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.
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.
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 . 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
What a TARDIS of bullshit.
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
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.
Part (a) of Question 4 is routine, requiring students to express 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 are and .
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:
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 in terms of .
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 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 , as the examiners could have and should have and did not. Then, the intended answers were and .
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 and and and 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 has the cartesian form , 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 can be expressed as , where . Find in terms of .
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 . 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 . Since must be symmetrically placed about the line , it follows that . Then . This gives , and finally
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.