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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Suicides at IITs

 Every year, 4-5 students are ending their lives in the IIT system. Given that the total student population in the IIT system is between 40-50 thousand, we are losing one bright young life for every 10,000 students every year. This is a serious cause for concern.

When any tragedy occurs, the first and foremost question that everyone has is: "Why did this happen." And when such tragedies happen as often as have happened in the IIT system, it is natural that people will want to know the reasons. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find the reasons. Each life is unique, and the reasons to end that life are also unique. In most cases, if not all, there are multiple reasons behind such a decision, though one of them may have acted as a trigger on that fateful day. But, if there are so many tragedies, then there must be something common between them. People want simple answers, which they can understand. And if the experts fail to give a simple answer, they will invent one. And hence the common perception that these deaths are caused by academic stress.

And this perception has ensured that the focus of the Institute authorities is on reducing academic stress, and less attention is paid to the "real" issues. When someone takes away his/her life, and a question is asked what have you done since the last such incident, you can not just say that we are trying to do things that will increase interaction amongst the students, even though that may be the most important thing to do. You have to tell how you have reduced academic stress since last such incident, because that is what most people understand as the reason.

IITs are a competitive place. The admission to IITs is the most competitive exam in the world, for which many students study for 3-4 years, and even drop one year after passing 12th class to prepare for IIT admission. The competition to perform better than average in such a group can be very intense, and someone who is used to be amongst the top few in his/her school for 12 years would feel stress on realizing that s/he is performing worse than average in this group.

If I look at the curriculum at IIT Kanpur (since I know more about it), we have less courses than whatever I know of curriculum at various NITs, we have less contact hours, we fail fewer students, we provide opportunities to recover from failure by offering summer courses, and so on. We have a lower graduating requirement (in terms of grades) than any NIT. (From 2011 onwards, one only has to pass all courses with a 'D' grade to get a degree.)

A large number of changes have happened in IIT Kanpur in the last 5 years in response to these questions about academic stress. We teach less - the working weeks have been reduced from 15 to 14 in a semester, and additional days have been given to spread the exams (to minimize the probability of two end-semester exams in a day), as well as ensuring that there is a gap of 2 days between the classes and final exam. We have reduced class timing from 55 minutes to 50 minutes, to further force a reduction in course content in every course, and enable a more leisurely movement from one class to the other, enabling the students to ask a few questions from the instructors at the end of the class without the stress of getting late for the next class. The number of fail grades is an all time low, around 2.5 percent of all grades in the Institute. I wonder if there is any university in India with a lower fail percentage. The graduation requirement has been reduced from a CPI of 5.0 to 4.0, basically allowing anyone passing all the courses to get a degree. Again, I wonder if there is any university in the world which gives degrees at "D" average, like we do. The students don't even have to bother about showing an "F" grade on their transcript. They are allowed to withdraw from a course just a week before the end-semester exam with no mention of such a withdrawal in the transcript. We have changed the rules for Academic Warning, Probation and Termination (for under-graduate students) so that only a fraction of students will get into these states. We have started giving additional chances to a student whose program has been terminated to explain his/her poor performance, and have re-admitted several such students.

Today, there is no doubt in my mind that the "real" issue causing stress to the students is competition and not the curriculum and academic rules. And hence the solution is to counsel the students to not get into a rat race. They need counseling that a five point someone can have a good life ahead. They need counseling that if they find it hard to cope up with all the courses in a semester, there is no harm in dropping one or even two courses. The stress from peer pressure in the hostels to complete the BTech degree in 4 years is intense. They need to be told that it is alright to be slow and steady and complete the program in extra time. But it is easier said than done. Remember, these are people who are intensely competitive. That is how they got through JEE. To now tell them to not worry about competition is certainly not very convincing to them.

