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Monday, May 13, 2019

Compulsory Attendance at Indian Universities

The college life in India is considered as an extension of school life, not by students themselves, but by elders, including parents and teachers. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is the attendance policy in Indian universities. A large number of universities would insist that attendance be marked of every student coming to a class in every class of every course, including labs and tutorials. There is a certain minimum requirement of attendance, mostly 75 percent.

If a student attends less classes than that, there is a severe consequence, usually not allowed to take the final exam and given a fail grade in the course. In many universities, a fail grade would amount to a student being marked as a "backlogger" and no company coming for placement would touch him by a 10 feet pole. So the student not only has to repeat the course, which sometimes may mean spending a semester extra in the system, paying extra tuition, delaying earnings from a job, but it may also mean that there is no job through campus placement. Basically, the punishment for missing a few boring classes is very harsh with no consequence whatsoever to the teacher who delivered those boring lectures. After all, all teachers hired through proper selection procedures must be assumed to be great, and all students missing a class must be bad students.

Over the last 25 years of my academic career, I have had discussions on attendance in several forums and with a large number of colleagues in different institutes, and frankly, I still haven't figured out the genesis of capital punishment for missing classes. Here are the reasons that I have heard so far.

If students attend classes. they learn better. Let us assume this to be true. Well, if they don't attend and consequently don't learn, shouldn't the grades or marks reflect their learning. As a teacher, I want my students to learn, and if they don't attend my class and are not performing well, I can counsel them, and if they still don't learn, I must assign them the grade that reflects their learning. How many faculty members would take the pains of counseling students. How many faculty members would give a Fail grade to someone who has not learnt. If you don't want to do either of these two things, then forcing attendance is not for helping students, but for helping yourself.

Also note that many faculty members will also argue that if someone was ill, or if someone had a family member die during the semester or had other "genuine reasons", then we could be lenient with them. These people are not realizing (or perhaps they are realizing and still believe that it is the right thing to do) that they are asking for grades to be based on sympathy or "genuine reasons" and not academic learning. Consider two students. Both have attended 70% classes. Both have identical marks in all exams, quizzes, projects, etc. One had his father die during the semester and submits death certificate. The other had his father ill and submits medical certificates of his father. What would we do. We can't question the death certificate. (I am deliberately taking the most extreme reason to make a point.) But all medical certificates, particularly from a private doctor, are assumed to be fake. So, one students is barred from taking the final exam and is awarded a Fail grade. The other student is allowed to take the final exam, and passes the course. What have we done. Between two identical students, we have given fail grade to one, and pass grade to the other, simply because we had sympathy with one and not the other.

There are aspects of learning that happens by attending classes which cannot be evaluated. This could be true for some courses and may not be true for all courses. Can we have attendance requirements in some courses and not the others. And even in courses where some learning happens in classroom which cannot be evaluated, may be such learning can be quantified in terms of fraction of the grade. So just like we have in our mind various learning outcomes and we evaluate learning of those learning outcomes through exams, quizzes, projects, presentations, assignments, and so on, and assign some weight to learning of each of those outcomes, we could similarly assign some weight to learning of those outcomes which cannot be evaluated through traditional means. So if that weight is 10% or 20%, then absence can be penalized in proportion of those weights. Why award a capital punishment when a small deduction of marks will take care of matching learning and grades.

What is very interesting is that lately the regulatory bodies are almost forcing the universities to give students credit for online courses offered through Swayam portal. In such courses, the student studies online from wherever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants. That is, there are no classes. In some instances, there may be some discussion sessions at best. So one can learn well without attending a single class in 20% of the courses. But in the other 80% of the courses, one can only learn if one attends at least 75% of the classes. At the very least, this is an acceptance of the principle that in some courses, attendance is not required for learning. Once we accept this, shouldn't we then consider each course carefully to decide whether attendance is necessary for learning in that course.

There are non-academic learning which are important for careers. For example, you learn to discuss, communicate, dress up, pay respect to your elders (teachers) and what not. Let us assume that all these are indeed important for career growth, and we want to encourage them to learn these during their college days. Why not just put a small monetary fine. Students from poorer background will find it difficult to bunk classes. And rich kids, you don't have to worry about their careers. Their rich parents will take care of that. Let them pay fine and get away with it. May be the fine can be exponentially increasing with every course in which there is lack of attendance.

