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‘Where is your humanity, man?’ Readers and a psychologist join debate about ‘unsolvable’ matric exam maths problem

‘Where is your humanity, man?’ Readers and a psychologist join debate about ‘unsolvable’ matric exam maths problem
(Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Daily Maverick readers and a psychologist have their say about an ‘unsolvable’ question in a recent matric maths exam.

Matric pupils and maths teachers across South Africa have raised concerns about Question 5 in Mathematics Paper 2, which was reportedly unsolvable

Daily Maverick readers also weighed in on the debate.

“If the proofreader or external moderator had simply tried to solve the problem, it likely would have been picked up,” said one reader.

“I think the fairest outcome would be to award full marks for that question to everyone, although that doesn’t compensate for the time lost trying to figure it out. Rewriting a whole new paper could affect maybe thousands of youngsters who had other commitments.”

Another reader said: “The purpose of an examination is to establish what the examinee knows rather than what they don’t. If that is the underlying purpose, how does this question assist the examiner?


“I can’t really get past the view that the maths examiner is trying to prove how clever he/she is by tricking students (under a lot of stress and pressure) into making mistakes by setting ‘clever’ questions. Not only do smart students waste time because they think they should be able to answer the question, but struggling students also get confused and lose confidence.

“Where is your humanity, man? Have you forgotten the stress of trying to do well in exams? A moderator should actually write the exam, instead of saying, ‘Ja, I think it’s okay.’ The standard of teaching and examining is extremely poor across the board, from fancy private schools all the way down.”

Umalusi — the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training — and the Department of Basic Education are still “investigating” how the unsolvable question came to be in the matric maths paper written on Monday, 7 November.

A psychologist’s opinion

Dr Melinda du Toit, a psychologist with a doctoral degree, said: “Generally, exams put a lot of students under stress and pressure. The moment that a person stresses there are specific changes in the brain … a sense of danger in the brain is activated. The stress responses are either freezing or fleeing or fighting…. you will have learners freezing for a moment and others for more than a moment. Some would have gotten very emotional and cross. And as soon as emotions take over, one cannot think logically and what happens affects behaviour.”

The question could have caused “a lot of anxiety and panic” in some learners.

Du Toit said the South African schooling system generally does not teach learners how to control their impulses, which affects their ability to logically deal with the unsolvable and move on without wasting much time.

“In our new world, content is less important than procedure or systems. What is important is things like how I solve a problem, what I do when confronted with an unsolvable problem and how I regulate my emotions.

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“The trend in our schooling system is that children are taught specific answers to specific problems done in a specific way … and not the cognitive systems that one needs to solve a problem. 

“The negative psychological impact of the unsolvable problem can extend beyond the exam room and be projected in other exams, if not dealt with correctly.

“With the Department of Basic Education not providing a way forward, the stress is stretched, which impacts negatively on the psychological wellness of students.” DM

Read our previous reports on the topic here and here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Dr Melinda Du Toit is correct. Our schools are not teaching learners how to solve problems but that learning means being able to regurgitate text.
    Life is not like that and our youth are thus ill-prepared.

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