Inferiority Complex

This one is long, a real Gish gallop. Question 4, Part 2 from the 2017 VCE Specialist Mathematics Exam 2 is a mess. The Examiners’ Report is, predictably, worse.

Part (a) of Question 4 is routine, requiring students to express {-2-2\sqrt{3}i} in polar form. One wonders how a quarter of the students could muck up this easy 1-mark question, but the question is fine.

The issues begin with 4(b), for which students are required to

Show that the roots of \color{red}\boldsymbol{z^2 + 4z + 16 = 0}} are {\color{red} \boldsymbol{z=-2-2\sqrt{3}i}} and \boldsymbol{\color{red}{z=-2+2\sqrt{3}i}}.

The question can be answered with an easy application of completing the square or the quadratic formula. So, why did almost half of the students get it wrong? Were so many students really so clueless? Perhaps, but there is good reason to suspect a different source of the cluelessness.

The Examiners’ Report indicates three general issues with students’ answers. First,

students confused factors with solutions or did not proceed beyond factorising the quadratic.

Maybe the students were confused, but maybe not. Maybe some students simply thought that, once having factorised the quadratic, the microstep to then write “Therefore z = …”, to note the roots written on the exam in front of them, was too trivial in response to a 1 mark question.

Second, some students reportedly erred by

not showing key steps in their solution.

Really? The Report includes the following calculation as a sample solution:

\color{blue} \boldsymbol{z = \frac{-4\pm \sqrt{4^2 \ - \ 4 \times 1 \times 16}}{2}=\frac{-4\pm \sqrt{-48}}{2}=\frac{-4\pm 4\sqrt{3}i}{2} = -2\pm2\sqrt{3}i\, .}

Was this whole tedious, snail-paced computation required for one measly mark? It’s impossible to tell, but the Report remarks generally on ‘show that’ questions that

all steps that led to the given result needed to be clearly and logically set out.

As we have noted previously, demanding “all steps” is both meaningless and utterly mad. For a year 12 advanced mathematics student the identification of the roots is pretty much immediate and a single written step should suffice. True, in 4(b) students are instructed to “show” stuff, but it’s hardly the students’ fault that what they were instructed to show is pretty trivial.

Third, and by far the most ridiculous,

some students did not correctly follow the ‘show that’ instruction … by [instead] solely verifying the solutions given by substitution.


VCAA examiners love to worry that word “show”. In true Princess Bride fashion, however, the word does not mean what they think it means.

There is nothing in standard English usage nor in standard mathematical usage, nor in at least occasional VCE usage (see Q2(a)), that would distinguish “show” from “prove” in this context. And, for 4(b) above, substitution of the given values into the quadratic is a perfectly valid method of proving that the roots are as indicated.

It appears that VCE has a special non-English code, in which “show” has a narrower meaning, akin to “derive“. This cannot alter the fact that the VCE examiners’ use of the word is linguistic and mathematical crap. It also cannot alter the fact that students being penalised for not following this linguistic and mathematical crap is pedagogical and mathematical crap.

Of course all the nonsense of 4(b) could have been avoided simply by asking the students to find the roots. The examiners declined to do so, however, probably because this would have violated VCAA’s policy of avoiding asking any mathematical question with some depth or difficulty or further consequence. The result is a question amounting to no more than an infantile and infantilising ritual, penalising any student with the mathematical common sense to answer with the appropriate “well, duh”.


Onwards we trek to 4(c):

Express the roots of \color{red} \boldsymbol{z^2 + 4z + 16 = 0}} in terms of  \boldsymbol{{\color{red}   2 -2\sqrt{3}i}}.

Less than a third of students scored the mark for this question, and the Report notes that

Misunderstanding of the question was apparent in student responses. Many attempts at solutions were not expressed in terms of  {\color{blue} \boldsymbol{2 -2\sqrt{3}i}} as required.

Funny that. The examiners pose a question that borders on the meaningless and somehow this creates a sea of misunderstanding. Who would’ve guessed?

4(c) makes little more sense than to ask someone to write 3 in terms of 7. Given any two numbers there’s a zillion ways to “express” one number “in terms of” the other, as in 3 = 7 – 4 or whatever. Without further qualification or some accepted convention, without some agreed upon definition of “expressed in terms of”, any expression is just as valid as any other.

What was expected in 4(c)? To approach the question cleanly we can first set w = 2 - 2\sqrt{3}i, as the examiners could have and should have and did not. Then, the intended answers were -w and -\overline{w}.

