used to clarify and to repair the text’s argument. But this does not negate the conceptual distinction between the required first principles limit and the text’s invalid replacement.

Now, to the examples.

Example 45 is just wrong, even on the text’s own ridiculous terms. If a function has a nice polynomial definition for x ≥ 0, it does not follow that one gets f’(0) for free. One cannot possibly know whether f’(x) exists without considering x on both sides of 0. As such, the “In particular” of example 46 is complete nonsense. Further, there is the sotto voce claim but no argument that (and no illustrative graph indicating) the function f is continuous; this is required for any argument along the text’s lines.

Example 46 is wrong in the fundamental wrong-limit manner described above. it is also unexplained why the magical method to obtain f’(0) in example 45 does not also work for example 46.

Example 47 has a “solution” that is wrong, once again for the wrong-limit reason, but an “explanation” that is correct. As discussed with Damo in the comments, this “vertical tangent” example would probably be better placed in a later section, but it is the best of a very bad lot.

And that’s it. We’ll be back in another seven years or so.

WitCH 10: Malfunction

It’s a long, long time since we’ve had a WitCH. They have been not-so-slowly accumulating, however. And now, since we’re temporarily free of the Evil Mathologer, it is the WitCHing hour. Due mostly to the hard work of Damo, all of the outstanding WitCHes have been resolved, with the exception of WitCH 8. That one will take time: it’s a jungle of half-maths. Our new WitCHes are not so tricky, although there is perhaps more to be said than indicated at first glance. The first of our new batch of WitCHes is from the VCE 2018 Specialist Exam 1:

The Examiners’ Report gives the answer as \int_0^{\frac34}\left(2-t^2\right)dt. The Report also indicates that the average score on this question was 1.3/5, with 98% of students scoring 3 or lower, and over a third of students scoring 0. Happy WitCHing.

Update (16/02/20)

This problem is ridiculous and, more importantly, it is wrong. First, the wrongness.

As indicated by the examination report, the examiners imagined that they were, in essence, asking for students to determine the speed function \boldsymbol{v(t)} of the particle. The distance is given by \boldsymbol{d=\int\limits_0^{3/4} v(t)\,{\rm d}t}, and a non-trivial calculation gives \boldsymbol{v(t) = 2 +0t - t^2}. Then, the coefficients \boldsymbol{a = -1, b = 0, c = 2} can be read off. 

That is not, however, the question the examiners asked. What did the examiners really ask? They asked for integers \boldsymbol{a,b,c} for which \boldsymbol{d=\int\limits_0^{3/4} at^2+bt+c\,{\rm d}t}. But

    \[\boldsymbol{d=\int\limits_0^{3/4} 2  - t^2\,{\rm d}t = \dfrac{87}{64}\,.}\]


    \[\boldsymbol{\int\limits_0^{3/4} at^2+bt+c\,{\rm d}t = \frac{9}{64}a+\frac{9}{32}b+\frac{3}{4}c \,.}\]

So, multiplying out the fractions and cancelling out a 3, what the examiners really asked for were integer solutions to the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{3a+ 6b+ 16c  = 29\,.}\]

This equation has infinitely many integer solutions, meaning the examination report is missing infinity minus one valid solutions.

This is a flat out, undeniable error (which the Trumpian VCAA will never concede), but is it a problem? As commenters here have noted, there is little chance of a VCE student being actively misled to chase the infinitely many solutions. In, particular, the method to find all solutions requires first finding the particular solution the examiners had in mind. We are not convinced such direct concerns should be so quickly dismissed, and we discuss this further below. Still, the extra solutions require thought to even contemplate, and significant work to compute, which is an important point.

Whatever the immediate practical concerns, however, mathematicians are aghast at this error. They are aghast because the exam question is simply not testing mathematics. Yes, the students went through the ritual and attempted to compute what was intended and were graded accordingly. And, yes, teachers can now coach current and future students on the required ritual. But none of that is mathematics and, indeed, it is worse: it is antimathematics. It is teaching students to ignore mathematical meaning, to see no value in mathematical precision, to respect only ritual.