I remember when I was the Department Under-graduate Convener several years ago, I would call each student on Academic Probation, ask them to register for courses which they have already failed once, and they think they failed narrowly (in which they have a easier chance to pass), but they will all want to do CS courses because they could do other courses in summer and still have a chance to graduate in 4 years. I would tell them that they should first focus on getting a few 'C' grades or better on their respective transcripts and get out of this cycle of Warning and Probation, and only later worry about how much time their degree will take. I will then monitor their performance in these courses, and if one is performing very poorly in some course, ask him/her to drop that course, since the termination rules at that time were based on the performance in courses that one did that semester. Again, there would be huge resistance. "I will work hard and make up and pass the course," was a common refrain. I couldn't force them, but if I was spending hours with each one of them, they reluctantly would agree to my advice. I was happy when at the end of the semester, there was not a single CSE BTech student in the termination list, but I became famous as someone whose sole aim in life was to delay everyone's graduation. Most of these students (who were on Academic Probation) felt that they could have passed more courses, that they could have passed advanced department courses, and that my advice held them back I doubt if anyone felt that because of my advice they were still students of IIT Kanpur.

So in my opinion, the real challenge is to convince someone to go slow, and ignore the competition. I recall we used to have a compulsory slow-paced program in the first year based on a diagnostic test. In this program, the student would do a particular course in a slow pace, learning the same material in two semesters, instead of one. One could do slow-paced learning in multiple courses also. The idea was that once the basics have been learnt well, it will be possible to learn other courses easily. But then there was an opinion that a forceful slow-paced program was causing stress. So we made it optional. The number of students choosing this program reduced substantially immediately, and the number of students in Warning and Probation increased, but because the slow-paced program was identified by outsiders as one of stress inducing issue, we could never make it compulsory again, and the numbers kept reducing, and finally we don't have any such program now.

The difference between stress due to competition and stress due to curriculum/academics-in-general is to be understood, and handled properly. If we do not understand this difference and keep reducing academics, we are only going to reduce the quality of education in our top institutions, without improving the experience of our students, and without making any dent towards solving the problem of excessive stress.

There are other more important reasons why we should not report every such death as linked to academic stress. First, it is simply not true. Suicide is a very complex issue, and one does not take away one's life because of one reason. Even to the extent that one reason is a trigger, academics related reasons are for very few students.

And secondly, if we simplify the reason for suicide, we are encouraging other suicides. The phenomenon is known as "Copycat Suicide." Read more about it at this Wikipedia page. In short, when someone says that a student committed suicide because he had a low CPI of 5.0, it makes the other with CPI of 4.9 think of the same step. But if it is pointed out that suicide has complex reasons, including psychiatric and medical reasons, then the student with a lower CPI does not relate that suicide to his own situation.

And this brings to the most important issue - reporting of suicides. I was browsing the net for information on how to deal with suicides, and came across this site on how to report suicides. It tells us that there has been a lot of research on effect of reporting of suicides on the next suicide, and it is agreed today that it makes a significant difference. I hope our media is aware of it, though the signs are quite to the contrary. If you look at the recent reporting of two suicides this week, the media talked about a possible problem with some relationship as the cause (which itself was not proper, if you agree with the reporting norms suggested by the site mentioned above). But soon after the second suicide, the media was talking about academic stress causing a series of suicides in IITs, completely forgetting that just the previous day, the same newspapers had mentioned a different possible reason for a suicide.

There is no doubt that a lot of people, whether in media, our alumni and other stake holders, are genuinely concerned about 4-5 suicides a year in the IIT system. I only wish that they will report, discuss, debate and talk about the issue sensitively to make a positive impact on the situation, and not a negative one. The current reporting is putting pressure on the institutes to focus on academics, while the need is to look at it from a wider perspective.



Rajat Khanduja said...

When reading about the issue, I had come across an article (I don't have the link as I had seen it long back), which explained a cause similar to that explained in your blog. It didn't blame the academic structure in itself, but it pointed out that students were not well equipped with stress-tackling methods. It began by pointing out that since most students in IIT, have spent a lot of time with their books and have mostly been toppers in their respective schools. Being put among the best does put them in a place like never before. Those who are not able to perform feel the heat of the competition, which is where the article talked about methods to tackle stress. For instance, the various co-curricular activities that one participates in can be seen as a way of tackling the stress. One might paint, sing or dance to relieve oneself of stress. But, the article claims, that a lot of those who committed suicide didn't delve into such activities in school and are hence unaware of its benefits. Also, students do not learn to share their problems with those around them, which too could help relieve them of stress.