These expressions for the roots are simple and natural, but even if one accepts a waffly interpretation of 4(c) that somehow requires “simple” solutions, there are plenty of other possible answers. The expressions w-4 and \overline{w-4} and w^2/4 and w^4/|w|^3 are all reasonable and natural, but nothing in the Examiners’ Report suggests that these or similar answers were accepted. If not, that is a very nasty cherry on top of an incredibly silly question.


The pain now temporarily lessens (though the worst is yet to come). 4(d) asks for students to show that the relation |z| = |z - (2-2\sqrt{3}i)| has the cartesian form x-\sqrt{3}y - 4 = 0, and in 4(e) students are asked to draw this line on an Argand diagram, together with the roots of the above quadratic.

These questions are routine and ok, though 4(d) is weirdly aimless, the line obtained playing no role in the final parts of Q4. The Examiners’ Report also notes condescendingly that “the ‘show that’ instruction was generally followed”. Yes, people do tend to follow the intended road if there’s only one road.

The final part, 4(g), is also standard, requiring students to find the area of the major segment of the circle |z| = 4 cut off by the line through the roots of the quadratic. The question is straight-forward, the only real trick being to ignore the weird line from 4(d) and 4(e).


Finally, the debacle of 4(f):

The equation of the line passing through the two roots of {\color{red} \boldsymbol{z^2 + 4z + 16 = 0}} can be expressed as {\color{red} \boldsymbol{|z-a| = |z-b|}}, where \color{red}\boldsymbol{a, b \in C}. Find \color{red}\boldsymbol{b} in terms of \color{red}\boldsymbol{a}.

The Report notes that

This question caused significant difficulty for students.

That’s hilarious understatement given that 99% of students scored 0/1 on the question. The further statements acknowledging and explaining and apologising for the stuff-up are unfortunately non-existent.

So, what went wrong? The answer is both obvious and depressingly familiar: the exam question is essentially meaningless. Students failed to comprehend the question because it is close to incomprehensible.

The students are asked to write b in terms of a. However, similar to 4(c) above, there are many ways to do that and how one is able to do it depends upon the initial number a chosen. The line through the two roots has equation \operatorname{Re} z = x = -2. So then, for example, with a = -4 we have b = 0 and we can write b = a + 4 or b = 0 x a or whatever. If a = -5 then b = 1 and we can write b = -a – 4, and so on.

Anything of this nature is a reasonable response to the exam question as written and none of it resembles the answer in the Report. Instead, what was expected was for students to consider all complex numbers a – except those on the line itself – and to consider all associated complex b. That is, in appropriate but non-Specialist terminology, we want to determine b as a function f(a) of a, with the domain of f being most but not all of the complex plane.

With the question suitably clarified we can get down to work (none of which is indicated in the Report). Easiest is to write a = (-2+c) + di. Since b must be symmetrically placed about the line \operatorname{Re} z = -2, it follows that b = (-2-c) + di. Then b+2 = -c + di = -\overline{(a+2)}. This gives b = -2 - \overline{(a + 2)}, and finally

\color{blue}\boldsymbol{b = -4 -\overline{a}\, ,}

which is the answer indicated in the Examiners’ Report.

In principle 4(f) is a nice question, though 1 mark is pretty chintzy for the thought required. More importantly, the exam question as written bears only the slightest resemblance to the intended question, or to anything coherent, with only the slightest, inaccurate hint of the intended generality of a and b.

99% of 2017 Specialist students have a right to be pissed off.


That’s it, we’re done. One more ridiculous VCE exam question, and one more ridiculously arrogant Report, unsullied by an ounce of self-reflection or remorse.

The Arc Enemy

Our previous post was on good guys making a silly, funny and inconsequential mistake. This post is not.

Question B1 of Exam 2 for 2018 Northern Hemisphere Specialist Mathematics begins innocently enough. In part (a), students are required to graph the function \boldsymbol{f(x) = 10\arccos(2-2x)} over its maximal domain. Then, things begin to get stupid.

In part (b), the graph of f is rotated around the y-axis, to model a vase. Students are required to find the volume of this stupid vase, by setting up the integral and then pushing the stupid buttons on their stupid calculators. So, a reasonable integration question lost in ridiculous pseudomodelling and brainless button-pushing. Whatever. Just standard VCE crap. Then, things stay stupid.

Part (c) is a related rates question. In principle a good problem, though it’s hard to imagine anyone ever requiring dh/dt when the water depth is exactly \boldsymbol{5\pi} cm. Whatever. Standard VCE crap. Then, things get really, really stupid.

Part (d) of the problem has a bee climbing from the bottom of the vase to the top. Students are required to find the minimum distance the bee needs to travel.

Where to begin with this idiotic, 1-mark question. Let’s begin with the bee.

