Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Brief Complaint about Math

I am currently studying for the GRE. Mostly, I am studying math. I have not studied math in approximately eight years.

I admit that I'm not terrible at math, but there's a reason I majored in History and French. There's also a reason I spend my free time writing as opposed to working calculations. But the time spent writing is creating interesting side effects when working story problems.

Specifically, I'm just not buying the authors of these story problems. Where's the motivation? Where's the conflict pushing these people to action?

For instance, this one:

Jack has a bowl of marbles. Six are blue, five are green, seven are red, and two are yellow. What is the probability Jack will pull a green marble if he selects one from the bowl at random?

Do you see my problem? Why in the world is Jack picking a marble from a bowl? For kicks? What kind of loser just wanders aorund picking marbles out of bowls? Even worse are the problems in which someone's friend asks him or her to pick a marble--what a bizarre way to spend time together. "Hey, want to see if you get a red marble?" "Sure!" "I'm glad we're friends."

Come on, test question writers. You can do better.

How about:

Jack is abducted by an alien spacecraft, and must participate in a ritual to determine if he will be allowed to return to Earth or not. The aliens have a large bowl filled with marbles--59 are blue, 27 are green, and 5 are red. If Jack picks a red marble, he will be executed. If he picks green, he can return to Earth. A blue marble means he will remain with the aliens indefinitely. What is the probability he will not be executed?

See? There are stakes! There's a reason for Jack to spend his time picking a marble, and consider the likelihood of each outcome. As for why the aliens use a strange game of chance to determine the fate of their abductees, I couldn't tell you, but who am I to judge alien societies' cultural norms?


Connie said...

Absolutely love it!! I can't wait to share it with my daughter who is a math major.

Kat Zhang said...

LOL! Never taken the GRE, but let me tell you, this would have made studying for the SAT a lot more fun.

Hema P. said...

Haha, that's so funny, Rowenna! I've been thinking only last night how writing has spoiled me for reading some books that I used to blithely before...

Noelle Pierce said...

OHMIGOD. I just choked on my cheeseburger. *ahem* Now, that was hysterical. I remember the GRE...not fondly. I always hated those standardized tests. And though I love math (I know, I'm weird), I hate/loathe/abhor/detest/pick a verb story problems. I mean REALLY [insert verb choice from above here] them. I think you may have just explained why! LOL (well, no. If I had motivation, I still probably wouldn't like them much).

Good luck on the GRE!

Rowenna said...

Thanks, ladies! Connie--I had forgotten your daughter was a math major--she's probably way beyond pick-a-marble problems :)

Kat--ugh, I'm not sure studying for a standardized text is ever fun, but this was a nice distraction for a bit.

Hema--I hear you, there are definitely times I find myself crabbing at a book for doing something I know is a bad idea :)

Noelle--you're not weird:) I confess (hushed voice) I kinda enjoyed the geometry review section. I also hate pick-a-word...I overthink those like crazy. "But if I picked this word, the whole tenor of the sentence would change...and this one would give it a quirky, ironic meaning!"

Caroline said...

I feel your pain. I swear that the reason I haven't been to grad school is my fear of taking the GRE. I'm absolutely awful at math and that's not an understatement. And sadly, I don't think re-writing the problems would help.

Ax said...

I suddenly have new insights into why story problems are, well, problems. You're right! No stakes. GRE huh? At least its not the GMAT, that math is more like SAT math with verbal thrown in: 2+5 is to pie what a radical is to what? A) a cat b) a hippo C) 7 or D) WTF???!!!!