Anirudh said...

Competition may not be just related to curriculum . One also faces competition in extra-curricular activities etc. But I agree with you it's not the course but the feeling of downward spiral that must be pushing the students to take this extreme step .

Saurav Jindal said...

One should also compare the suicide rate in IITs with the average in India. Average for India is 10.5 per 100,000. Which is not very different from the rate at IIT.

Nehit said...

Dear Sir,

It seems that your article is pointing mainly towards the most recent suicide, so I'll only talk about that.

It is good to know that termination clauses have been changed in the institute. But the question still remains - "why termination?" on the basis of academics. Especially, why termination in the very first year! Terminating a student simply means that the institute is considering him/her a lost cause rather than dealing with the problem and finding a solution.

Now, you are personally taking the cases of handling the students under warning and AP, but what about other departments? I don't know if there are some set guidelines provided to the departments from the institute regarding how to deal with these termination case students. All I know is there will be a formal mail from HOD/DUGC requesting student to meet them. If the student goes then well and good, else he remains stuck with the problem. You need to realize that the communication gap between the HOD and student will be so huge prior to this email that the student would rarely reach his office. Why not introduce professional counseling or rather involve students. The following is what I shared recently on a social media -
"One solution that came to my mind was the concept of Departmental Student Guides - like the ones we see at the time of orientation. I am sure seniors will definitely volunteer to help their juniors. Even if there is one from each dept, he/she can talk to the under-performers and help them out."

PS : A technical doubt - Are the new policies also applicable to students who were admitted before introduction of policy?

Girish Elchuri said...

One of the possible drivers for this is the loneliness. When I was doing masters at IITK, there used to be a under-graduate student from my state who is to come and spend time with me. He was a very quite person, doesn't interact with many. 1 or 2 years later he committed suicide. I just failed to understand why he did that from whatever I know of him. But to come to think of it later, I felt, he was a loner and probably something happened and he couldn't bare it.

Also our education system emphasizes on individual performance, while the industry needs people to work in groups.

Thus, the institutes should encourage and have several activities where students have to work in groups on projects. This will force them to interact/network with other students. And even better if the teams are changed with each such group activity. Put focus always on group activity and group performance.

This could to some extent address the loneliness as well as what industry needs look for.

I agree that counselling plays a major role in making people accept failures, small or big.

Vineet Hingorani said...

An year back, I was in Alumni Contact Program. While talking to an alumnus(I couldn't remember his name) regarding his days here at IITK, he was telling that a guy did a suicide attempt and all and then started asking that why these news give such reasons. The reputation of IITs as institutions is because of their degree of excellence of students. Why are these academic reviews doing so! I was shocked at his comment. He is currently working at TCS, America.

Jaya said...

One must not forget to look outside the institute for reasons suicide happens. This latest suicide happened apparently after the parents came to know about the termination and the guy did not think he could face him. He must have felt aimless, but for four months after termination, he hadn't committed suicide. Most people come to terms with the competitive environment inside the institute. Failing is not such a taboo amongst your peers inside the system, as it is amongst your family, neighbours and society back home! Until a young students finds the right support system back there, institute can do all it wants to reduce "academic stress" - stop teaching and taking exams altogether - such suicides can't be averted.

I wrote this three years ago. Unfortunately still holds true -

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Dear Dheeraj,

>> " look at it from a wider perspective"

That's how you end the post. However, right while going through the very first paragraph, I (really) happened to get reminded of that other issue to do with suicides. It happened to receive a whole lot of spin in both political circles and media outlets a few years ago. I mean, the issue of farmers' suicides. Then, recently, some last year or so, somebody pointed out (and I forgot where I read it, but do remember that a pretty reliable source was cited) that the suicide rate among farmers, throughout the period of controversy, has actually been lower than that for the comparable bigger population groups (e.g. rural population taken as a whole or so).