Why is it a bee? Why frame a shortest walk question in terms of a bug with wings? Sure, the question states that the bug is climbing, and the slight chance of confusion is overshadowed by other, much greater issues with the question. But still, why would one choose a flying bug to crawl up a vase? It’s not importantly stupid, but it is gratuitously, hilariously stupid.

Anyway, we’re stuck with our stupid bee climbing up our stupid vase. What distance does our stupid bee travel? Well, obviously our stupid, non-flying bee should climb as “up” as possible, without veering left or right, correct?

No and yes.

It is true that a bottom-to-top shortest path (geodesic) on a surface of revolution is a meridian. The proof of this, however, is very far from obvious; good luck explaining it to your students. But of course this is only Specialist Mathematics, so it’s not like we should expect the students to be inquisitive or critical or questioning assumptions or anything like that.

Anyway, our stupid non-flying bee climbs “up” our stupid vase. The distance our stupid bee travels is then the arc length of the graph of the original function f, and the required distance is given by the integral

    \[\boldsymbol{{\Huge \int\limits_{\frac12}^{\frac32}}\sqrt{1+\left[\tfrac{20}{1 - (2-2x)^2}\right]^2}}\ {\bf d}\boldsymbol{x}\]

The integral is ugly. More importantly, the integral is (doubly) improper and thus has no required meaning for Specialist students. Pretty damn stupid, and a stupidity we’ve seen not too long ago. It gets stupider.

Recall that this is a 1-mark question, and it is clearly expected to have the stupid calculator do the work. Great, sort of. The calculator computes integrals that the students are not required to understand but, apart from being utterly meaningless crap, everything is fine. Except, the calculators are really stupid.

Two brands of CAS calculators appear to be standard in VCE. Brand A will readily compute the integral above. Unfortunately, Brand A calculators will also compute improper integrals that don’t exist. Which is stupid. Brand B calculators, on the other hand, will not directly compute improper integrals such as the one above; instead, one first has to de-improper the integral by changing the limits to something like 0.50001 and 1.49999. Which is ugly and stupid. It also requires students to recognise the improperness in the integral, which they are supposedly not required to understand. Which is really stupid. (The lesser known Brand C appears to be less stupid with improper integrals.)

There is a stupid way around this stupidity. The arc length can also be calculated in terms of the inverse function of f, which avoid the improperness and then all is good. All is good, that is, except for the thousands of students who happen to have a Brand B calculator and who naively failed to consider that a crappy, 1-mark button-pushing question might require them to hunt for a Specialist-valid and B-compatible approach.

The idiocy of VCE exams is truly unlimited.

Inverted Logic

The 2018 Northern Hemisphere Mathematical Methods exams (1 and 2) are out. We didn’t spot any Magritte-esque lunacy, which was a pleasant surprise. In general, the exam questions were merely trivial, clumsy, contrived, calculator-infested and loathsomely ugly. So, all in all not bad by VCAA standards.

There, was, however, one notable question. The final multiple choice question on Exam 2 reads as follows:

Let f be a one-to-one differentiable function such that f (3) = 7, f (7) = 8, f′(3) = 2 and f′(7) = 3. The function g is differentiable and g(x) = f –1(x) for all x. g′(7) is equal to …

The wording is hilarious, at least it is if you’re not a frazzled Methods student in the midst of an exam, trying to make sense of such nonsense. Indeed, as we’ll see below, the question turned out to be too convoluted even for the examiners.

Of course –1 is a perfectly fine and familiar name for the inverse of f. It takes a special cluelessness to imagine that renaming –1 as g is somehow required or remotely helpful. The obfuscating wording, however, is the least of our concerns.

The exam question is intended to be a straight-forward application of the inverse function theorem. So, in Leibniz form dx/dy = 1/(dy/dx), though the exam question effectively requires the more explicit but less intuitive function form, 

    \[\boldsymbol {\left(f^{-1}\right)'(b) = \frac1{f'\left(f^{-1}(b)\right)}}.}\]

IVT is typically stated, and in particular the differentiability of –1 can be concluded, with suitable hypotheses. In this regard, the exam question needlessly hypothesising that the function g is differentiable is somewhat artificial. However it is not so simple in the school context to discuss natural hypotheses for IVT. So, underlying the ridiculous phrasing is a reasonable enough question.

What, then, is the problem? The problem is that IVT is not explicitly in the VCE curriculum. Really? Really.

Even ignoring the obvious issue this raises for the above exam question, the subliminal treatment of IVT in VCE is absurd. One requires plenty of inverse derivatives, even in a first calculus course. Yet, there is never any explicit mention of IVT in either Specialist or Methods, not even a hint that there is a common question with a universal answer.