OK, that is the awful wrongness of the exam question. Now, the sundry ridiculousnesses:

  • The question is badly and needlessly opaque. There is no a priori reason to imagine the distance as being given by the integral of a quadratic. Asking for (more accurately, attempting to ask for) the speed function in this overly cute manner adds no value, only confusion. The confusion is enhanced by the arbitrariness of the 3/4 limit and, especially, by the pointless specification that the coefficients of the quadratic be integers.
  • Independent of the opacity, the wording of the question is lazy and clumsy. The distanced travelled “in three-quarters of a second” is not the same as the distance travelled in the first three-quarters of a second and, indeed, is not anything. The phrases “moving along a curve” and “travels along a curve” are just verbiage. The units are pointless.
  • The question would be much more natural as an arc-length question, rather than a distance question.
  • The answer in the examination report is incorrect, even in the intended terms. The question asked for the values of the coefficients, not the integral. Yes, this is a nitpick, but it is exactly the kind of nitpick that the examiners routinely employ in their sanctimonious whacking of VCE students. So screw ’em. Sauce for the gander.
  • Last, and far from least, there is something very strange about the score distribution for the question. The average score was 1.3/5, which is depressing, although not surprising: computing the speed (without CAS) requires a level of care and facility beyond most CAS-drunk students, and the question contains a hidden absolute value to negotiate. What is strange is that, whereas 2% of students received the full 5/5 for the question, apparently 0% of students received 4/5. It is difficult to see how that could occur with any sensible grading scheme.

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.

WitCH 5: What a West

This one’s shooting a smelly fish in a barrel, almost a POSWW. Sometimes, however, it’s easier for a tired blogger to let the readers do the shooting. (For those interested in more substantial fish, WitCH 2, WitCH 3 and Tweel’s Mathematical Puzzle still require attention.)

Our latest WitCH comes courtesy of two nameless (but maybe not unknown) Western troublemakers. Earlier this year we got stuck into Western Australia’s 2017 Mathematics Applications exam. This year, it’s the SCSA‘s Mathematical Methods exam (not online. Update: now online here and here.) that wins the idiocy prize. The whole exam is predictably awful, but Question 15 is the real winner:

The population of mosquitos, P (in thousands), in an artificial lake in a housing estate is measured at the beginning of the year. The population after t months is given by the function, \color{blue}\boldsymbol{P(t) = t^3 + at^2 + bt + 2, 0\leqslant t \leqslant 12}.

The rate of growth of the population is initially increasing. It then slows to be momentarily stationary in mid-winter (at t = 6), then continues to increase again in the last half of the year. 

Determine the values of a and b.

Go to it.


As Number 8 and Steve R hinted at and as Damo nailed, the central idiocy concerns the expression “the rate of population growth”, which means P'(t) and which then makes the problem unsolvable as written. Specifically:

  • In the second paragraph, “it” has a stationary point of inflection when t = 6, which is impossible if “it” refers to the quadratic P'(t).
  • On the other hand, if “it” refers to P(t) then solving gives a < 0. That implies P”(0) = 2a < 0, which means “the rate of population growth” (i.e. P’) is initially decreasing, contradicting the first claim of the second paragraph.

The most generous interpretation is that the examiners intended for the population P, not the rate P’, to be initially increasing. Other interpretations are less generous.

No matter the intent, the question is inexcusable. It is also worth noting that even if corrected the question is awful, a trivial inflection problem dressed up with idiotic modelling:

  • Modelling population growth with a cubic is hilarious.
  • Months is a pretty stupid unit of time.
  • The rate of population growth initially increasing is irrelevant.
  • Why is the lake artificial? Who gives a shit?
  • Why is the lake in a housing estate? Who gives a shit?

Finally, it’s “latter half” or “second half”, not “last half”. Yes, with all else awful here, it hardly matters. But it’s wrong.

Further Update

The marking schemes for the exam are now up, here and here.  As was predicted, “the rate of growth of the population” was intended to mean “population”. As is predictable, the grading scheme gives no indication that the question is garbled garbage.

The gutless contempt with which certain educational authorities repeatedly treat students and teachers is a wonder to behold.