So, first of all, I would like to know if the suicide rate statistics could be had for other comparable groups like UGs in programs like medicine, NITs, general undergraduate programs (like BA/BSc/BCom), MBAs, etc. Perhaps, it will help us place this issue in a better context.

Apart from that one bit, I don't seem to have anything further to contribute to this topic. The post, however, did shed a lot of light on quite a few recent developments. Thanks for sharing these.


Saswata said...

I am on Facebook, and many students are in my friends' list. I often see a few of them obsessively reading IIT suicide stories whenever they are depressed. I guess many other IIT students do that as well. The media should indeed follow the guidelines for reporting suicide stories, as otherwise the cases of copycat suicide will certainly rise in future.

The basic problem with excessive media coverage about IIT suicide is that students think that dying is an acceptable escape from misery. They forget Feynman's last words: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."

Jaya said...

This paper by some of the alumni proposes some interesting things. I specially like the idea of separating counselling staff from academic staff and more communication with parents.


On an unrelated note, Dr. Sanghi, could you please consider disabling the captcha on comments if possible. They no longer make captchas for humans!! :) I am trying for a while to post this comment.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Sorry, Jaya, for inconvenience. I was getting so many spams, some strangely worded comments with links to various coaching classes, and worse sites. So even though the comments are moderated, it was a pain to even delete them, since the first few lines would be normal English sentences. So you had to read several lines and then figure out that it is a spam. But I guess I will remove spam during the moderation process.

cipher said...


Let us not assume that poor grades causes stress causes suicide. There are other hypothesis, like being depressed causes poor grades causes suicides. According to me, a much stronger and concrete way forward is, get a hotline/helpline - publicize it , remove stigma associated with mental health and let trained psychologists be made available. There is a lot going on in a 20 year old's life - studies, relationships, sexuality etc. Let us not confine this to academics.

sunil said...

In my humble opinion,In most of the suicide cases the reasons are personal and psychological where a person loses the drive to go on and tries to find the remedy to all his miseries in a flash by ending it all. IIT students are also human being and are part of the same society where euphoria of being seen as GOOD is more important than really being GOOD so I don't think it makes a special case for IITians, however sir, I found one para in the post absolutely enlightening , apt and dot-on and this issue should really be addressed by our policy makers

How right you are when you say "The difference between stress due to competition and stress due to curriculum/academics-in-general is to be understood, and handled properly. If we do not understand this difference and keep reducing academics, we are only going to reduce the quality of education in our top institutions, without improving the experience of our students, and without making any dent towards solving the problem of excessive stress.

amber said...

Dr. Sanghi,
I really appreciate you discussing such issues. You have really pointed out a lot of important points. I have a suggestion and a comment about this issue:

Students in India, unfortunately, are accustomed to coaching institutes from childhood. The environment of IITK being very different from high school, students sometimes find it confusing to deal with the situation. Having professional tutors/extra (informal) discussion classes held by people trained for such purposes, for those who are not performing well academically may be a good idea.
Apart from that, there may also be opportunities provided for group discussions with a chosen group leader. The group leader can be a student as well. The group leader may be given incentive to get official recognition from institute and maybe declare award for best group leader. The group leader may not be academically the best, but he/she should be understanding and compassionate by nature. The important point here is that this way students feel part of a group, and get a moral support apart from the academic support.
I have myself had group discussions with friends in my department (Chemistry) near exam time. The exam pressure that develops really gets eased when we are all sitting all in group studying with fun. Also after exam, we know that we are out there for each other.

A comment to which I do not have any concrete solution: In some instances, professors are not very considerate of the weak students. I do not mean by going slow in class for them, or not giving F grade for bad performance. These measures are required to maintain quality of education.
In strong sense, I am referring to situations where a prof. publicly humiliates a student. For that, I feel there should be some mechanism in place where a student can go and complain against the professor.
In a weaker sense, if the prof. shows some compassion and tries to reach the student not performing too well, that may go a long way. If a student, who is considered eligible by the system to do a course is not doing well, there should be sincere effort put in understanding the reasons for it.
I feel that peer pressure of friends plays an important role as you point out. But such pressure from faculty also plays some role.