All that appears to be explicit in VCE, and more in Specialist than Methods, is application of the chain rule, case by isolated case. So, one assumes the differentiability of –1 and and then differentiates –1(f(x)) in Leibniz form. For example, in the most respected Methods text the derivative of y = log(x) is somewhat dodgily obtained using the chain rule from the (very dodgily obtained) derivative of x = ey.

It is all very implicit, very case-by-case, and very Leibniz. Which makes the above exam question effectively impossible.

How many students actually obtained the correct answer? We don’t know since the Examiners’ Report doesn’t actually report anything. Being a multiple choice question, though, students had a 1 in 5 chance of obtaining the correct answer by dumb luck. Or, sticking to the more plausible answers, maybe even a 1 in 3 or 1 in 2 chance. That seems to be how the examiners stumbled upon the correct answer.

The Report’s solution to the exam question reads as follows (as of September 20, 2018):

f(3) = 7, f'(3) = 8, g(x) = f –1(x) , g‘(x) = 1/2 since

f'(x) x f'(y) = 1, g(x) = f'(x) = 1/f'(y).

The awfulness displayed above is a wonder to behold. Even if it were correct, the suggested solution would still bear no resemblance to the Methods curriculum, and it would still be unreadable. And the answer is not close to correct.

To be fair, The Report warns that its sample answers are “not intended to be exemplary or complete”. So perhaps they just forgot the further warning, that their answers are also not intended to be correct or comprehensible.

It is abundantly clear that the VCAA is incapable of putting together a coherent curriculum, let alone one that is even minimally engaging. Apparently it is even too much to expect the examiners to be familiar with their own crappy curriculum, and to be able to examine it, and to report on it, fairly and accurately.

VCAA Plays Dumb and Dumber

Late last year we posted on Madness in the 2017 VCE mathematics exams, on blatant errors above and beyond the exams’ predictably general clunkiness. For one (Northern Hemisphere) exam, the subsequent VCAA Report had already appeared; this Report was pretty useless in general, and specifically it was silent on the error and the surrounding mathematical crap. None of the other reports had yet appeared.

Now, finally, all the exam reports are out. God only knows why it took half a year, but at least they’re out. We have already posted on one particularly nasty piece of nitpicking nonsense, and now we can review the VCAA‘s own assessment of their five errors:


So, the VCAA responds to five blatant errors with five Trumpian silences. How should one describe such conduct? Unprofessional? Arrogant? Cowardly? VCAA-ish? All of the above?


The Wild and Woolly West

So, much crap, so little time.

OK, after a long period of dealing with other stuff (shovelled on by the evil Mathologer), we’re back. There’s a big backlog, and in particular we’re working hard to find an ounce of sense in Gonski, Version N. But, first, there’s a competition to finalise, and an associated educational authority to whack.

It appears that no one pays any attention to Western Australian maths education. This, as we’ll see, is a good thing. (Alternatively, no one gave a stuff about the prize, in which case, fair enough.) So, congratulations to Number 8, who wins by default. We’ll be in touch.

A reminder, the competition was to point out the nonsense in Part 1 and Part 2 of the 2017 West Australian Mathematics Applications Exam. As with our previous challenge, this competition was inspired by one specifically awful question. The particular Applications question, however, should not distract from the Exam’s very general clunkiness. The entire Exam is amateurish, as one rabble rouser expressed it, plagued by clumsy mathematics and ambiguous phrasing.

The heavy lifting in the critique below is due to the semi-anonymous Charlie. So, a very big thanks to Charlie, specifically for his detailed remarks on the Exam, and more generally for not being willing to accept that a third rate exam is simply par for WA’s course. (Hello, Victorians? Anyone there? Hello?)

We’ll get to the singularly awful question, and the singularly awful formal response, below.  First, however, we’ll provide a sample of some of the examiners’ lesser crimes. None of these other crimes are hanging offences, though some slapping wouldn’t go astray, and a couple questions probably warrant a whipping. We won’t go into much detail; clarification can be gained by referring to the Exam papers. We also don’t address the Exam as a whole in terms of the adequacy of its coverage of the Applications curriculum, though there are apparently significant issues in this regard.

Question 1, the phrasing is confusing in parts, as was noted by Number 8. It would have been worthwhile for the examiners to explicitly state that the first term Tn corresponds to n = 1. Also, when asking for the first term ( i.e. the first Tn) less than 500, it would have helped to have specifically asked for the corresponding index n (which is naturally obtained as a first step), and then for Tn.

Question 2(b)(ii), it is a little slack to claim that “an allocation of delivery drivers cannot me made yet”.

