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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can we really reduce the stress of IIT JEE

Everybody in this country appears to be stressed because of JEE. The students are obviously stressed, but their stress is causing stress to every one right from the HRD Minister to all bureaucrats, IIT Directors, parents, and anyone else who has even heard of those dreadful initials, J E E. And everyone has ideas on how to reduce that stress. Every Minister wants to solve that problem, and indeed it is such a serious issue that anyone solving it should get Bharat Ratna. The previous minister thought that by giving weight to 12th class marks, we will reduce stress, but that does not seem to have worked, and now we have yet another committee looking into this issue. Since everyone is trying this route to Bharat Ratna, let me throw my hat too into the ring and suggest a solution.

As a scientist, I must first see why the current approaches have not worked. And this is what I believe is happening. The focus is wrong. If you see the statements by various people on the reasons for stress, they would argue the following: There are 10 lakh students interested in 10 thousand seats and when there is such a serious competition, stress is bound to happen.

The interesting part of this statement is that it is arguing that you can do nothing about the problem, it is bound to happen. If you believe in this statement, then why these committees, why tinkering with the process, accept it as given. This is God's wish and mere mortals have no option but to accept this as part of life.

And hence, if this problem has to be solved, then this statement has to be changed to include the possibility of change.

If I read the statement again, it talks about 10,000 seats in IITs. Most importantly, it does not talk about 1000 seats in IIT Bombay, the current hot favorite of the students and parents. The stress is not because one may or may not get into IITB, but stress is because one may or may not get into IITs. This gives us an important insight.The reason people are not stressful about IITB is that the next best institutions (in the hierarchy that they believe in) like IITD, IITK, etc., are not too bad compared to IITB. If the results are a minor disappointment, they don't cause stress. So if I may rewrite the cause of stress statement, it would be as follows:

Stress happens when a minor difference in performance can lead to major difference in outcomes.

Stress happens when you are always worried that a couple of additional questions that you can do correctly will make all the difference in life and you work harder and harder to ensure that you get those two additional marks even to the extent of spoiling your health, spoiling your childhood, and so on. The right kind of coaching will help even the smartest kids get those two marks extra, and hence it would be stupid to not do coaching and get those two extra marks, if you can afford coaching. For many, it would be 20 marks extra, and that would make a huge difference.

Now, of course, some would argue that stress is good thing as without stress, students won't study and won't learn. I believe that mild stress may spur people to perform higher, but the kind of stress we have in the system today is anything but mild.

So, if we want to remove stress, we must ensure that small difference in performance does not lead to major difference in outcome. This can actually be done in several ways, but we will look at them only if we can see beyond coaching and JEE.

The first and the best method would be to ensure that the difference between the 5000 seats and the next 5000 seats is small, and the difference between the 20,000 and the next 10,000 seats is small, and so on. If we do this, then a small difference in JEE performance would mean only a marginally "less desired" place of study. Considering the size of the country, it is a shame that we have so few good seats. So the best way to tackle stress - make a major investment in higher education - not just in engineering but several disciplines. There is no reason why the budgets of NITs should be so less compared to IITs, when their mission is similar to that of IITs. Encourage new IITs to grow quickly. Encourage state governments to support their top colleges like Jadavpur, NSIT, DTU, IIITD, MBM, and so on to higher extent. Encourage private players who are willing to upgrade quality. If resources are an issue, let the fee be high and find student loan schemes of the kind Delhi Government has started. We have been talking of stress due to JEE and the negative fallout of coaching for at least a couple of decades. If we had not worried about JEE and coaching, and instead focused on quality all round (not just new CFTIs), we would have had today 1 lakh good seats in engineering and 1 lakh good seats in other disciplines. And good here means that the difference in the top perceived college and the bottom perceived college in this group is not very significant. While 2 lakh good seats would be tiny in a country where the number of kids born in one year is more than 2 crores, but it is still better than 20,000 and would go a long way in reducing stress. And this can be achieved within 10 years, if we start immediately. (Note how quickly IIIT Delhi has become one of the best CSE department in the country. It is only 7 year old.)

The second way to reduce stress would be to destroy the quality of top colleges and thus make sure that the quality of top 1 lakh engineering seats (and 2 lakh overall seats) is roughly equal. Sometimes I feel that there is an agenda to do just that, but I hope we do not succeed in doing this.

The third method is a bit more complex and requires us to do things that we have never done before. Have a system of admission where a small difference in marks in any single exam won't affect you seriously. For you to go from good to bad college, you should perform consistently poorly, and not just do a rare mistake. Have multiple rounds of test, with test at each level allowed multiple times. We could have, say, an aptitude test or some kind of shortlisting process at the end of 10th class that would select a large number of students. The exam can be given multiple times so that if someone feels that they did not perform to their best ability, can take it again. We will shortlist everyone who has done up to 10 (or even more) additional questions wrong compared to the 10000th rank student. Note that a small mistake will not make a big difference. If you think you should be in the shortlist, take the exam again. The exam could be a simple one so that we can shortlist a fairly large number of students at this stage, may be more than  a lakh of them, even two lakhs.

