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Monday, August 15, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 1 (Language Issues)

In an earlier post in the summer, I had mentioned that I will be teaching the first year programming course to 500+ students, and I wanted advice from my readers on how to handle such a beast. First of all, I thank all those who responded. Your suggestions really helped me. This is the first time I am teaching such a large class. The last time I taught a large class was 17 years ago, when I taught Pascal to about 200 students.

525 is a very different beast. I thought I was well prepared. With 1 lakh lines of code under my belt, I was confident of knowing C language much better than Pascal that I taught 17 years ago. I had sat with several weak students last year and tried to understand what problems weak students face in this course. I went through videos of the first programming course at MIT and Stanford. I went through example lab assignments at several other universities, and the entire archives of this course at IIT Kanpur, for the last 6 semesters - all PPTs, lab assignments, and the works.

But when it started, I did not know what had hit me, and I still haven't recovered. Blogging was the first casualty. Google+ came at the wrong time. I have joined but don't follow anything. My active social life has come to a screeching halt. I guess this is my destiny for the remaining part of the semester. Today, after having spent the good part of the day in the office, I decided enough is enough. I got to blog.

At least point out the issues that I face, and hopefully the collective wisdom of the readers will help me sail through. The biggest issue is the language. No, I am not talking about 'C'. A fairly large number of students, in the initial survey said that they don't understand spoken English. This number is more than 15 percent, almost 100 students. They claim to follow the powerpoint slides. My natural way of teaching would have meant that while there are slides being projected on a screen, I would use blackboard to explain the finer points. This revelation meant that a lot more would have to be put up on the powerpoint, even though I may still use the blackboard on the side.

About 50 students said that they would like to be tutored in Hindi. And what came to me as a shock, some students do not follow even written English.

And this caused a debate in the department. I decided that I will request a graduate student to provide extra help to those who are weak in English. So he holds a session on Sunday for an hour in which he speaks in Hindi. I also encourage students to come to my office and ask me questions in Hindi.

Am I doing the right thing. Some faculty members don't think so. They point out that English is the official language of instruction at IITs, and therefore, it is the responsibility of the student to make sure that s/he learns sufficient English prior to coming to IIT Kanpur. By agreeing to offer help in Hindi, I am discouraging them from learning English. Second, it will increase expectation of students that in other courses too, the faculty would explain in Hindi, and a majority of faculty members are not from Hindi belt. So that would cause problems. Third, this is discriminatory with respect to non-Hindi speaking students who are also poor in English.

My take is different. The collective wisdom of the leadership of all IITs and indeed this country (because such decisions are taken at the cabinet minister level) has decided that students cannot be tested even on basic language skills. That we can't even specify that they must take English as a language in 10th or 12th class. This leadership has also decided that JEE will happen after 12th class, and not earlier, and that the schedule will be such that admissions will be offered only a few days before the semester starts. So, there is no scope for running a remedial course prior to the semester. With such decisions, one must expect that there will be students who would be weak in English.

What am I supposed to do. Ignore 100 students in the class. I do respect the fact that the same leadership has decided English to be the official language of instruction at IITs. I do not speak even one sentence in Hindi during my lectures and tutorials. I do not have any course related information on the official website of the course in Hindi. All assignments, quizzes, and exams are in English, and no translation is provided to anyone. But it is difficult to digest that even informally, I should do nothing about such a large set of students, who have worked really hard to reach where they have reached. I believe that a bit of compassion and support at this stage will make a huge difference to their learning experience. And I think not understanding the course content for several weeks till they learn more of English would be an insurmountable hurdle in doing well in this course.

Will this put pressure on all other faculty members to offer some support in Hindi. Will this discourage these students from learning English quickly enough. I don't know. Till I am officially told to do otherwise, I cannot refuse if someone asks me informal help in Hindi.


Nikhil A. Patil said...

A big problem is that students with weak English skills tend to flock together, and thus socially survive with little English. I think getting students involved in activities outside their comfort zone should help a lot. Most hostels have Lit. Secys, who may be able to help organize something.

In my BTech days, a lot of students benefited by engaging in Friends & Seinfeld marathons (in fact, a lot of students did this right before the TOEFL).

musings said...