Question 5 deals with a survey, a table of answers to a yes-or-no question. It grates to have the responses to the question recorded as “agree” or “disagree”. In part (b), students are asked to identify the explanatory variable; the answer, however, depends upon what one is seeking to explain.

Question 6(a) is utterly ridiculous. The choice for the student is either to embark upon a laborious and calculator-free and who-gives-a-damn process of guess-and-check-and-cross-your-fingers, or to solve the travelling salesman problem.

Question 8(b) is clumsily and critically ambiguous, since it is not stated whether the payments are to be made at the beginning or the end of each quarter.

Question 10 involves some pretty clunky modelling. In particular, starting with 400 bacteria in a dish is out by an order of magnitude, or six.

Question 11(d) is worded appallingly. We are told that one of two projects will require an extra three hours to compete. Then we have to choose which project “for the completion time to be at a minimum”. Yes, one can make sense of the question, but it requires a monster of an effort.

Question 14 is fundamentally ambiguous, in the same manner as Question 8(b); it is not indicated whether the repayments are to be made at the beginning or end of each period.


That was good fun, especially the slapping. But now it’s time for the main event:


Question 3(a) concerns a planar graph with five faces and five vertices, A, B, C, D and E:

What is wrong with this question? As evinced by the graphs pictured above, pretty much everything.

As pointed out by Number 8, Part (i) can only be answered (by Euler’s formula) if the graph is assumed to be connected. In Part (ii), it is weird and it turns out to be seriously misleading to refer to “the” planar graph. Next, the Hamiltonian cycle requested in Part (iii) is only guaranteed to exist if the graph is assumed to be both connected and simple. Finally, in Part (iv) any answer is possible, and the answer is not uniquely determined even if we restrict to simple connected graphs.

It is evident that the entire question is a mess. Most of the question, though not Part (iv), is rescued by assuming that any graph should be connected and simple. There is also no reason, however, why students should feel free or obliged to make that assumption. Moreover, any such reading of 3(a) would implicitly conflict with 3(b), which explicitly refers to a “simple connected graph” three times.

So, how has WA’s Schools Curriculum and Standards Authority subsequently addressed their mess? This is where things get ridiculous, and seriously annoying. The only publicly available document discussing the Exam is the summary report, which is an accomplished exercise in saying nothing. Specifically, this report makes no mention of the many issues with the Exam. More generally, the summary report says little of substance or of interest to anyone, amounting to little more than admin box-ticking.

The first document that addresses Question 3 in detail is the non-public graders’ Marking Key. The Key begins with the declaration that it is “an explicit statement about [sic] what the examining panel expect of candidates when they respond to particular examination items.” [emphasis added].

What, then, are the explicit expectations in the Marking Key for Question 3(a)? In Part (i) Euler’s formula is applied without comment. For Part (ii) a sample graph is drawn, which happens to be simple, connected and semi-Eulerian; no indication is given that other, fundamentally different graphs are also possible. For Part (iii), a Hamiltonian cycle is indicated for the sample graph, with no indication that non-Hamiltonian graphs are also possible. In Part (iv), it is declared that “the” graph is semi-Eulerian, with no indication that the graph may non-Eulerian (even if simple and connected) or Eulerian.

In summary, the Marking Key makes not a single mention of graphs being simple or connected, nor what can happen if they are not. If the writers of the Key were properly aware of these issues they have given no such indication. The Key merely confirms and compounds the errors in the Exam.

Question 3 is also addressed, absurdly, in the non-public Examination Report. The Report notes that Question 3(a) failed to explicitly state “the” graph was assumed to be connected, but that “candidates made this assumption [but not the assumption of simplicity?]; particularly as they were required to determine a Hamiltonian cycle for the graph in part (iii)”. That’s it.

Well, yes, it’s obviously the students’ responsibility to look ahead at later parts of a question to determine what they should assume in earlier parts. Moreover, if they do so, they may, unlike the examiners, make proper and sufficient assumptions. Moreover, they may observe that no such assumptions are sufficient for the final part of the question.

Of course what almost certainly happened is that the students constructed the simplest graph they could, which in the vast majority of cases would have been simple and connected and Hamiltonian. But we simply cannot tell how many students were puzzled, or for how long, or whether they had to start from scratch after drawing a “wrong” graph.

In any case, the presumed fact that most (but not all) students were unaffected does not alter the other facts: that the examiners bollocksed the question; that they then bollocksed the Marking Key; that they then bollocksed the explanation of both. And, that SCSA‘s disingenuous and incompetent ass-covering is conveniently hidden from public view.

The SCSA is not the most dishonest or inept educational authority in Australia, and their Applications Exam is not the worst of 2017. But one has to hand it to them, they’ve given it the old college try.