It is the discipline, stupid! The most commonly heard complaint is that if attendance is not forced then campus romance will flourish. After all, what will they do with all the free time. And that is somehow bad. And that, of course, will rise to indiscipline. Empty mind is devil's workshop or something like that. Again, let us assume that this is a genuine concern. But can we avoid this indiscipline by having a smaller penalty. Should capital punishment be the only penalty for missing some classes (and causing indiscipline in campus).

I hope someone can come up with a rational argument in favor of compulsory attendance, one which explains why online courses are fine, why missing classes due to some reasons is fine, and why a smaller punishment than failing the course and barring the student from campus placement will not work.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Academic Advising

The college life is very different from school life. In schools, most of the decisions are taken for you by teachers and/or parents. In any case, there are few academic decisions to be taken. Except at the beginning of 11th class, most of the courses are fixed for you. And that makes transitioning to a college harder.

Academic advising involves a trained staff or a faculty member guiding the student on the choice of courses (in case of electives), what courses can be done in any given semester (given the issue of pre-requisites, and graduation requirements of the program), etc. This becomes even more important if the student has failed a few courses and may not be satisfying the pre-requisites of many advanced courses. Besides, universities sometimes offer choice of second major, minor, dual-degree and other flexibility in the programs. Students are not just confused about the rules around them, but also whether they are consistent with the educational goals of the student. There could also be issues regarding whether to take a break and do a semester long internship, and finally what should they be doing after graduation. Should they go for higher studies or a job or something else. Which place to study. What kind of job, and so on.

As should be clear from above, the academic advising becomes important when a student has options but if left alone may not exercise those options in the best self interest. For a long time, Indian institutions did not give many options to students. You got admitted to a specific program - so you don't need help in choosing your major. You had a fixed curriculum, with fixed courses to be done every semester. So no choice there. May be you had an elective where only 2-3 courses will be offered and one had to take one course. There was no flexibility of second major, minor, etc., so no decisions to be taken. In such a system, only those students needed advise who had failed some courses and needed to restructure their programs. Academic advising in India, therefore, has traditionally been limited to handling academically deficient students.

Over the last two decades, things have changed quite a bit. With UGC and AICTE prescribing choice based credit systems for all academic programs, students have many decisions to take every semester. But the systems for providing this help have not been developed. In good colleges (like IITs), not only there are a lot of electives and they can do courses in which ever order they want, but there are options like minor, second major, dual degrees, etc. But the students are left to seek advice from their seniors alone. They can advise based on their own experiences and hence cannot really help another student with all options.

The colleges have given up on this extremely important responsibility by stating that the students are adults and ought to know what is best for them. This is quite irresponsible since even adults do not always know what is best for them, and even worse, may not even have all the information to make an informed decision. This becomes even worse in India where the websites are often not updated, and getting the information itself can become a project.

Consider an example. A student had 14 courses to do to complete the graduation requirement. He has been a somewhat academically weak student and has never performed well even with 5 courses in a semester. He planned to do 6 courses in each of the two semesters and two summer courses and thus hoped to graduate in a year. Of course, if he fails even one course in this plan, he will have to stay back for a semester necessarily. If someone had advised him properly and told him that the chance of succeeding in this plan are very slim and hence he should plan for 3 semesters and a summer to complete these. In the alternate plan, he would have done only 4 courses in each of the three semesters ad two courses in summer.  With lower academic load, he was more likely to learn better, with hopefully better grades, and likely better future options. But he registered for 6 courses and failed. So the transcript has more failures. The pass courses have poor grades and his confidence is shattered and he will have to spend that extra semester any way.

So many final year students (even those who have no backlogs) regret their decisions of doing something or not doing something. They wish someone had told them about the options early on. But with advising being so closely linked to poor academic performance, they never did approach anyone for advice.

I recall that when I was Chairman of Senate UnderGraduate Committee (SUGC) at IIT Kanpur, I had organized an advising session for 2nd semester students where faculty members from different departments told them about the excitement and opportunities in their respective disciplines. At the end of the advising session, so many students chose to change their program and unlike the normal behavior where most students apply for change to "more popular" programs, that year a lot of them applied to change to "less popular" programs since they realized that this is more in line with their interest and popularity of a program does not really matter for their career.