While defending your stand on helping students in Hindi in the last 2-3 paragraphs you have not addressed one of the objections put, i.e.

"Third, this is discriminatory with respect to non-Hindi speaking students who are also poor in English."

If one is to agree with you on the need to help students from the Hindi belt, you should also undertake measures to help other non-hindi-and-weak-english students in their native tongue.

What do you think about this?

If you agree with me, I want to acknowledge that I realise that this is not a trivial and importantly takes the focus away from your duties as a lecturer of a programming language.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@musings, I don't think that it is discriminatory.

Abhijith said...

@Dheeraj, I think there is a subtlety involved here. While your actions don't intend to be discriminatory and have a righteous purpose, the unintended consequences will surely be one of discrimination.

Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree on this.

chitta said...

Quoting you: "I decided that I will request a graduate student to provide extra help to those who are weak in English. So he holds a session on Sunday for an hour in which he speaks in Hindi. I also encourage students to come to my office and ask me questions in Hindi."

I think the above is different from a milder action which is to "allow" student to come to your office (or TAs office) and aks questions in Hindi.

While "allowing" is compassionate, "encouraging" may be discriminatory.

Imagine that you were a student in IIT Kharagpur or IIT Madras and the professors did what you are doing (TA class and "encoraging ..") in Bengali and Tamil respectively. How would you feel?

I was in Kharagpur and I know many students who felt uncomfortable when professors conversed in Bengali with some students outside the class.

If you are ascribing some special status to Hindi then that is a different debate.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Abhijith and @Chitta, I do see your point. But I think there is a difference between a faculty member speaking in Bengali in front of a group of students, some of whom do not understand Bengali, versus a faculty member speaking in English (which is the official language) in front of students, some of whom do not understand English, and speaking in Hindi only in front of people who not only can speak Hindi, but want to be spoken to in Hindi, after making sure that there is no one in the group who does not understand Hindi. That negative feeling happens when someone speaks to a group a language which cannot be assumed to be a common language of the group, and in particular, I don't know that language, and I am still part of that group.

And, no Chitta, I am not referring to any special status of Hindi. I would be very happy if I can help everyone. So far, there is only one student, who has approached me saying that he does not understand either Hindi or English well enough, and can barely converse in English. I asked him to meet the Counselling service, and also talk to his class fellows and perhaps even 2nd year students who speak his native language. There may be others, but knowing that I don't know other languages, they will not even approach me. But I can say that there are very few such students. Typically, students weak in English tend to go to an IIT closest to their home town, since they do expect to face less language problem in such an IIT. So Bengali students weak in English tend to go to Kharagpur. Telugu students weak in English are more likely to go to IITM (will start going to IIT-H soon). And so on.

I don't consider this discriminatory. Differential treatment is not necessarily discriminatory. For example, when I am travelling, I carry some medicines. Two of my co-passengers fall ill. One has fever, and other has cough. I have fever medicine, but I do not have cough medicine. Will I be indulging in discrimination, if I offer fever medicine to the one who has fever. Or should I let both of them suffer, because I can't help them both.

Any extra help can be called discriminatory by the argument that you give. If I explain something to someone who comes to my office, than I am discriminating against shy persons, who do not come to my office to clarify their doubts.

My giving a lecture in the morning is discriminatory against people who sleep late and get up late. Don't people who work late night (like me) have a right to learn. Why should there be morning classes?

Chitta, if you really think about it, the issue is that of perception. The reason you would call this discriminatory is because I am sure you have met faculty members who really want to give a certain group an unfair advantage. While providing this additional help, one would be giving additional examples, and it would be easy for me to ask questions in the exam which are related to these additional examples, giving these students an extra edge. So I may not be trying to bring them to par, but I may actually take them further unfairly. And it will be very difficult to know or prove this, but in the current society, it is easier to assume that it is happening. And I hope I am not doing it.

chitta said...

Hi Dheeraj:

Your intentions are noble and it really does not matter what I or other commentators think.

Just make sure the other students in the class don't feel uncomfortable with this arrangement.

Biswajit said...

Perhaps it's time for you to learn a few more natural languages :)

More seriously, the problem you're facing is fundamental to a multilingual country such as India and needs some high-quality thought if it is to be addressed.