Don’t Go West, Young Man

No, Burkard’s and my new book has nothing to do with going West. A signed copy of our book is, however, first prize in our new Spot the Exam Error(s) Competition. (Some information on our previous exam competition can be found here.)

We spend a fair amount of our blog time hammering Victoria’s school curriculum authority and their silly exams. Earlier this year, a colleague indicated that there were perhaps similar issues out West. We then had a long email exchange with the semi-anonymous Charlie, who pointed out many issues with the 2017 West Australian Mathematics Applications Exam. (Here is part 1 and part 2. WA’s Applications corresponds to Victoria’s Further Mathematics.)

Following our discussion with Charlie, we sent a short but strong letter to WA’s School Curriculum Standards Authority, criticising one specific question and suggesting our (and some others’) general concerns. Their polite fobbing off indicated that our comments regarding the particular question “will be looked into”. Generally on the exam, they responded: “Feedback from teachers and candidates indicates the examination was well received and that the examination was fair, valid and based on the syllabus.” The reader can make of that what they will.

The Competition

Determine the errors, ambiguities and sillinesses in the 2017 WA Applications Exam, Part 1 and Part 2(Here, also, is the Summary Exam Report. Unfortunately, and ridiculously, the full report and the grading scheme are not made public, and so cannot be part of the competition.)

Post any identified issues in the comments below (anonymously, if you wish). You may post more than once, particularly on different questions, but please don’t edit on the run with post updates and comments to your own posts. You may (politely) comment on and seek to clarify others’ comments.

This post will be updated below, as the issues (or lack thereof) with particular questions are sorted out.

The Rules

  • Entry is of course free (though you could always donate to Tenderfeet).
  • First prize, a signed copy of A Dingo Ate My Math Book, goes to the person who makes the most original and most valuable contributions.
  • Consolation prizes of Burkard’s QED will be awarded as deemed appropriate.
  • Rushed and self-appended contributions will be marked down!
  • This is obviously subjective as all Hell, and Marty’s decision will be final.
  • Charlie, Paul, Burkard, Anthony, Joseph, David and other fellow travellers are ineligible to enter.
  • Employees of SCSA are eligible to enter, since there’s no indication they have any chance of winning.
  • All correspondence will be entered into.

Good Luck!


Well that worked well. Congratulations to Number 8, who wins by default. Details are here. We’ll attempt another competition, of hopefully broader interest, in the near future.

The Oxford is Slow

Last year, Oxford University extended the length its mathematics exams from 90 to 105 minutes. Why? So that female students would perform better, relative to male students. According to the University, the problem with shorter exams is that “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”.


There’s good reason to be unhappy with the low percentage of female mathematics students, particularly at advanced levels. So, Oxford’s decision is in response to a genuine issue and is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Their decision, however also appears to be dumb, and it smells of dishonesty.

There are many suggestions as to why women are underrepresented in mathematics, and there’s plenty of room for thoughtful disagreement. (Of course there is also no shortage of pseudoscientific clowns and feminist nitwits.) Unfortunately, Oxford’s decision appears to be more in the nature of statistical manipulation than meaningful change.

Without more information, and the University has not been particularly forthcoming, it is difficult to know the effects of this decision. Reportedly, the percentage of female first class mathematics degrees awarded by Oxford increased from 21% in 2016 to 39% last year, while male firsts increased marginally to 47%. Oxford is presumably pleased, but without detailed information about score distributions and grade cut-offs it is impossible to understand what is underlying those percentages. Even if otherwise justified, however, Oxford’s decision constitutes deliberate grade inflation, and correspondingly its first class degree has been devalued.

The reported defences of Oxford’s decision tend only to undermine the decision. It seems that when the change was instituted last (Northern) summer, Oxford provided no rationale to the public. It was only last month, after The Times gained access to University documents under FOI, that the true reasons became known publicly. It’s a great way to sell a policy, of course, to be legally hounded into exposing your reasons.

Sarah Hart, a mathematician at the University of London, is quoted by The Times in support of longer exams: “Male students were quicker to answer questions, she said, but were more likely to get the answer wrong”. And, um, so we conclude what, exactly?

John Banzhaf, a prominent public interest lawyer, is reported as doubting Oxford’s decision could be regarded as “sexist”, since the extension of time was identical for male and female candidates. This is hilariously legalistic from such a politically wise fellow (who has some genuine mathematical nous).

The world is full of policies consciously designed to hurt one group or help another, and many of these policies are poorly camouflaged by fatuous “treating all people equally” nonsense. Any such policy can be good or bad, and well-intentioned or otherwise, but such crude attempts at camouflage are never honest or smart. The stated purpose of Oxford’s policy is to disproportionally assist female candidates; there are arguments for Oxford’s decision and one need not agree with the pejorative connotations of the word, but the policy is blatantly sexist.

