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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 5. April 2 1968

Physical science banished

Physical science banished

Sir—After reading Jonathan Cloud's articles on the examination system, I have come to the conclusion that his ideal university is one from which the physical sciences are banished.

Much of his discussion deals with the type of question asked, and it is apparently traditional in the subjects Mr. Cloud has studied for the essay to predominate. But in those disciplines concerned with measurement there is another tradition, based on the fact that discussion involving quantities is often too complicated to be carried out in English, and must therefore be done mathematically. Hence, the traditional question in these subjects is the "problem", in which the student is asked to find some quantity in terms of others, or make decisions from data. An example from statistics might be:

"A survey showed that 627 of 800 persons interviewed preferred to live in medium sized towns. Using a two sided alternative and a 5% level of significance, test the hypothesis that the true proportion of person's preferring to live in medium-sized towns is 75%. (It is)

This type of question is often rephrased in the form "Show that ... ", "Prove that ... " so that it includes its own answer.

For reasons which would require too much space to elaborate. I think we must reject any idea that problems are merely essays written in another language. We must therefore consider them entirely separately. something Mr. Cloud makes no attempt to do.

If we were to consider the effectiveness of exams and term work based on problems, we would be foolish to do so in isolation. At the high school level, many of the physical sciences are in the midst of major changes in teaching methods. In America, completely new approaches to the subjects have been developed, introducing schoolchildren to concepts formerly not encountered until stage III or Honours level. The Physical Sciences Study Committee material (P.S.S.C. physics), for example, is already in use in New Zealand schools.

In England, the Nuffield schemes have developed the heuristic approach to Chemistry and Physics to what must be close to its practical limits. We can expect the effects of these schemes to be delayed here because of the expensive equipment they require. Nevertheless, we are entitled to ask what reaction the University should have to them, when they come. This reaction could well involve changed teaching and assessing methods, because it would be a tragedy for initiative developed in the schools to be stamped out in the University.

Mr. Cloud has not considered any of these problems; nor has he given any indication that he is aware of their existence. But he must surely be aware of the growth of mathematical methods in psychology, economics and political science, which makes his omission all the more surprising, as these subjects may sooner or later face the same problems.

Yours faithfully,

David Wright.