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Thursday, August 27, 2009

IIT JEE should encourage school education

Last week, there was a meeting of Joint Admission Board (JAB) of IITs, which includes Directors and JEE Chairpersons of all IITs. It was held at IIT Madras. A newspaper report mentioned that the JAB decided to setup a committee to decide the cutoff marks in the 12th class examination for JEE-2011. The committee will look into the issue of normalization of marks of various boards, amongst other things.

I hope the report is correct. It is high time that IITs consider school performance in a serious way for admission to IITs. All across the country, the emergence of admission tests for admission to higher education has ensured that students do not take school education seriously. When the top half of the class does not take school seriously, it discourages teachers, and learning of even the bottom half is seriously hampered. Also, we find that it has resulted in lack of many skills which should normally be developed at the school level, including the most important one of communication and language skills.

There have also been some studies done which showed that the performance of students in IITs has a stronger correlation with the 12th class marks, and a weaker correlation with the JEE rank. If that be the case, it is clear that insisting on higher 12th class marks for admission to IITs (and indeed to all higher education institutions) will result in better student intake than the current system. Considering the quality of examination and in particular weaknesses in proper invigilation during the exam, it is too risky for IITs and other higher education institutions to only rely on 12th class marks for admission, and at least in the medium term, exams like JEE and AIEEE are here to stay.

To have a very high cutoff in 12th class marks is not easy to implement due to differences in various boards across the country who conduct these exams. And indeed, one of the tasks that this committee has been assigned is to find a way to normalize the 12th class marks across all boards.

One point that JAB seems to have missed out is that there are two distinct goals for looking at 12th class marks. One goal is to only select those who do extremely well in 12th class. If you follow this goal, then one would suggest a cutoff for CBSE as 85% or 90% and then one will have to do normalization for other boards etc., because there may be boards in which getting so many marks may not be possible.

While this goal is laudable and must be pursued in the medium term, there can be another goal in the short term. This goal can be to ensure that the students preparing for JEE also take 12th class seriously. This goal can be met with a much lower cutoff for 12th class marks. A cutoff, which disqualifies about 1 percent of the selected candidates. If you look at the merit list of 8000 students of this year, find out the 12th class marks for all of them, and decide the cutoff which will be missed by about 80 students, then it is likely to be slightly less than 70%. (We, at LNMIIT, looked at the 12th class marks of all admitted students this year - a small sample indeed compared to IIT system as a whole - and found out that the lowest 1 percent were below 68%. Since we take students after IITs (AIEEE rank upto 18000, and EML rank upto 9000), if the same exercise is done by IITs, the chances are that the 1 percentile will be at 69% or so.

Assuming these numbers to be true, JEE could keep the 12th class cutoff at 70%, and disqualify about 1 percent or may be slightly higher number of students. If you disqualify about 100 students on this basis, it will shock everyone and people will start taking 12th class more seriously.

Another thing we noticed was that almost all candidates who were below 70% marks in 12th class were from CBSE system in our case. Again, if out of 100 students disqualified, most were from CBSE and only a handful from, say, UP Board, students from UP board will not go to court saying that they are being discriminated against and that they should get the benefit of normalization.(Like no one has challenged the 60 percent limit so far.) And even if they challenge, courts are not likely to be sympathetic to them if only 1-2 percent students are being disqualified.

Since JEE has often been accused of destroying the school education system, this simple step of increasing the cutoff from 60 to 70 percentile will cause a lot of serious students to be back in class, and JEE would have done a great service to the school education system in the country.

I would, therefore, like to suggest that while a committee can try to find a medium term solution to select only those for IITs who do extremely well in 12th class, but in the immediate future (JEE 2010), one may consider increasing the cutoff to 70% (or at least 65%) with appropriate concessions to the reserved category students.

Monday, August 24, 2009

How to Choose an Engineering College

Summer is the time for a lot of stress amongst school leaving students and their parents. They are terribly confused regarding the college they should join for higher studies. They don't know enough about various options, and that adds to the stress. Media tries to help by publishing rankings of colleges. However, there are several problems with those rankings. Most rankings are only for the top few institutes. Also, rankings are based mostly on perceptions, and on unverifiable data supplied by the Institutions themselves. Many times, they use parameters unrelated to quality (like size). Further, they rank the entire institution, and not a specific program.

Students (and parents) typically look at last year's closing ranks, which means that they miss out on new and exciting places. Or they look at placement data narrowly (even if one student got a Rs. 10 lakh job, the institute must be good). And another bias is that government colleges are better than private colleges. Some NITs are excellent, and a large number of private institutions offer poor quality education. But there are many private institutions with much better faculty profile than NITs.

So, what should students do. The solution is simple. They should do their own research and come up with their own rankings.

In my opinion, the quality of education is primarily driven by quality of faculty. So, if there is only one thing that you want to check in a college website, it is the quality of faculty. You should look for not just the number of faculty members, but also their qualifications, whether they are PhD or not, where did they study, are they active researchers and publishing.

The second most important criteria is the academic freedom that the Institution has. In IITs, NITs, IIITs, and deemed universities, there is complete academic freedom to change curriculum, provide flexibility to students, have their own exams, etc. To faculty, it is very demoralizing that someone else will test what they have taught to their students, and generally speaking (with some exceptions), quality of teaching is better in institutions who have their own exams.

Of course, having freedom does not mean that it will always be used effectively. So, one has to look for more information. Third most important criteria is the curriculum. Do they change it frequently enough. Judging the curriculum will be difficult for a student of, so seek help from a person in that discipline. For example, in Computer Science, if they teach you multiple programming languages, they are more interested in spoon feeding than teaching concepts. In general, and this is counter-intuitive, better departments will have fewer courses in the curriculum. Weaker departments would like to spoon feed you a lot of information in the hope that you can say something when it comes to placement interview. Also, more flexible system would have more electives, and you would be studying topics of your interest. Of course, make sure that those electives are actually offered, and are not just on paper.

Other parameters are less important in my opinion, but do matter. These include infrastructure. How many labs, how many PCs, what is their library holdings, how much is the Internet bandwidth, sports facilities, etc. Another parameter is what happens to the students after they graduate. This includes campus placement, but more importantly, how many of them go for higher education. Remember, the most important skill that college education is supposed to impart is to learn how to learn. If a college is successfully imparting that skill, then it must result in substantial number of students to think about higher studies. And finally, brand equity does matter. Have they got any ranking in any survey. What is the closing rank of last year. Have they been accredited.

Now give weights to these parameters, and start surfing the web to collect relevant information. This is hard work, but remember, you are about to take the most critical decision of your life. Don't depend on others advice alone. Have your own research to back up your decision.