After 11th class, we can have another exam, say the science test, for these students, and we follow the same rule. That we look at the 10000th rank student and shortlist everyone who has made up to 10 (an arbitrary number) more mistakes compared to that student. But, of course, this time, the exam is more difficult, and the number of students shortlisted would be much less, may be just around 50,000.

After the 12th class, we can have an exam of just these students, which can now use long answer type questions, and so on, and create a ranking. With so few students taking the exam, the exam can be designed in a way that there is spread in the marks and a couple of question wrong won't be disastrous. In any case, we can now create a system within IITs (and anyone else who would agree to follow this) of liberal branch changes. One way to do that would be to fill only half the seats in each discipline based on ranks, and the other half are admitted without assigning a discipline. After one year, the seats will be filled in based on performance in the first year and everyone will be assigned a discipline. So again, a few wrong questions in the exam after 12th did not mean you lost everything. Similarly, a few questions wrong in a few exams in the first year of engineering wouldn't mean disaster. We could even have a scheme where a student who performs extremely well in the next set of institutes could be given lateral admission in top schools. So once again, a single mistake is not the end of the world.

Creating a system where mistakes don't cost as much is the second best way to reduce stress and reduce dependence on coaching. (The best method is to improve the quality of large number of colleges to the level of IITs, and similarly in other disciplines.) But as long as our primary focus will remain on JEE and coaching, we will not be able to solve the problem.


Girish Elchuri said...

I liked the idea of continuous assessment. That's clearly the way and also focus not on just subject, but application of that and the aptitude test is very important as that will ensure only those have that engineer DNA enters engineering.

While I agree, we should invest more in creating more IITs and improve NITs and other colleges, but we should also encourage and come up with a clear framework to promote private colleges. Currently private colleges are being run more like a business, where only money matters. Sure money matters as educational institutions need huge infrastructure, but govt must force to make sure they excel academically also.

Couple of other menaces that we need to do with is:
* widespread of corruption in the universities that is impacting quality of teachers and thus quality of teaching
* clearly keep the politics and political parties out of the education system
* full focus on research and problem solving oriented teaching

We can easily take baby steps to make improvements right away and that need becoming very critical for the future of the country.

Vijayant said...

Why can't IITs and other Universities follow the following simple algorithm, now that nothing seems to be working even half as good as pre-1995 scheme:
- Go back to the 3 paper pre-1996 paper format, may be keep that one screening test to weed out the non-serious candidates
- Let everyone write the exam, this means everyone who passes their X+2 get's to write at least the screening if they so desire
- Use AIR to assign only the IITs, not branches, with 30% seats transferable across IITs
- Everyone gets into the first year the same BS/BTech, no branch
- Come second year, you get assigned the branch (and ~30% get to change their IITs too) based on your first year score and your choice

No need to create more IITs, we have enough of them now to dilute the brand name itself... Create more Central Universities instead (with IIT like funding of course) that provide better interdisciplinary environment for total growth. Provide more funds and aids to graduate and PhD programmes. Invest heavily in Secondary and high school education.

Navin said...

While I like the idea of continuous assessment, I think the shortlisting process will still create stress because you have to make the cutoff somewhere. Instead have a (weighted) cumulative grade point average system. Start (say) in 9th std, with exams every 6 months, and in each exam you get a score, and you're never really kicked out; but if you keep getting bad grades, the chances that you'll make it at the end of 12th keep reducing. At some point (maybe by end of 10th) most people will realize that they're not cut out for this, drop out of the rat race, and focus on more achievable goals.

prasun said...

I really like this post: it outlines the real problem and solution, and also what can be done today.

I think in places like Bangalore, or Mumbai, where students have a lot of choices of colleges, stress levels might be lower. This is just anecdotal, but the people I have spoken to in Bangalore said they never really cared too much about IITs because RV/BMS were good enough.

US has about 50 top class universities - each having tens of thousands of students. We really need to invest in education. I don't like the educational loan idea - just looking at the way things have gone in US. The European model is much more attractive - not sure how they fund it though.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

1. I am happy that Dheeraj didn't include COEP. (And, BTW, had never heard of NSIT and MBM. (That's right, I still am actually happy about the non-inclusion of COEP.))

2. The only solution to avoiding the step function at 10000 (and to generally uplift the entire graph) is: complete privatization of, including FDI in, education. Ideally, it should begin with the IITs. Practically, it can best begin with the new IITs first.


peshwaa said...

I second Ajit's suggestion: privatize IITs/unis (at least partially), remove UGC/AICTE's status (of granting permissions to univs), create a few ranking bodies to rank degree programs, and a a fast grievance redressal mechanism.

Spur more univs/colleges, provide them with tax breaks and govt. funding for R&D, if those appear in the top 100. Everyone will compete to make their univs better.

L said...

It would also help if social sciences and humanities were considered important. Actually unlike most people's ideas, they do have potential as careers. Economists and soft skill trainers earn quite well. Civil service seems to have become popular Hyderabad, it's the next big thing for coaching!!