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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 4 (Extreme performances)

This is in continuation with my experience of teaching the first year programming course to 500+ students. We had the mid-semester exam on 14th September, and the copies were returned on 21st. We did the computation of total marks of all students in lab assignments, quizzes, and mid-semester exam, and put them on the moodle on 21st. I then asked those students who were figuring in the lowest 10 percentile to meet me individually. Out of 50 students, only about 25 came to see me. And I asked each one of them what problem were they facing, and what could our team of instructor, tutors and TAs do to help them.

The most common issue, as expected, was that of language. While they were getting adjusted to learning in English, their skills at understanding spoken English was still below par. So they really were dependent on the slides of the lectures, and hardly understood anything I did on the black-board. Some people who claim that now they are used to lectures and can understand fully, but still said that they have missed so much of the background in the first 2 months that it is difficult to understand lectures now without knowing the material covered earlier. (I am asking these students to go though the material in the forthcoming mid-semester break, when some members of our team would be available for some help.)

But hardly anyone talked about home sickness, medical problems, poor time management, too many extra-curricular activities. The second biggest issue was that the second year students were forcing them to participate in various student functions. For every activity in the hostel, the first year students are the bonded labour. During "Takneek" (an internal technical competition), the first year students would be told to report at midnight. If they felt tired and slept in their rooms, someone will bang the door soon after midnight, force you to open, use the standard hostel language (read abuses), and ask them to come along. And they need to work for hours. If they didn't sleep in the night, they had to miss the morning classes. Most students still manage to keep afloat, but I was talking to those who were anyway having some problems with academics. For them, missing classes was a disaster they could not recover from.

Strangely though, most faculty members and students I talked to, refuse to call it "ragging." Ragging is only when something bad happens in the first couple of weeks of the semester. This is common across all hostels in all colleges and universities. (Sure, people said the same thing about beginning-of-semester ragging, before Supreme Court intervened.) This way, they get exposure to variety in life. See, most people manage and don't complain.

The hold of the second year students is absolute. Within the first few weeks, they have brainwashed the first year students that the only group that will help them with all sort of information during the placement season, a few monsoons from now, will be those who are 1-year senior to them. So they must listen to them. And, of course, they should never approach any faculty member for advice. They will always give you advice to earn less, it seems. They will brainwash you about doing MTech and PhD. They will brainwash you as to why you shouldn't prepare for CAT and should always go for "core" jobs and not "finance" jobs. So, if they want to be happy in life (read, make more money), they should avoid talking to faculty.

I advised a couple of students whose performance is really poor, to drop the course, and not have an undesirable grade on their transcript. They admit that the chances of their passing are remote, but, Sir, the second yearites in the hostel have advised us that dropping a course is a sign of cowardice. We can't live in the hostel with the stigma of having dropped a course. We would rather have an "F" grade on our transcript. (One of those students is in such a bad state in several courses that getting an "F" grade in this course could mean that he might be asked to leave IITK. While, if he drops this course, he is almost guaranteed to stay on. But he won't drop the course.)

Very interesting hostel dynamics, which I never realized before. There are advantages of teaching a large first year class. You get to understand your students far better.

We also wanted to do something for students at the other end, that is, those whose performance is in the top 10 percentile. We are organizing lectures on "python" over Saturdays, and there will also be labs, and these students will get support from tutors and TAs, if they decide to take up a project. While we were not in a position to provide extra lectures and labs to a very large number of students, there was tremendous pressure from a lot of students to allow them to learn "python." As of now, we have told them that we will try our best to organize lectures on python in January. Let us hope we are able to do this.


Saurabh Nanda said...

I'm not sure if participation in festivals can really be forced. Especially technical festivals. If this were being said of 'galaxy' or some other cultural festival it could have been understood. Not for 'takneek'

I think the case is that of an individual who lost control of personal time management and is now looking for something to blame. I can speak from personal experience - I failed in two courses due to over participation in extra curricular activities. It was completely my fault.

