A Loss of Momentum

The VCE maths exams are over for another year. They were mostly uneventful, the familiar concoction of triviality, nonsense and weirdness, with the notable exception of the surprisingly good Methods Exam 1. At least two Specialist questions, however, deserve a specific slap and some discussion. (There may be other questions worth whacking: we never have the stomach to give VCE exams a close read.)

Question 6 on Specialist Exam 1 concerns a particle acted on by a force, and students are asked to

Find the change in momentum in kg ms-2 …

Doh!

The problem of course is that the suggested units are for force rather than momentum. This is a straight-out error and there’s not much to be said (though see below).

Then there’s Question 3 on part 2 of Specialist Exam 2. This question is concerned with a fountain, with water flowing in from a jet and flowing out at the bottom. The fountaining is distractingly irrelevant, reminiscent of a non-flying bee, but we have larger concerns.

In part (c)(i) of the question students are required to show that the height h of the water in the fountain is governed by the differential equation 

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d}h}{{\rm d}t} = \frac{4 - 5\sqrt{h}}{25\pi\left(4h^2 + 1\right)}\,.}\]

The problem is with the final part (f) of the question, where students are asked

How far from the top of the fountain does the water level ultimately stabilise?

The question is typical in its clumsy and opaque wording. One could have asked more simply for the depth h of the water, which would at least have cleared the way for students to consider the true weirdness of the question: what is meant by “ultimately stabilise”?

The examiners are presumably expecting students to set dh/dt = 0, to obtain the constant, equilibrium solution (and then to subtract the equilibrium value from the height of the fountain because why not give students the opportunity to blow half their marks by misreading a convoluted question?) The first problem with that is, as we have pointed out before, equilibria of differential equations appear nowhere in the Specialist curriculum. The second problem is, as we have pointed out before, not all equilibria are stable.

It would be smart and good if the VCAA decided to include equilibrium solutions in the Specialist curriculum, along with some reasonable analysis and application. Until they do, however, questions such as the above are unfair and absurd, made all the more unfair and absurd by the inevitably awful wording.

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Now, what to make of these two questions? How much should VCAA be hammered?

We’re not so concerned about the momentum error. It is unfortunate, it would have confused many students and it shouldn’t have happened, but a typo is a typo, without deeper meaning.

It appears that Specialist teachers have been less forgiving, and fair enough: the VCAA examiners are notoriously nitpicky, sanctimonious and unapologetic, so they can hardly complain if the same, with greater justification, is done to them. (We also heard of some second-guessing, some suggestions that the units of “change in momentum” could be or are the same as the units of force. This has to be Stockholm syndrome.)

The fountain question is of much greater concern because it exemplifies systemic issues with the curriculum and the manner in which it is examined. Above all, assessment must be fair and reasonable, which means students and teachers must be clearly told what is examinable and how it may be examined. As it stands, that is simply not the case, for either Specialist or Methods.

Notably, however, we have heard of essentially no complaints from Specialist teachers regarding the fountain question; just one teacher pointed out the issue to us. Undoubtedly there were other teachers bothered by the question, but the relative silence in comparison to the vocal complaints on the momentum typo is stark. And unfortunate.

There is undoubted satisfaction in nitpicking the VCAA in a sauce for the goose manner. But a typo is a typo, and teachers shouldn’t engage in small-time point-scoring any more than VCAA examiners.

The real issue is that the current curriculum is shallow, aimless, clunky, calculator-poisoned, effectively undefined and effectively unexaminable. All of that matters infinitely more than one careless mistake.