We cannot become an advanced economy if people from various parts of the country cannot communicate with each other.

hari said...

Dear Prof.Dheeraj,
I joined IITM in 1982 after studying in Tamil medium in a village school till +2. I was having a similar problem.The Humanities Dept identified me and recommended me to undergo a 0 level course in English in lieu of a 3 credit course in German/English/French. The 0 level course was excellently handled by Dr Elizabeth N Kurian.There were about 8 students and we were forced to converse with her in every class! It was a wonderful experience to learn from her!,There was a language Lab and our conversation would be recorded ;then played back and we corrected our mistakes.
IITK also can try similar courses!

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Hari, we at IITK also have a course on English. We also used to have a slow-paced course on English for really weak students, but it has been discontinued this semester. There are various interventions that Institute Counseling Service carry out outside the academic solutions. But all these will start making an impact slowly over several weeks, and the number of people needing help in Hindi (and other languages) does keep reducing as semester progresses. But, in my opinion, if these students don't understand the first few weeks of the course, they lose out a lot.

kstbh said...

This comment is about cs 101 course taught by Dr. Pathak @ IITB (I think this year too he is taking the same, last time it was in 08 or 09). I remember in the first or second lecture, he said that he has arranged for TAs speaking different language. So, that course had one TA speaking telugu, one TA speaking bengali etc. Classes were in english but students can go to TA and ask questions in whatever language suited them.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

I think you should perform your duty, which is to teach, to the best of your ability, using whatever tools you have at your disposal - be it languages or teaching aids like PPTs. So when a student asks you a question, you speaking in Hindi to explain the answer better to him is fair and also commendable.

But I think proactive encouragement of questions in Hindi is somewhat partial and also conveying the wrong message to students. Had you not formalised this kind of arrangement, students would not have felt any sense of entitlement for having answers in Hindi from you, or had a similar expectation from other faculty. Those who are deficient in English (which can thought of as a prerequisite) must be required to make some extra effort - either in learning English or in getting answers from you in Hindi.

Anonymous said...

There will always be people who would like to argue till death that there is some discrimination involved in this practice. I, however, concur with your idea and you should not bother.

The only problematic part is, of course, those who follow neither Hindi, nor English and need help. Probably your survey will tell you which languages they need help in. Given the amount of work you are already putting in, probably you can go ahead and actively identify some seniors speaking those languages who can volunteer to help. Probably they can do it at the same time when the TA speaking Hindi is helping the students. My guess is that the problem is not that unsurmountable.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@jayajha, As I said earlier, one non-Hindi speaking student did approach me for additional help, and I forwarded the request to Counseling Service for possible help. Normally, they do try to find a person with the same linguistic background to help in such cases. The difference is that in case of Hindi speaking, the students know that I can help myself, or will ask any TA to help, but in case of non-Hindi students, I will only request Counseling Service. So they can approach Counseling Service themselves.

Kumar Harsh said...

It is really one of the hardest jobs to handle half a thousand students at one go...

I think it is correct to allow the students to learn in whatever language they want, because ultimately it is knowledge which matters, not the medium...

And given some time, and good enviroment, everyone manages to learn and adapt to his surroundings, so the Only-Hindi and Non-Hindi speaking people will eventually learn enough to follow the lectures...

Best of Luck.

Ashwani Gaur said...

Sir, I have my 2 cents regarding English language course for first year students. It could help them in these situations but the way it is allotted is flawed -

1- In the English test taken before the course starts it is impossible to fail unless you really want to. So people with really bad English pass the exam.

2-People who fail in the exam are usually people wit good English but want to take that course to keep their CPI good.

3- I strongly believe that course should be on opt in basis. You can always improve your English, doesn't matter how 'good' it is in a test.

4- The quota/limited seats system at courses at IITK is ridiculous. Forcing a student to study something else than what he wants is the worst thing an academic institute can do.

My Experience - In my case I had to study Psychology because I 'passed' the exam and there were 'limited seats'. I struggled complete semester because my English was bad. I wanted to improve my English and this course could be helpful.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Ashwani, I fully agree with you. The way we handle selection of HSS courses, it kills the interest even before the teaching starts and the instructor has a huge challenge in getting students interested after that.