WitCH 20: Tattletail

This one is like complaining about the deck chairs on the Titanic, but what the Hell. The WitCH is courtesy of John the Merciless. It is from the 2018 Specialist Mathematics Exam 2:

The Examiners’ Report notes the intended answer:

H0: μ = 150,   H1: μ < 150

The Report indicates that 70% of students gave the intended answer, and the Report comments on students’ answers:

The question was answered well. Common errors included: poor notation such as  H0 = 150 or similar, and not understanding the nature of a one-tailed test, evidenced by answers such as H1: μ ≠ 150.

Have fun.

WitCH 16: The Root of Our Problem

This WitCH comes from one of our favourites, the Complex Numbers chapter from Cambridge’s Specialist Mathematics 3 & 4 (2019). It is not as deep or as beWitCHing as other aspects of the chapter. But, it’s still an impressive WitCH.

Update (11/08/19)

I guess if you’re gonna suggest a painful, ass-backwards method to solve a problem, you may as well fake the solution:

  • Checking directly that P(1 – i√2) = 0 involves expanding a cubic, and more, which the text does in one single magic line.
  • The painful multiplication of the products for part b is much more naturally and easily done as a difference of two squares: (z – 1 – i√2)(z – 1 + i√2) = (z – 1)2 + 2, etc.
  • After all that the third factor, z – 1, is determined “by inspection”? Inspection of what?

AS RF notes, it is much easier to spot that z = 1 solves the cubic. Then some easy factoring (without long division …) gives P = (z – 1)(z2 – 2z + 3). Completing the square then leads to the linear factors, answering both parts of the question in the reverse, and natural, order.

Alternatively, as John notes, the difference of two squares calculation shows that if z – 1 + i√2 is a factor of P then so is the quadratic z^2 – 2z + 3. That this is so can then be checked (without long division …), giving P = (z – 1)(z^2 – 2z + 3), and so on, as before.

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.

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.

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.

The VCAA Dies Another Death

A while back we pointed out two issues with the 2018 Specialist Mathematics Exams. The Exam Reports (though, strangely, not Exam 1) are now online (here and here). (Update 27/02/19: Exam 1 is now also online.) Ignoring some fresh Hell suggested by the Exam 2 Report (B2(b), B3(c)(i), B6(e)), how did the VCAA address these issues?

Question 3(f) on Section B of Exam 2 was a clumsy and eccentrically worded question that covered material outside the curriculum. Unsurprisingly the Report made no mention of these issues. But, what about a blatant error by the Examiners? Would they remain silent in the face of such an error? Again?

Question 6 on Exam 1 (not online) required students to find the “change in momentum” of an accelerating particle. Unfortunately, the students were required to express this change in kg m s-2. The Exam had included the wrong units, just a careless typo, but a blatant error. The Report addressed this blatant error with the following:

Students who interpreted this question as asking for the average rate of change of momentum to be dimensionally consistent with the units and did this correctly were awarded marks accordingly.

That’s it. Not an honest word of having stuffed up. Not a hint of regret or apology. Just some weasely no-harm-no-foul bullshit.



WitCH 8: Oblique Reasoning

A reminder, WitCH 2, WitCH 3 and WitCH 7 are also open for business. Our new WitCH comes courtesy of John the Merciless. Once again, it is from Cambridge’s text Specialist Mathematics VCE Units 3 & 4 (2019). The text provides a general definition and some instruction, followed by a number of examples, one of which we have included below. Have fun.


With John the Impatient’s permission, I’ve removed John’s comments for now, to create a clean slate. It’s up for other readers to do the work here, and (the royal) we are prepared to wait (as is the continuing case for WitCh 2 and Witch 3).

This WitCH is probably difficult for a Specialist teacher (and much more so for other teachers). But it is also important: the instruction and the example, and the subsequent exercises, are deeply flawed. (If anybody can confirm that  exercise 6G 17(f) exists in a current electronic or hard copy version, please indicate so in the comments.)

WitCH 6: Parallel Reality

In this WitCH we will again pick on the Cambridge text Specialist Mathematics VCE Units 3 & 4 (2019): see the extract below. (We’d welcome any email or comment with suggestions of other generally WitCHful texts and/or specific WitCHes.) And, a reminder that there is still plenty left to discover in WitCH 2 , WitCH 3 and Tweel’s Mathematical Puzzle.

Have fun.


Below, we go through the passage line by line, but that fails to capture the passage’s intrinsic awfulness. The passage is, as John put it pithily below, a total fatberg. The passage is worse than wrong; it is clumsy, pompous, circuitous, barely comprehensible and utterly pointless.