Also, if some sort of group coercion/dynamics are in play shouldn't each individual figure out his/her mechanics of dealing with it. Doesn't it happen in society at large as well? Does for every small thing the govt/authority get involved and pass a law?
I'm not sure if participation in festivals can really be forced. Especially technical festivals. If this were being said of 'galaxy' or some other cultural festival it could have been understood. Not for 'takneek'

I think the case is that of an individual who lost control of personal time management and is now looking for something to blame. I can speak from personal experience - I failed in two courses due to over participation in extra curricular activities. It was completely my fault.

Also, if some sort of group coercion/dynamics are in play shouldn't each individual figure out his/her mechanics of dealing with it. Doesn't it happen in society at large as well? Does for every small thing the govt/authority get involved?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh, I would have said the same thing, except that several good students had complained to me about the same coercion during Takneek. You are right that every one needs to learn how to deal with pressures of all kinds, including coercion. But what gives anyone the right to force that knowledge on others. And isn't that the argument for ragging as well. What I find very amusing in this whole thing is - how similar the arguments have been to support such a coercion to what were the arguments to support ragging in the past, and yet, no one wants to admit that there is any similarity between the two.

The point that I making here is that a lot of things are accepted by the society, since 90% of the members are able to tolerate it, manage it, and even profit from it. But may be we should also think of the remaining 10% at times. Can't there be other ways which are more inclusive, or at the very least allow these 10% to avoid that method.

Shantanu said...

@ Sir ... as a former chairman of SUGC don't you think the best way out of this is probably to not include the grades of 1st year in the "official" transcript. Everything would work in the same manner and professors would give grades but in the official transcript (for the first semester) it would be mentioned only S or US (like CPA). Hence your grades would impact your GPA only from second semester onwards. This way administration would give the students time to settle in (an entire semester). Of course some students would "fail" in some course but believe me this problem of excessive "pressure" covers far more people than just those people who fail. This is something the administration can think about (We needn't wait all the time for IITB to do something and then follow their path).

Saurabh Nanda said...

[...]But what gives anyone the right to force that knowledge on others. And isn't that the argument for ragging as well. What I find very amusing in this whole thing is - how similar the arguments have been to support such a coercion to what were the arguments to support ragging in the past, and yet, no one wants to admit that there is any similarity between the two. [...]

Sir, I beg to differ. There is a difference between ragging & coercing people to participate in extra-curricular activities. Primarily, ragging related activities are mentally and physically humiliating, whereas extra-curriculars are not. In fact, it may be argued that participation in extra-curricular activities is good for the overall development of generally shy & introverted first year students.

However, the other extreme of over-participating in extra-curriculars at the expense of academics is also not desired. As with everything, one has to learn to strike a balance between various facets of life. Better to learn that balance in an under-grad academic environment where the tolerance for errors is large, rather than later in life when it's much more costly.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Shantanu, you have a good suggestion, but it will depend on how students will react to it. A decade ago, we experimented with Pass/Fail grade in one of the course, Communication Skills. I think it was one of the most enjoyable courses that IITK offered. But since it was P/F, students interest was pathetic. For example, in lectures attendance was not taken, and typical attendance would be 10 percent. Similar experience was in the other P/F course, "Introduction to the Discipline."

Of course, what you are suggesting is different than P/F model. You are saying that a student will get grades in each course, but those grades will not be visible on the official transcript, and won't be used for SPI/CPI computation. But the gut feeling is that a majority of students will be happy with a "D" grade, if that grade is not going to be on the official transcript, and in a relative grading system, that will pull down the quality of the entire course, since people will also get easier 'A' grades.

I think the issues have changed over the years. Earlier, the most common problem of poor performance was because the student suddenly got a lot of freedom and did not know how to handle it. Today, the academic problems are due to poor background (mostly in language, but sometimes in other ways as well). Those few who came with poorer academic background were forced to go through a slow paced program. Today, the numbers are much larger (because you are not even testing the language, for one), and we are too afraid of political intervention if we forced a slow paced program on them. And when we advise a slow paced program (by dropping a course) to someone, the hostel culture makes sure that that is strongly opposed.

Shishir said...