Thanks again,
Amber Jain

Arpan Maheshwari said...

This blog( blog is going viral on facebook in IITK community. I find it interesting, but I am not sure whether it's totally relevant to the present discussion.

Manohar Kuse said...

Had come across this story of an low-performing IITK graduate who had suicidal thoughts but now leading an excellent life.

Umesh said...

I agree with the point being made. Suicide does not have a simple answer, it is a complicated thing where different factors interact with each other.
I am really glad about some of the reforms introduced in IITK academic system. Measures like withdrawing from a course, not having the whole series of F on your grade sheet are really good.
And finally, I understand the reason why DUGC keeps asking you to do repeat the course that you failed twice. I agree with the reason in principle but again, the result will be dependent on the individual and perhaps DUGC should explain the reasoning. See the blog post The student's F in TA101 and B.Tech. project was result of what went inside him, rather than his ability. It would have better to listen to him and let him finish TA101 in his final semester. But again, that is an exception rather than the norm.
In relation, any person (not just IIT student) is most vulnerable when the TRUST breaks. No one can do anything in those moments, except his close friends and that is if he is willing to share it with them. The 1st 24 hrs are crucial and if you are supported by family/friends, then your survival instincts kick in. You still need support, but unlike 1st 24 hrs, you are less vulnerable. Again this is a personal opinion and only experience I have is being party to a triangular love affair breakup at one point in IIT.
I do agree with the rat race. The reason for depression isn't the tough curriculum or academics and not even the huge Fs sometimes your professor hands out. It is comparison with others. You compete against some of the best in India and even if you are giving your best performance, you may end up getting a C. What is important is that you must give your best and learn, rather than focusing on just the Grades. I have had courses, where I learned more from a course, in which I had a C than a A. Same way, it is important for professors to focus on teaching rather than announcing at large to class about grades. (Though I agree that lot of times student just cares about grades).
Finally, really thanks Dr. Sanghi for explaining in detail the measures taken by IITK in terms of academics. These are news that doesn't get published by media at all.

prashant the great said...

I think this problem is due to another cause.The one of starting a rat race and being forced to be a part of it right from childhood and all the credit goes to coaching institutes and parents who actively encourage such culture. These coaching institutes raise the so called standards of students and ultimately make makes them slip into the IIT system when they really do not deserve being in it and many cannot even cope with being in it therefore making the joy of being in an IIT short lived.
It is important to note that people who can cope with such heavy competition present in the IITs and can perform based on their natural talent and not on repetitive magai in the coaching.

And another major point I want to make is that these people do not and cannot take their academics seriously but still expect themselves to pass in the courses because they have no interest to learn the course or excel in a given field and all that they want is a high paying job (mostly non core) to which IITs unfortunately seem to be a shortcut and which seems to be the root cause of the rat race most of the parents are subscribing to without knowing anything about the real interests of their kids.

I realised that people think that IIT preceeded by coaching for IIT is an easy and guaranteed returns path for all those who do not have their path still decided! (but the goal is $$!)

Skartik said...

In my opinion, there should be some mechanisms to vent out frustrations and increase interactions, particularly in times of depression.
For interactions, something of the sort of student confession courts could be created where a selected few could go out and express their grievances.
Also there could be specific places in campus where students could shout and vent out their emotions. Maybe, some sort of shouting rooms could be build on the campus.

DIVYA RAJU said...

Coming from the background of similar institutes in Hyderabad, its very easy for me to relate to the amount of stress an IIT aspirant has to go through. What’s even worse is to witness the competition, both between the students and the institutes. In order to grow rankers in their home institute, the staff and the authority keep experimenting with the students which is not just rigorous but also heinous.
Student tend to loose faith in both themselves and the education system and involve into other activities. The best way to get out of the pressure of IIT-JEE and AIEEE is by talking about it. Either with your friends or someone close to you who can relate and understand. We at do the exact same thing. We create a portal where students aspiring to be IIT aspirants can log on and talk their heart out with pros and experienced IIT and IIM members under absolute anonymity. The insane pressure is not normal and has to be taken care of immediately before it turns into a wildfire gulping your entire life. We understand the pressure and so we get your feelings as well. Come join us and it might make your day.

