6 Correlation Street

Article excerpt

The mathematical soap opera that is my classroom ...

Always read the question!

Richard, a statistics student of mine, handed in his answer to a line-of-best-fit exercise the other day. The task began, The 1980 and 2000 catalogue prices, in pence, of five British postage stamps are as follows.'

Is it me, or are we in clanger here of being whisked away into the wonderful world of mathematics question-speak? Bearing in mind my place of work, what is the chance that Richard is into stamps? Am I wrong to wonder whether the writer of the question is or knows a philatelist?

The problem goes on: One stamp was valued at £5 in 1980 and at £62 in 2000. Comment.' The setter's idea was to encourage some reference to the regression line, but Richard gave this baffled but pithy answer: 'What loser spends £62 on a stamp?'

Our learners have to negotiate more than mathematics when they attempt an examination. The rubric can be a trial in itself, the language of the questions may be unfamiliar and, above all, the questions may embody a culture that is almost completely alien to our youngsters.

So should examiners try instead to be hipper than hip, totally 'chilled' with current student thinking? In my experience, young people swiftly rumble the authority figure aspiring to be trendy. Maybe they would rather have questions about £62 stamps than be asked about buying an Arctic Monkeys CD - only the examiner would doubtless feel some strange compulsion to call it 'Antarctic Gibbons'. No better than bringing in Stanley Gibbons, then.

Take this (fairly recent) mechanics exam question that I came across the other day. It concerns a packing case and its owner's desire to shift it. Who should set about this task? …