Times have changed! Normally, one would think that after so much hoop-la over ragging, it would be more or less absent in institutions like IIT.
But , it appears, surprisingly so, that atmosphere has gotten worse over the years at IIT/K .
More than a quarter century back when ragging was commonplace in other institutions,the ragging was much friendlier at IIT/K and a taboo after freshers' nite (which was generally two weeks after institute reopened). In fact, after a few days, perfect equality (between seniors and juniors)prevailed.

I'm horrified to know about 2nd yearites abusing 1st yearites.
This is a clear case of changing values for the worse. IIT/K is not just about mopping up some facts, CPI ,getting a job or going abroad for higher studies. It is also for inculcating values like fairness,loving the education,contribution towards technology, contribution towards society through technical education and the like .

All these begin with a friendlier and mutually respectful (albeit a little playful at that age) environment at the hostel and the classrooms.

You can't have sadness, complexes,insecurities,bullying etc prevailing among the students in the IIT hostels and expect them to pass out with an healthy and constructive attitude towards life and society in general.

Mere excellence in problem solving in examinations is no indicator of greatness either of the student or of the institution.

In fact, as I've said here earlier also, my interaction with recent grads , has left me a little worried about the lack of social skills of IITians. Though this is a problem in most of engineering colleges, I've to admit that some good private institutes like BITS, Pilani , DAIICT, are a shade better .
I am not sure whether hostel environment is entirely responsible for non-development of such skills, but it must be certainly contributing towards it.

I am left with admiration for you for at least noticing the problem indicators. Solutions may be far away, but if you notice, then at some point of time something starts moving also!

Shantanu said...

@Sir ... I would be honest about the course on communication skills. I attended it too and the reason why students neglected it was because it was wrong choice of semester on part of the administration. 3rd semester in IITK is nothing less than hell (you can survey the alumni and I am sure 90% would agree). The best semester for this course would have been 2nd semester (the "coolest" semester). Most of us agreed that had the course been offered in 2nd semester, the students could have gained a lot from the course. Also I would say that introduction to department was taken as a course by most of the students. There were no examinations or quizzes conducted (students that young need to be asked to sit for exams to make them feel that they are attending a proper course). Hence I believe students would take courses like Physics and Mathematics far more seriously than the two courses discussed. Now coming to programming course for 1st semester. I believe the problem goes beyond just English Language. Most of the Hindi medium guys have little problem in understanding Physics and Mathematics in the 1st semester. My room mate in 1st year gave the JEE exam in Hindi and his English wasn't very good either. Still he used to understand what the professors were teaching in Physics and Maths. The main problem is that in this programming course people are not "equal". There are some who come with an exceptional background in computing and others who have never even seen a computer. I am sure of all the students who are presently doing poorly in this course, none would have had a prior background in computing. I faced a similar problem and I can tell you it is not easy. Its like you understand the algorithm but you can just not understand how to put it in a code format. I am sure you would appreciate that the gap is just so huge that it cannot be plugged in one semester.To be honest I don't see any student getting an A in 1st year programming language course without prior background to programming.
Though I appreciate the purpose of the course and also don't deny the importance of the same but still I believe a course on "Linear Programming and Optimization" which concentrates more on algorithm building and logic (which is the integral part of any programming language) would be more fair for all the students. But then what about syntax and all the fancy loops, well we have to think about it. But again Sir my insistence is that a student might just get more out of this course if he/she doesn't have a sword of C,D,F hanging over his head. This is where concept of S and US would help. What I think is that even the administration (including professors) can then be flexible with courses offered in 1st semester so that the purpose of the course would not be limited only to impart knowledge and concepts but also to other very important skills like team work and communication skills. Regarding the students taking it easy, well I am only advocating removing grades to reduce stress. I am not advocating allowing them to have a party time in first year. One can always find ways to ensure that the students are serious. After all there is still a danger of that "F" and then there are many other ways. One could be that non timely submission of more than n assignments or caught copying in x assignments in the 1st semester would lead to 0.1 CPI being deducted at the end of the degree. Just a suggestion no matter how ridiculous it might sound.

Shashi said...

I don't know from where Shantanu gets the idea that teaching "Linear Programming and Optimization" in an introductory programming language course is a good idea. Linear Programming is an advanced topic which is supposed to be taken by undergraduates in third/fourth year or first year graduate students. It requires a good understanding of linear algebra and analysis/calculus, both of which are required courses in mathematics in the first year.

