Home > A Level, Assessment, Maths > Revenge of the real life questions

Revenge of the real life questions

Last year I wrote this piece discussing some of the worst pseudo-contexts that I’d come across in maths exams. You know the ones, the ridiculous made up contexts that are supposed to give a real life twist to a question but Ard actually anything but. Well this year’s C2 Edexcel A Level paper has two of the worst I’ve ever seen!

Exhibit A



“Figure 1 shows a sketch of a design for a scraper blade. The blade OABCDA consists of an isosceles triangle COD joined along its equal sides to sectors OAB and OCD of a circle with centre 0 and radius 8cm. Angles AOD and BOC are equal. AOB is a straight line and is parallel to the line DC. DC has length 7cm.”

There are a few issues I have with this question. Firstly we have a whole paragraph that is entirely unnecessary! The only purpose this paragraph would serve was to test the ability to sketch or visualise but this us completely negated  by the diagram. One of my year 12s asked, “what’s the point in that writing on the sectors question? It just described the picture.” I had to agree.

That wasn’t the worst bit though, the worst bit is there at the beginning .

“Figure 1 shows a sketch of a design for a scraper blade”

I can imagine the examiner’s meeting now: “I’ve got a great sectors question, it uses area, arc length, cosine rule, sine rule for area…. it’s a classic.” “Great, but we said that was going to be a real life question this year.” “Oh b@#@##ks, what can I do?” “Just make it about a scraper blade!”

What even is a scraper blade, and why do we need this question be about one?! This was actually a great question, or would have been if it had only one of the picture or the paragraph and no stupid mention of a scraper blade.

Exhibit B


“A solid glass cylinder, which is used in an expensive laser amplifier, has a volume of 75pi cm^3.
The cost of polishing the surface area of this glass cylinder is £2 per cm^2 for the curved surface and £3 per cm^2 for the circular top and base areas. Given that the radius is r cm…”

Show that the cost is, then find the minimum.

This question is pseudo-context at its worst. A part for an expensive laser amplifier will be the required size for said amplifier. It will need to fit abd as such it’s length and radius will be far more important that it’s volume, do there’s no way at all that they would design the laser around the minimum cost of polishing a cylinder with a certain volume! Why would you create such a convoluted, nonsensical, bogus context?! If you want to ask questions in context fine, but please make it a believable one!

  1. May 21, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. I think the second one is even worse for the wording of part (b). There is nothing in the wording of the pre-amble or that question to suggest that r is a variable. They just seem to assume that we’ll know what to do because there’s one of these every year.

    • May 21, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Yes, now that you mention it that’s pretty irksome too@

  2. May 22, 2015 at 6:42 am

    I thought these paragraphs were ridiculous too! As you say no way an amplifier would be built around the minimum cost of polishing a tiny part! I just don’t get why they bother with these pseudo contexts…..

    • May 22, 2015 at 6:56 am

      Me neither, they are irksome to say the least.

  3. May 27, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. May 27, 2015 at 11:04 am

    It’s like the people that actually produce the exam papers are apologists for the apparently dry and boring nature of maths (whereas people like me and you enjoy a pure number), so have to ‘jazz it up’ with some funky, real life situation. It’s a shame that mathematicians aren’t allowed to write some English questions thusly:

    Q. In a hypothetical scene, Darcy is dwelling upon a tricky calculus question when Elizabeth enters the drawing room brandishing her quill in a distressed manner. Describe how the juxtaposition of geometry and algebra, as evidenced by Darcy’s use of this powerful analytical tool that allows us to understand the algebra functions through their related geometry, is also analogous to their relationship to one another.

    • May 27, 2015 at 11:28 am

      That’s an awesome question!

  1. June 4, 2019 at 9:24 pm

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