Firoz Khan said...

Indian Suicide Hotline-OneLife (NGO) is a 24X7 Indian Suicide Hotline (+91-78930 78930) to address the suicidal tendencies, Teen Suicide Prevention & Depression Counseling. Contact us to help suicidal person

arjun joshi said...

A student should choose a field only in which he/she has genuine interest and not due to peer pressure. Teachers and parents should also support the student in their choices and not criticise them. One should do what he/she loves , it is the only way to stop such incidents. Our society too is a reason for such things because if you're doing commerce or arts they act as if you are just useless....

Dr. Poonam Harlalka said...

I feel it is wrong to blame the institution for suicides. IITs have more than average intelligent students.. Competition is fiercer.. This is probably the first time that many students have left the comfort zone of their homes.. Like you said Sir, there are so many factors involved..It is a sad loss to life..Very sad for their parents.. I just hope that students take setbacks as a a passing phase of their life.. What if we highlight the fact that yes 9 pointers have done well but so have 5 pointers and even dropouts..Eventually things just balance out in the long run as long as you hang on at the crease...I feel hope is an important factor in keeping one going..

liszt85 said...

I actually don't see the problem with much of the changes you mention that have been implemented since 2011. Giving people the option to withdraw 1 week before the end-sem may be extreme but why is a pass grade of D a problem especially given that with relative grading, the class average is a C (most professors in my time practised this)? So are you suggesting that anybody below average does not deserve to get a degree?

Why is spreading out the end-sem exam a "dilution of academic standards"? I remember the times when we had to write three 3-hour end sem exams in a span of 24 hours. There is pretty much nowhere else in the world where students go through that sort of torture. What really is the purpose of such a schedule? The students who do ok by studying on the day before the exam do deserve to pass (because the administration does not get to decide that everybody has to be equally motivated on every compulsory course so that they are ideal students throughout the semester. Also, there are other productive ways in which most of these students spend their time during the rest of the semester, it is their right to choose when to study without being impeded by ridiculous and indefensible exam schedules).

Why is failing fewer students a bad thing? Top engineering schools in the US fail fewer students than IITs too. Does that dilute their educational standards? The problem is this attitude: any suggested solution that eases a LITTLE pressure off the students is perceived as academic dilution. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Finally, you mention "competition" as the REAL problem. While excessive competition is a problem, a little bit of competitive spirit doesn't hurt. However, you know what really causes this extreme competition that you and I both disagree with? The practice of deciding what score gets a C based on everybody else's performance. How can you separate competition and relative grading? Competition is definitional to "relative grading". In fact, if you removed the whole practice of relative grading, professors will be required to spell out exactly what it takes to get an A, B, C or a D right at the beginning of the semester (which is how it is done in most advanced educational institutes outside of India). Professors then should not be allowed to change the rules as they please as the semester progresses. I remember this one thermodynamics professor who decided randomly that he would penalize students 25% of their total marks because they decided to take a day off when the rest of the week were holidays so that they could use the full week to be with their families. Students do this all the time here in the US during thanksgiving week. They can make an informed choice about it because course requirements are spelled out clearly at the beginning of the semester. Most professors here aren't sadistic like that thermodynamics professor.

So I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that student pressure in IITs have nothing to do with grading schemes, or how professors implement curricula. Of course, parental pressure, peer pressure, the effect of not having sufficient life experience prior to coming to an IIT, etc are all problems but IITK's grading policies and the behavior of certain professors are absolutely a HUGE part of the problem. Denying it is denying the obvious. In our department, there was a professor who would ask students their CPI when he met them outside (e.g. at the ShopC). He quit talking to me after he heard about my CPI one time. He decided on who to interact with depending on people's CPIs. Do you really want to tell me that this attitude (which isn't restricted to one or two individuals there) isn't a problem?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, if you believe that the average grade in IITK is a "C" grade, then I don't have any response for you.

liszt85 said...