On the issue of forcing first year students to participate in hall activities: I have always been split on this issue. I never liked the coercion by the seniors in my first year, though I agree that it is important to get the first year students out from their hostel rooms just so that they can see different kinds of activities that are going around them. I think a student should be responsible for their own well-being. Forcing them to do participate in activities and brainwashing them with false ideas goes against the individual liberty, which in an academic institution must be respected.

Regarding the grades in the first year: MIT has a policy that the first term grades appear in the official transcripts only as pass/fail, grades in the remaining term appear in the usual manner. See this link: MIT actually has a long history of using such a system, and it has been there in some form since at least 1968.

Now as Prof. Sanghi pointed out, without actual grades as an "incentive", the students may become careless towards studies. Even worse, they may not be prepared enough when they actually start getting the real grades in the subsequent semesters. I think this problem can be alleviated, by providing other incentives: for example, for branch change the actual grades in the first semester/year should be used, as also for handing out academic excellence awards.

I think this is a great idea, and the institute should definitely explore it seriously. Such a system will be helpful for students (especially with those having language problems) to get sufficient time to settle down in the academics.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Shashi, I think you have a good idea in terms of having incentives other than grades for encouraging higher performance in the first semester/year. I will share it with some people here at IITK. Thanks.

Shantanu said...

@Shashi ... I am not advocating teaching advanced course in Linear Programming and optimization. My point is to concentrate more on building algorithmic thinking among student rather than subject them to fancy loops and syntax in the very beginning. I am talking about trying to bring all students at par in this course. I am sure you would appreciate that some students who come with a prior background in programming have an easy "A" in this course. Also the pressure of getting a good grade may hamper some students from getting the maximum out of this course. Hence I believe first concentrating more on Linear Programming where you concentrate more on algorithm building and thinking would be a good base to teach a programming language later. Also this course could be appreciated easily by students who have never seen a computer in their life. Then in the summers of 1st year one can always offer a course to all those who need (really need!!!) to learn loops and syntaxes and I/O and other fancy stuff. I know the standard procedure is to have a programming language in 1st year but believe me in the present scenario very few students with no prior background to programming are able to get much out of this course.

Also Prof Sanghi somewhere I read that IITs are contemplating on not distributing departments on the basis of JEE ranks. If this method is implemented then obviously we can always have the 1st year grades ONLY used for allotment of departments in the coming years. The official transcript carries grades only from 2nd year onwards.

I agree with Shashi that there are ways (apart from grades) through which one can push the students to work harder.

There is a system that is followed in China which I would like IITK to implement as well. They form groups in the first year of 5-6 students. All the assignments and projects are submitted in group. The group has to ENSURE that ALL members are actively involved in assignments and projects and if one student lags behind then the entire group is penalized. I am sure than if we can do away with official grades for first semester we can experiment with this method. This method could build those important team work skills and also benefit every member in the group.

Shishir said...

Dheeraj has rightly identified some of the problem indicators (not the problem) for the poor performance of 1st yearites as follows :
(i) coercion by seniors
(ii)poor language ability (chiefly English, but not necessarily)
(iii)poor academic abilities

It is being believed (or as suggested) that some kind of relaxation in academic load/performance/pressure in 1st year shall help a 1st year student adapt to IIT system . MIT's example is also cited.

The above line of solution is somewhat flawed , to my mind.

First, let us not compare MIT system with IIT. The students who take admission in MIT differ vastly (as vast as it can)in their approach,attitude and social background. Further , academic and social milieu of US is hugely different from India's. A deeper analysis here is out of place.

Secondly, though relaxation in academic rigor looks attractive ( rather populist!), it is akin to the decision of our 12th class boards relaxing their standard to increase pass percentage , ostensibly to lower the frustration/tension among the students of that age.(In fact the move is on to do away with 10th class examination on these lines). The result is that the 12th class board examination has lost its value. Even board's toppers fail to get admission to even medium rung engineering colleges sometimes, let alone IITs.

