Shashi Warrier | Games universities play with students
Deccan Chronicle.| Shashi Warrier
My professor friend Raghavan dropped in with his wife a few evenings ago. Both looked downcast: indeed, so downcast that I offered them scotch rather than the usual tea. He accepted with alacrity, though his wife stuck to tea. When they had their respective drinks and a plate of hot samosas in front of them, I asked him,
"Why are you looking like the sky fell on you?"
When he kept silent for a while, Mrs Raghavan replied, "He wants to quit."
"Why?" I asked, stunned. Raghavan loves his job, staying with it even though he can earn much more elsewhere.
"It’s been getting worse for some years," Mrs Raghavan explained, "but it gets really bad each time the exams come around, at the end of every semester."
Raghavan himself spoke up. "You know how much I like to see young people learn."
I did. He’d explained once that his most rewarding moments were when a student suddenly got a deep insight into a subject during a class. These moments transformed the student’s views of a subject, and he was happy if there was one such insight every semester. He wasn’t sure whether it was his teaching causing the insight, or just chance, which was why he never claimed he liked to teach. "I know," I said. "You’ve told me more than once."
"Well, it’s become harder now," he said. "You have to account for all the time you spend in the classroom."
"To whom?" I asked.
"To the university," he said. "They expect you to plan out every course for the semester. Imagine you have fifteen weeks of classes in a semester, and three hours a week for a course. The university expects you to define what you’ll teach the students during those forty-five hours, to describe how you’ll test how much they’ve learned during those hours."
"Don’t tell me they expect you to account for every minute in the classroom!" I said.
"No," he said, "they don’t. But there are a few students in every class who need a little extra explanation… That’s where my time goes. I don’t mind spending extra time getting students with potential to do better, but they’re so heavily loaded that they shy away from the idea."
"Right," I said, "but why does it get worse at the end of the semester?"
"The university conducts the exams then," he replied. "It’s not like the exams during the semester, which we conduct."
"But they have to have those exams, don’t they?" I asked. "How else would you find out how much students know?"
"Well, yes," he said. "Of course you have to test students to find out how much they’ve learned. The question is, how do we question them, and how do we evaluate the answers?"
"You’re the ones who teach them," I said, "so you should know!"
"Right," he said. "The trouble is, there are these examinations in which you expect students to repeat what they’ve been told in the class or in books."
"Do you mean you should ask them things from outside the syllabus?" I asked, surprised.
"No," he said. "But you should have questions that test whether they can put together something they’ve learned in different parts of a course, and to use that combination. If you ask them questions whose answers are in the books, you’re not making them think. That’s problem one. We don’t know whether they can think.
"The second thing is, we give them marks out of a hundred. Trouble is, I have no idea exactly how many marks to give a student… I can, at best, divide students into maybe five groups: excellent, good, average, below average, and poor. Any finer distinctions are fiction. But then, to companies that hire, 60 is better than 59. So…"
"So are you saying these marks are meaningless?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Then there’s attendance. Students have attend 80 percent of the classes to be eligible to write the end-semester exams. Unless, of course, they’ve taken some time off for medical reasons, or family emergencies or something of the kind."
"Isn’t that reasonable?" I asked.
"Look at it differently," he replied. "Imagine two students with similar grades, one attending classes and the other skipping them. Which of the two do you think is the better student?"
"The one skipping classes," I said.
"Well, then why insist on attendance?" he asked. "The ones who learn on their own deserve credit for it… But there’s worse.
"Around exam time, you get letters from the university telling you the procedures for setting question papers and to destroy copies when you’re done, how students should behave during the exams, how to invigilate in exam halls, and how to correct papers on campus… They don’t say it outright, but the purpose of all this is to prevent cheating.
"So, during the semester, I’m a sort of cross between a clerk and a policeman. But at exam time I become a potential criminal watching other potential criminals, and the students know it. I can’t face them in a classroom afterwards and pretend that I’m encouraging them to learn."
"But isn’t that what the students need?" I asked. "They want to get through rigorous exams, score grades that can be trusted, attend interviews, and settle down into a good job at the end of it?"
"Sure," he said, "It’s just that I thought a university is more than a diploma factory."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Imagine if someone like Albert Einstein or Amartya Sen turned up at this university," he said. "Someone who questions fundamentals. You know what? They’d probably fail! That’s why I want to quit."
Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.