Finally, there is the fundamental question of whether extending the exams makes them better exams. There is no way that someone unfamiliar with the exams and the students can know for sure, but there’s reasons to be sceptical. It is in the nature of most exams that there is time pressure. That’s not perfect, and there are very good arguments for other forms of assessment in mathematics. But all assessment forms are artificial and/or problematic in some significant way. And an exam is an exam. Presumably the maths exams were previously 90 minutes for some reason, and in the public debate no one has provided any proper consideration or critique of any such reasons.

The Times quotes Oxford’s internal document in support of the policy: “It is thought that this [change in exam length] might mitigate the . . . gender gap that has arisen in recent years, and in any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understanding and not a time trial.” 

This quote pretty much settles the question. No one has ever followed “and in any case” with a sincere argument.

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.

Fixations and Madness

Our sixth and final post on the 2017 VCE exam madness is on some recurring nonsense in Mathematical Methods. The post will be relatively brief, since a proper critique of every instance of the nonsense would be painfully long, and since we’ve said it all before.

The mathematical problem concerns, for a given function f, finding the solutions to the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{(1)\qquad\qquad f(x) \ = \ f^{-1}(x)\,.}\]

This problem appeared, in various contexts, on last month’s Exam 2 in 2017 (Section B, Questions 4(c) and 4(i)), on the Northern Hemisphere Exam 1 in 2017 (Questions 8(b) and 8(c)), on Exam 2 in 2011 (Section 2, Question 3(c)(ii)), and on Exam 2 in 2010 (Section 2, Question 1(a)(iii)).

Unfortunately, the technique presented in the three Examiners’ Reports for solving equation (1) is fundamentally wrong. (The Reports are here, here and here.) In synch with this wrongness, the standard textbook considers four misleading examples, and its treatment of the examples is infused with wrongness (Chapter 1F). It’s a safe bet that the forthcoming Report on the 2017 Methods Exam 2 will be plenty wrong.

What is the promoted technique? It is to ignore the difficult equation above, and to solve instead the presumably simpler equation

    \[ \boldsymbol{(2) \qquad\qquad  f(x) \ = \  x\,,}\]

or perhaps the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{(2)' \qquad\qquad f^{-1}(x)\ = \ x \,.}\]

Which is wrong.

It is simply not valid to assume that either equation (2) or (2)’ is equivalent to (1). Yes, as long as the inverse of f exists then equation (2)’ is equivalent to equation (2): a solution x to (2)’ will also be a solution to (2), and vice versa. And, yes, then any solution to (2) and (2)’ will also be a solution to (1). The converse, however, is in general false: a solution to (1) need not be a solution to (2) or (2)’.

It is easy to come up with functions illustrating this, or think about the graph above, or look here.

OK, the VCAA might argue that the exams (and, except for a couple of up-in-the-attic exercises, the textbook) are always concerned with functions for which solving (2) or (2)’ happens to suffice, so what’s the problem? The problem is that this argument would be idiotic.

Suppose that we taught students that roots of polynomials are always integers, instructed the students to only check for integer solutions, and then carefully arranged for the students to only encounter polynomials with integer solutions. Clearly, that would be mathematical and pedagogical crap. The treatment of equation (1) in Methods exams, and the close to universal treatment in Methods more generally, is identical.

OK, the VCAA might continue to argue that the students have their (stupifying) CAS machines at hand, and that the graphs of the particular functions under consideration make clear that solving (2) or (2)’ suffices. There would then be three responses:

(i) No one tests whether Methods students do anything like a graphical check, or anything whatsoever.

(ii) Hardly any Methods students do do anything. The overwhelming majority of students treat equations (1), (2) and (2)’ as automatically equivalent, and they have been given explicit license by the Examiners’ Reports to do so. Teachers know this and the VCAA knows this, and any claim otherwise is a blatant lie. And, for any reader still in doubt about what Methods students actually do, here’s a thought experiment: imagine the 2018 Methods exam requires students to solve equation (1) for the function f(x) = (x-2)/(x-1), and then imagine the consequences.

(iii) Even if students were implicitly or explicitly arguing from CAS graphics, “Look at the picture” is an absurdly impoverished way to think about or to teach mathematics, or pretty much anything. The power of mathematics is to be able take the intuition and to either demonstrate what appears to be true, or demonstrate that the intuition is misleading. Wise people are wary of the treachery of images; the VCAA, alas, promotes it.