You respond after all this time and I was hoping for something more substantial than that. In the physics department, while I was a student there, the average for most courses was a C. In fact, that was true of core engineering courses like fluid mech and thermodynamics that we had to take in the first couple of years. I understand you have no response for any of the other points I mentioned. If not, you wouldn't try to turn this into an argument over whether an average was a C or not (there are exceptions of course but this was the norm when I was a student). Even if you disagree with this, I understand if you just want to pretend to be so offended by my claim that you won't respond to anything else I said. Honestly, I didn't expect much better.

liszt85 said...

Btw I see how you cleverly twisted my words. I didn't say the average grade at IITK was a C. There are many upper level elective courses where people are more humane and reasonable. So that may shift grades but most core courses do have the policy of assigning a C around the average. This was a fundamental truth while I was there. If that had changed and if people are getting B's for an average score in fluid mech and thermodynamics, that is a huge change. I'm sure current students can confirm that. I'll direct some of them here if you are willing to make that claim explicit in a comment.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, I have done a detailed study of average grades in UG/PG, different departments, core versus non-core and so on, and in NONE of the groups, the average grade was 6. Yes, in an odd course, the average can be 6, but there was absolutely no pattern. Physics was not even the toughest department in any semester that I did this study. In my terms as SUGC, DUGC, and DOAA, I have received numerous "complaints" about things being tough and some numbers that show that things were tough. I have investigated each such number, pained my counterparts in other IITs for their numbers when required, and every single time, I have found that the perceptions were so far away from reality that it was scary. In the three years as DOAA, I would put up a lot of these numbers on either DOAA website, or on my personal internal website (unfortunately, not visible from outside IITK). Unless there is agreement on facts, there is really no point in discussing opinions which are based on those "facts."

liszt85 said...

If perceptions really are so far away from reality, maybe you should post your findings on this blog. Many of us are well versed in statistics. So it would be really cool to see this dataset. I understand if it's too much of a hassle but then you should also understand that to be convinced, I'll need to see those numbers and look at the specific analyses you did. If I went to IITK now and asked a second year student what grade he/she would get if they scored the class average, what do you think their response will be? If this is a matter of mere perception and if this perception has sustained for years, and if as you claim there is no truth to it, there is a serious problem somewhere, right?

The other likely possibility is of course that perceptions are based on reality. This is why it would be so useful to see the data that you've collected.

Even if we get nowhere with this average C discussion, there are many other questions that I raised about your claims (e.g. Failing fewer people = dilution of academic standards) that you haven't responded to.

liszt85 said...

Let me just ask you this : would you support a move to an objective/fixed grading scheme (to be carefully decided by each instructor as appropriate for their course) rather than continue with the relative grading absurdity?

It is more work and responsibility for the instructor but that is how virtually all top US schools approach grading. Achievable goals are set. Students see the syllabus as a contract. They know exactly what to expect. Professors cannot change rules midway through the semester just because they want to screw the students over.

That would eliminate much of the problematic competition. Students there will no longer rue the success of a classmate because it shifted the average. They would instead focus on the targets mentioned in the syllabus. They'll know exactly what they need to do unlike the current situation where everything is left to how the professor decides to approach the relative grading scheme (mostly a secret, you know of you passed or failed after the end sem. You can only hope the rest of the Institute doesn't come to know about it first through a group email).

Most students there will therefore find your claim about the grading scheme not being a problem a difficult pill to swallow.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, if I could post the stats on the blog, I would have. I was advised to post it on internal site, which I did, and I noticed several hundred hits. I specifically asked the student leadership (senators, reps in SUGC/SPGC etc) to look at the data, and they agreed that there was a perception issue, but would that change the perception. Certainly no. Is there any student who gets an F or even a D and is satisfied with that grade. How many people are satisfied with a B grade. Why do you need entire data (whatever that means) to be satisfied. Why is it not enough to tell you that the average grade in IITK was 7.3 in 2006-07, and also between 2011 and 2014. If this is the case, isn't it obvious that in most courses the student with average marks must have got a B grade. (And of course, we don't have any data on how exactly marks were converted to grades, since instructors are not supposed to give that information. We only have grade distribution data.)