Why do this? Why write like this? Sure, ideas, particularly mathematical ideas, can be tricky and difficult to convey; dependence/independence isn’t particularly easy to explain. And sure, we all write less clearly than we might wish on occasion. But, if you write/proofread/edit something that the intended “readers” will obviously struggle to understand, then all you’re doing is either showing off or engaging in a meaningless ritual.

An underlying problem is that the entire VCE topic is pointless. Yes, this is the fault of the idiotic VCAA, not the text, but it has to be said, if only as a partial defence of the text. No purpose is served by including in the curriculum a subtle definition that is not then reinforced in some meaningful manner. Consequently, it’s close to impossible to cover this aspect of the curriculum in an efficient, clear and motivated manner. The text could have been one hell of a lot better, but it probably never could have been good.

OK, to the details. Grab a whisky and let’s go.

  • First, a clarification. The definition of “parallel vectors” appears in a slightly earlier part of the text. We included it because it is clearly relevant to the main excerpt. We didn’t intend, however, to suggest that the discussion of dependence began with the “parallel” definition.
  • For the given definition of “parallel vectors” it is redundant and distracting to specify that the scalar k not be 0.
  • As discussed by Number 8, the definition of “parallel vectors” should not exclude the zero vector. The exclusion may be natural in the context of geometric proofs, but here it is a needless source of fussiness, distraction and error.  As an example of a blatant error, immediately following the above passage the text begins a proposition with “Let a and b be two linearly independent (i.e. not parallel) vectors.” A second and entirely predictable error occurs when the text later goes on to “resolve” an arbitrary vector a into components “parallel” and “perpendicular” to a second vector b.
  • The definition of “linear combination” involves a clumsy and needless use of subscripts. Thankfully, though weirdly, subscripts aren’t used in the subsequent discussion. The letters used for the vector variables are changed, however, which is the kind of minor but needless, own-goal distraction that shouldn’t occur.
  • No concrete example of linear combination is provided. (The more abstract the ideas, the more critical it is that they be anchored immediately with very specific illustration.)
  • It is a bad choice to begin with “linear combination”. That idea is difficult enough, but it also leads to a poor and difficult definition of linear dependence, an unswallowable mouthful: “… at least one of its members [elements? vectors?] can be expressed as a linear combination of [the] other vectors [members? elements?] …” Ugh! What really kills this sentence is the “at least one”which stems from the asymmetry hiccup in the definition. (The hiccup is illustrated, for example, by the three vectors a = 3 + 2j + k, b = 9i + 6j + 3k, c = 2i + 4j + 3k. These vectors are dependent, since b = 3a + 0c is a combination of a and c. Note, however, that c cannot be written as a combination of a and b.)
  • As was appropriately done for “linear combination”, the definition of linear dependence should be framed in terms of two or three vectors staring at the reader, not for “a set of vectors”. 
  • The language of sets is obscure and unnecessary.
  • No concrete example of linear dependence is provided. There is not even the specialisation to the case of two and/or three vectors (which, again, is how they should have begun).
  • If you’re going to begin with “linear combination” then don’t. But, if you are, then the definition of linear independence should precede linear dependence, since linear independence doesn’t have the asymmetry hiccup: no vector can be written as a combination of the other vectors. Then, “dependent” is defined as not independent.
  • No concrete example of linear independence is provided. 
  • The properly symmetric “examples” are the much preferred definition(s) of dependence. 
  • The “For example” is weird. It is more accurate to label what follows as special cases. They are not just special cases, however, since they also incorporate non-obvious reworking of the definition of dependence.
  • No proof or discussion is provided that the “example[s]”  are equivalent to the definition. 
  • No genuine example is provided to illustrate the “example[s]”.
  • The simple identification of two vectors being parallel/non-parallel if and only if they are dependent/independent is destroyed by the exclusion of the zero vector.
  • There is no indication why any set of vectors including the zero vector must be dependent. 
  • The expression “two-dimensional vector” is lazy and wrong: spaces have dimension, not vectors. (Ditto “three-dimensional vectors”.)
  • No proof or discussion is provided that any set of three “two dimensional vectors” is dependent. (Ditto “for three-dimensional vectors”.)
  • The “method” for checking the dependence of three vectors is close to unreadable. They could have begun “Let a and b be linearly independent vectors”. (Or, with the correct definition, “Let a and b be non-parallel vectors”.)
  • There is no indication of or clarification of or illustration of the subtle distinction between the original “definition” of linear dependence and the subsequent “method”.

What a TARDIS of bullshit. 

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 …


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.


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.

Update (24/02/19)

The exam Reports are now out, here and here. There’s no stupidity so large or so small that the VCAA won’t remain silent.