The relaxation of standards in 1st year will also confuse the median students , which I believe are average, if not good, academically.
These 1st year students, having achieved IIT tag (whatever it means!) may not make any attempt to get into real IIT system (which of course, is chiefly academic fairness,purity and rigor of academics) if not told from the beginning itself. (At the beginning of their IIT life, they are very malleable, but once in for an year, they will naturally resist any tightness of control, academic or otherwise.

Let me also make this assertion that faculty members can't remain as disciplined and thoughtful about IIT system , if they don't find the like minded students for a longer time.

Relaxation will work both ways( for students as well as for faculty members). This is particularly so when IIT system has no post graduate culture worth its name to fall back upon.

In any organization,it is common knowledge that whatever values a new recruit imbibes in its initial days , stay with him/her throughout his/her days with the organization.

Therefore, the assumption that these problems of poorly abled students shall go away with relaxation in marks/grades doesn't appear to be very sound and is not supported by evidence of any organizational studies.
On the contrary, since 1st year students, as a part of the system, also have a power to influence IIT culture (it's a dynamic culture), there is a danger of culture of relaxation spreading all around!!

Shashi said...

Some very good points being discussed here, and I would like to add a few more thoughts to the discussion.

I really like the idea mentioned by Shantanu where the grades in the first year are used for deciding the departments, but do not appear in the final transcripts. I think this provides enough incentives for the students to put in the required effort in the first year, at the same time it allows the students with deficient backgrounds to catch up with the pace of the studies.

I agree with Shishir's concern that MIT and IIT are very different institutes, and therefore any successful idea from MIT cannot be directly imported to IIT. However, I do feel that the idea from MIT grading system makes a lot of sense for the IITs. After all, grades are just one of the "incentives" designed to make the students spend time on the courses. The ultimate objective of any course is to impart knowledge to the students, but there are very few students who will work hard in a course purely based on their interests. That is where the need for grades come from. The suggestion for IITK is not to do away with the first year grades altogether and replace them with Pass/Fail grades (which is the MIT system) - rather, keep the letter grades, just that they don't appear on any external transcript. The letter grades can be used for department changes, or even more radically, for allotting branches. This should provide the students with enough "incentive" to have a rigorous attitude towards academics.

Coming back to Shantanu's point again on teaching programming to first year students: Students who know programming before coming to IITK do have an advantage, but in the long run they are also at a disadvantage: they have more bad habits to unlearn than the good habits that a beginner has to learn. And from what I saw during my own time at IITK, students with absolutely no programming background did become very good programmers after completing the ESc101 course. It requires some extra investment of time on the part of the students, but it is definitely worth it.

The only way to eliminate the advantage of students with prior programming experience is to use a functional programming language like Scheme, ML or Haskell instead of traditional C/C++/Java. In fact, this approach is superior in the sense that it lays more emphasis on logical and algorithmic thinking about programming as compared to the procedural languages. And taking the example of MIT again, Scheme used to be taught to the undergraduate students since 1980 (though I think this has been discontinued of late). You can see the course content on the OCW page of the course:

nk said...

Prof. Sanghi,

Interesting to read about your large class experience. We have found the same hostel dynamics of coercing first years at IITM. Here also there were complaints about orientation sessions for Shaastra/Saarang lasting hours and late into night, cutting out a significant chunk of students' time.

Saurabh, you can call it peer pressure instead of coercion if you will; but, if every day you are being told something by another set of students with whom you spend a lot of time, you'll need enormous self confidence to resist the pressure. Difficult, especially at 18.

Prof. Sanghi: One thing that may help students who don't understand English or are otherwise underachieving(but, crucially, are interested in improving themselves) is to record the lectures and put them on the web. This can be done in an ordinary classroom with a tablet PC(e.g. and screencasting software. Having your voice, and a recording of what you wrote as you wrote it is even more helpful than slides. Also, you can annotate slides.

There is a bit of getting used to, but the learning curve is not at all steep. The contrast and visibility are also much better than the ordinary blackboard. The only (minor, IMO) disadvantages are (a) you get a smaller blackboard real estate compared to multiple boards in a large classroom(but you can go back to previous pages of the lecture) and (b) you probably won't be able to walk around as much on the platform unless you have a bluetooth mic(or a super long mic cable).