I can tell you stories after stories about the difference between perception and reality. And that is the reason, as long as I was in IITK, I kept telling people that the major issue in IITK is communication. When I posted the data on DOAA site and my personal site, a lot of people were very surprised. Still, to give you a few stories:

When I was SUGC Chairman in 2006-07, this was a very difficult period because two suicides had already happened in 2006. Director received a letter from some students saying that they are under stress because the faculty gives tough grades in IITK and at the time of graduation, IITK UG students have an average CPI of 6.0 and another IIT which had just taken over the numero uno position from IITK in terms of attracting top 100 students had an average graduating CPI of 8.0, and obviously it hurts our chances in admission in foreign universities as well as placement. I was asked by Director for advise. Before advise, I thought it fit to gather data. It turned out that our median graduating CPI was 7.3, while this other IIT, it was 7.2. We gave the data to the students. Do you think they were satisfied.

Another story: I recall my first year in IITK as a faculty member. In April, I invited the graduating students of my department for some chatting in the department followed by some food at CR. The first question I asked was how was their stay of 4 years. I can tell you that there was so much negativity - we will never come back to IITK ever, so many courses were done poorly, so many professors were so biased and anti-students, and all that. It was shocking to me as my own four years were really great. So I dug deeper into it. Which specific faculty and which specific courses. We listed all compulsory courses and all popular electives - about 50 courses on the board and went one by one. How was course X? Good. How was course Y? Good. and so on. There were only three courses where there was a significant number of students saying there were some problems - not majority even in these. It turned out that these 3 courses were taught by 2 faculty members who also had some small admin roles in the department and some of their decisions in the admin role were not liked by students. At the end of the session, the students were very happy that we went through this exercise, since they were now going back with feeling that indeed most of the things that happened at IITK were good. I met the batch a couple of years ago in their 20-year reunion and some of the CSE graduates recounted the meeting. It felt good. But note that without this meeting, almost everyone believed that most courses and most faculty members were bad.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, the fail percentage that you mention I am avoiding to discuss is really low, even lower than some of the US universities where I discussed these numbers. And the percent numbers don't tell the whole story. We can debate whether 2.5 was high or low. (Of course, there was one particular semester where less than 1% grades were F, and this is about the number of students failing for medical reasons/dropping the semester after the last date for withdrawal, etc.)

The period between 2008 and 2011 (that is, just after the suicides had stopped) was a very stressful period for faculty. In a large number of courses, faculty was announcing that there will be no F grades, which is something no US university would ever do. There is enough literature suggesting that if you have a policy of no failure in a course, then learning outcomes are poor in that course. And that is what I am referring to. I am not trying to suggest that a minimum of 10% students must fail. I know of numerous cases where the student did not attend a single class in the semester, did not submit a single assignment, and submitted blank exam copies, and still passed the course. In one of the case, an MTech student who was on the borderline of the graduating CPI, needed a 'B' grade in the last course to graduate. He registered for a course where the faculty member announced that his policy was to give a minimum of 'B' grade to encourage students to learn without worrying about the grades. This particular student did not attend any component of the course and yet expected a 'B'. The faculty member gave him a 'C' grade saying that his offer was to encourage students to learn without worrying about grades, but someone who has 0 attendance and 0 assignments submitted has not even tried. The student was very upset that he had to stay back in the summer and do another course. But notice that someone getting a 0 out of 100 in the course got a 'C' grade, something that would never happen in a good US university or even a bad Indian university.

There are far worse stories of what all happened in those 3 years, but I am not recounting them here because many readers may not understand that this was a temporary blip and may form wrong opinions of IITK.

All this happened because of immense fear of another suicide, and god forbid, what would happen if someone in my class committed one. And that is why this blog article. Everyone was only bothered that my student should not commit suicide. I should be able to defend my course, or my decisions in front of media. The real issues never got satisfactorily resolved.