The real irony and idiocy of this situation is that, with natural conditions on the function f, equation (1) is equivalent to equations (2) and (2)’, and that it is well within reach of Methods students to prove this. If, for example, f is a strictly increasing function then it can readily be proved that the three equations are equivalent. Working through and applying such results would make for excellent lessons and excellent exam questions.

Instead, what we have is crap. Every year, year after year, thousands of Methods students are being taught and are being tested on mathematical crap.

The Madness of Crowd Models

Our fifth and penultimate post on the 2017 VCE exam madness concerns Question 3 of Section B on the Northern Hemisphere Specialist Mathematics Exam 2. The question begins with the logistic equation for the proportion P of a petrie dish covered by bacteria:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right)\,\qquad 0 < P < 1\,.}\]

This is not a great start, since it’s a little peculiar using the logistic equation to model an area proportion, rather than a population or a population density. It’s also worth noting that the strict inequalities on P are unnecessary and rule out of consideration the equilibrium (constant) solutions P = 0 and P = 1.

Clunky framing aside, part (a) of Question 3 is pretty standard, requiring the solving of the above (separable) differential equation with initial condition P(0) = 1/2. So, a decent integration problem trivialised by the presence of the stupifying CAS machine. After which things go seriously off the rails.

The setting for part (b) of the question has a toxin added to the petri dish at time t = 1, with the bacterial growth then modelled by the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right) - \frac{\sqrt{P}}{20}\,.}\]

Well, probably not. The effect of toxins is most simply modelled as depending linearly on P, and there seems to be no argument for the square root. Still, this kind of fantasy modelling is par for the VCAA‘s crazy course. Then, however, comes Question 3(b):

Find the limiting value of P, which is the maximum possible proportion of the Petri dish that can now be covered by the bacteria.

The question is a mess. And it’s wrong.

The Examiners’ “Report” (which is not a report at all, but merely a list of short answers) fails to indicate what students did or how well they did on this short, 2-mark question. Presumably the intent was for students to find the limit of P by finding the maximal equilibrium solution of the differential equation. So, setting dP/dt = 0 implies that the right hand side of the differential equation is also 0. The resulting equation is not particularly nice, a quartic equation for Q = √P. Just more silly CAS stuff, then, giving the largest solution P = 0.894 to the requested three decimal places.

In principle, applying that approach here is fine. There are, however, two major problems.

The first problem is with the wording of the question: “maximum possible proportion” simply does not mean maximal equilibrium solution, nor much of anything. The maximum possible proportion covered by the bacteria is P = 1. Alternatively, if we follow the examiners and needlessly exclude = 1 from consideration, then there is no maximum possible proportion, and P can just be arbitrarily close to 1. Either way, a large initial P will decay down to the maximal equilibrium solution.

One might argue that the examiners had in mind a continuation of part (a), so that the proportion begins below the equilibrium value and then rises towards it. That wouldn’t rescue the wording, however. The equilibrium solution is still not a maximum, since the equilibrium value is never actually attained. The expression the examiners are missing, and possibly may even have heard of, is least upper bound. That expression is too sophisticated to be used on a school exam, but whose problem is that? It’s the examiners who painted themselves into a corner.

The second issue is that it is not at all obvious – indeed it can easily fail to be true – that the maximal equilibrium solution for P will also be the limiting value of P. The garbled information within question (b) is instructing students to simply assume this. Well, ok, it’s their question. But why go to such lengths to impose a dubious and impossible-to-word assumption, rather than simply asking directly for an equilibrium solution?

To clarify the issues here, and to show why the examiners were pretty much doomed to make a mess of things, consider the following differential equation:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= 3P - 4P^2 - \sqrt{P}\,.}\]

By setting Q = √P, for example, it is easy to show that the equilibrium solutions are P = 0 and P = 1/4. Moreover, by considering the sign of dP/dt for P above and below the equilibrium P = 1/4, it is easy to obtain a qualitative sense of the general solutions to the differential equation:

In particular, it is easy to see that the constant solution P = 1/4 is a semi-stable equilibrium: if P(0) is slightly below 1/4 then P(t) will decay to the stable equilibrium P = 0.

This type of analysis, which can readily be performed on the toxin equation above, is simple, natural and powerful. And, it seems, non-existent in Specialist Mathematics. The curriculum  contains nothing that suggests or promotes any such analysis, nor even a mention of equilibrium solutions. The same holds for the standard textbook, in which for, for example, the equation for Newton’s law of cooling is solved (clumsily), but there’s not a word of insight into the solutions.

And this explains why the examiners were doomed to fail. Yes, they almost stumbled into writing a good, mathematically rich exam question. The paper thin curriculum, however, wouldn’t permit it.