Students here have liked it and some have told me that they listen to every lecture a second time regardless of how heavy the material was. Listening to the same thing a second time may make the English more comprehensible. If you have very diligent TAs, you can even ask them to make a transcript of the recording.


Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Shantanu, I know a few people have talked about giving branches after 1st year. But there is a typical Indian problem there. We are afraid of taking a major decision, and we consider minor changes as serving no purpose at all, and not worth the time of administrators. So in this particular case, since we don't understand all the implications for all IITs and all programs, if we were to decide programs after one year, therefore, it is too risky. And when one says that we could experiment in a small way - have a few students admitted to "program-to-be-chosen-after first year" category, or by having a very liberal branch change, that is too small a step and not worth the time to implement and study its impact. Basically, don't expect experiments at the institutional level (not in teaching programs any way). You could expect individual faculty members to do experiments at their own level in their courses.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Prof. Nagendra, this is great advise. I just registered at your site, and will be going through the material. Am also asking a couple of TAs to check all this out. Thanks a lot.

Khalil Sawant said...

In IIT Roodkee, atleast till 2009, First Year BTech Students had a completely separate Hostel for themselves where, seniors were strictly di-allowed.
Every-one compulsorily changed their hostel in second year (and retained it till end of course), but by year-1st-end, they were brave enough to face their seniors

Shishir said...

The recent statement of Narayan Murthy has confirmed what we all knew and wanted to say but refrained from doing so,for obvious reasons !

Shantanu said...

" what we all knew and wanted to say but refrained from doing so," ... well Shishir to be honest I have been hearing this since I was in 1st year in IITK from various mouths ... my brother in law heard this for four years when he joined IITK in 1998 (did Narayan Murthy said 90's batch were good!!!!) ...

so don''t use the word "refrained" ...

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Shishir and others, I allowed that one comment about NRN not thinking that this will lead to a major argument. I am not allowing any other comments about NRN's comments. If I have time, I will write another blog, and then others would be welcome to comment on that. This is not the right post.

Saucy said...

The conversation being long above I could not read all of it but by virtue of being hostel resident in hither days when their were only 2 rivals I cannot deny the fact that students are pushed to work in the festivals.
I used pushed because the event of banging in the door waking people and dragging them out to work on midnights is in my opinion an extreme event and more of exception than generality. I agree that students are forced but many a times it also depends on whether you are willing to be forced or not. I was part of the group who were forced but I never really 'gave in'. Years back they used to make students work and all-nighters and all those stuffs. But the point is that their were students(1st year) too who were inclined in these stuffs because they saw it as some kind of achievement and took pride in telling others. And there always was a group (rather large one) who used to be skeptic about the 'forced labor'.
And remember these are the same people who will move to second year and be on the other side of the table. Not the 90% who did not participate. I think at this age people are old enough to chose what they want and most people work because of the choice they have made.
Of course it can be argued that they have been influenced by seniors to make this choice. The best way to deal with the problem is by making them better informed not by finding means to stop the festivals or senior students because the evil forces of influences are omniscient and omnipresent.

amodi said...

Sir, I am a 2nd year student right now at IITK and I sincerely feel that the programming course offered in the 1st year is very unfair. From my own experience, it really feels very demoralising when your friends get good marks while indulged in other activities and you know no matter how much effort you put in, they will surely end up getting more marks than you. It's tough to motivate ourselves to study with this in mind. Specially talking about last year's ESC101, we were told that programming would be taught right from the scratch, but it was nearly impossible to understand the lectures without a prior knowledge of programming. I mean we were being taught recursions in the 6th or 7th lecture when I was still trying to understand how does a simple 'for' loop works.

Vatsheel said...

I still remember the first year GBM when one senior asked us "Who wants to go for higher studies?". I looked around and no one raised his hand. With the tone of the question it was clear what the answer should be. That guy then went on to list the benefits of participating in these activities as most of us want to become managers!!! I can now see around 100 (maybe even more) of our batch going for higher studies.

The problem is the culture propagated from the first day itself. Most of those who rag(or interact) during early days just don't want freshers to study. None of the interactions are intellectually challenging and that sets the tone for mediocrity later.