Most good universities (and even no so good ones) abroad invest a lot in academic advising. Happier graduates who attain their goals are more likely to be good brand ambassadors and good donors later in life. Early detection of possible academic problems can result in interventions before the problem becomes too serious and the student's program is terminated. I hope we too can invest some more resources into this extremely important service in our universities.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

JEE Mains 2019

JEE Mains for the next academic year admissions have many new things. First of all, it will be conducted by National Testing Agency (NTA) and not CBSE. NTA is a new organization created by Government of India exclusively to conduct large public tests. This, by itself, shouldn't matter to applicants. But NTA is bringing in a few crucial changes.

There are two important changes. One, you can give JEE mains twice in a year (January, and April) and as per NTA website, it will be treated as single attempt. JEE Mains can continue to be attempted for three consecutive years - the year of giving 12th class exam and the next two years. The difference is that in each year, you can attempt it twice and the better of the two scores will be counted. The second change is that the exam is online. No option for a paper version.

In each month (January and April), the exam will be conducted on three weekends. On each weekend, it will be held in four sessions. Of course, students in each session will get a different question paper. So the most important issue here is that of normalization. What if some paper is easy and some other paper is tougher. This is an important issue since CBSE did not do normalization across multiple papers and people were left with the feeling of unfairness. But NTA has announced a process of normalization.

They will look at your score relative to score of other students in your session alone and assign you a percentile score. This is the score that would determine your rank. If you give JEE both in January and April, the higher of the two percentile scores will be counted as your performance.

Let us examine if percentile is a good way to normalize. The basic assumption here is that if the distribution of academic preparedness among students is same in two exams, then the relative rank of an individual student is likely to be similar. So even though marks obtained by students could be different and would depend on whether the questions were easier or tougher, but the ranks won't be very different.

This assumption is a reasonable one when it comes to considering different sessions within the same month. It is so because NTA would randomly divide the applicants into all sessions. Random allocation of sessions to large number of applicants is the best way to ensure that academic preparedness is similarly distributed in all sessions. However, can we assume that academic preparedness in January will be same as academic preparedness in April. I don't know, but it seems unlikely. And that is a question mark on the normalization scheme.

The other question mark is that while it distributes students randomly, an individual student can still get a vastly different rank depending on which session the student has been assigned to. For example, if I am extremely good at Mathematics and relatively poor in Chemistry then I will have a very different rank in a test with tough Mathematics and easy Chemistry versus a test with easy Mathematics and tough Chemistry. So, one will still have to make sure that different question papers are not vastly different in their difficulty levels. The normalization procedure they have chosen will be good for taking care of some variations in the questions but not a drastically different type of paper. And, whether one can normalize across two months is very questionable.

I hope they could have allowed students to choose the weekend at least, if not the specific session. If they had too many applicants for some weekend, they could have stopped taking applications for that weekend, and if there were too few applications for a particular weekend, they could have reduced the number of sessions in that weekend from 4 to 3 or even 2. This would have been a huge relief to students. I am sure that those taking 12th class board exams would prefer earlier dates so that they have more time to concentrate on their board exams.

The next question that I am getting asked often is should one take JEE Mains twice.

Well, the only negative I can think of in taking JEE twice is that if you were to perform poorly in January, you may be so disappointed that you spoil your board exams. If you are confident that you will not be deterred by one poor performance, go ahead and take it twice. If you are not adequately prepared for JEE Mains in January, 2019, treat this as a practice test in real testing environment. (You can't get more real than this!) On the other hand, if you are reasonably well prepared, my prediction is that it will be easier to get a high percentile score in January than in April because a large number of students will be taking the January test as a practice test. The repeaters must take JEE Mains in January, since they must already be well prepared and they can take advantage of many students taking it as a practice test.

Should you take the April test even if you get a good score in January. Well, if you get a 99 percentile kind of score, which will mean that you would be in about top 10,000 ranks, may be you can avoid April test. (I am assuming that about 10 lakh students will take the exam either in Jan or in April or both. Hence 99 percentile would be around 10,000. But exact numbers may vary.) But unless you have a very high score (which guarantees eligibility for JEE Advanced, and which guarantees admission to one of the top non-IIT choices if you don't perform well in JEE Advanced), there is no harm in trying for an improvement.

At the end, please note that I am writing this based on what I have read on NTA website. You should visit their site often, just in case there are changes in the rules and processes, or just in case, I have misread or misunderstood them.

Best wishes to all potential students of IIT Kanpur.