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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Expelling Students for Poor Performance

IIT Roorkee has decided to ask 73 students to leave because of their poor academic performance. Here is one of the news report on this. Asking students to leave for poor academic performance is nothing new for IITs. But what is surprising is the large number involved this time. Is it justified? Very difficult to say for an outsider. However, we can certain look at some issues which are really common across IITs.

I have no idea of the distribution of these 73 students (how many were admitted with relaxed criteria). However, from my days as Dean of Academic Affairs at IIT Kanpur, I can say that amongst the students who were asked to leave IIT Kanpur, a disproportionate number were those who were admitted with a relaxed criteria. Let us understand that amount of relaxation offered to these students has been on the rise. Earlier, IITs would offer only a limited relaxation in admission criteria, and hence most students admitted with such relaxation were able to compete well with everyone else. It is well known that people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, if given a proper environment and support, can overcome some weaknesses in academic background. The vacant seats were then filled up by students with lower marks, but they had to go through a one-year preparatory program. The IITs will teach them basic Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Language. Those who came to IIT after this one-year course were reasonably well prepared, and were able to compete with everyone else. The idea always was that we must have inclusive growth, and we must provide additional help to those who may have lacked some background coming into the IIT system.

And then around 15 years ago, questions were raised whether the one year training program was a conspiracy to keep the so-called lower caste folks behind by forcing them to spend an extra year. When the issue got politicized, IITs felt that the most convenient thing to do would be to lower the bar for the reserved seats, ensure that the number of vacant seats are very few, and thus only very few students would need to go through the preparatory program. The gap between the last unreserved student and the last reserved category student has become very large, and even with all the support that IITs provide, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students from disadvantaged sections to overcome their lack of academic preparedness. In fact, now the number of students in the preparatory program is so few (despite the total number of reserved seats having gone up by almost 10 times in the last quarter century) that we don't even run that program in each IIT. A few IITs would get together and conduct this program by rotation.

So, an excellent system which helped so many academically weak students reached a level where they could cope up with the rigors of the place has been dumped because the system was considered politically incorrect.

Now, of course, the poor performers are not all reserved category students. Many students who scored well in JEE (now JEE Advanced) also fail to perform well once they are in IITs. The reasons are varied. Mostly, it is a question of motivation. After studying extremely hard for 4 years, they are burnt out and do not have motivation to study further. There are others who wanted to study a particular discipline but either could not get it, or were forced by parents to study something else, and they have no motivation to do so. Some find it difficult to adjust to a very different life style, miss their homes, don't like staying in non-AC hostels, eat mess food, etc. Some find the learning style to be very different from what they had experienced at coaching places.

IITs help these students in many ways. All of us have counselors where the students can go and discuss their personal issues in confidence. All of us have mechanisms to provide extra help to someone who is not performing well in a course. Sometimes the instructor would provide that extra office hour. Sometimes the TA or Tutor would chip in. Sometimes, a senior student would be asked to provide that extra help within the hostel.

While all these support mechanisms help a lot of students, they don't work with many students. When I looked at cases of many such students, one common aspect was that every student wanted to graduate in least amount of time. When one is in this condition, the best advice for them is that they need to go slow. Do lesser courses, try to focus on them, and do well, and once you have performed well in a semester, you will regain your confidence and be able to perform well. May be even with lesser courses, the improvement will be only marginal and another semester of lower load may be necessary. And it may mean that you need to spend an extra semester to get the degree from the IIT. When I was involved with student advising many years ago, I would always tell a weak student, "it is better to graduate in an extra semester, than not to graduate at all." But in the beginning of every semester, these students would harass you to no end to allow them a normal load of courses. The argument would be that if we try larger number of courses, the chances of passing more courses is higher, which is so obviously wrong that I am always shocked with this argument. I remember that in one semester, I used my authority as the adviser to these students to force the weakest students in the department to take reduced workload. That was the only semester that we could recall where not a single student was on the termination list in the department. Was this semester celebrated. Not at all. Every single student who escaped termination was upset with me claiming that if they had taken one extra course, they would have passed that as well, and they would be that much closer to the graduation.

The problem is that good news is known to everyone, but bad news is private. So examples of very weak students who have passed 5 courses in a semester is known to everyone. But a much larger number of students are unable to cope with such a load is not public knowledge. So most of the academically weak students would demand that they be allowed to take normal course load.

Having said all this, today, in wake of what has happened at IIT Roorkee, the important questions are: What can be done to help such student more, and what are the alternatives to asking the student to leave the program.

Indeed there can be many things that can be done beyond the cliched suggestions of better counseling and better academic support. Those are motherhood statements, and of course, every institute should try to find ways of helping weaker students as much as possible.

As I mentioned above, one of the big problem that academic advisers face is reluctance to go for reduced load. I think the IIT leadership and faculty (and hopefully the society) have to send out this message that getting a degree in 5 years is absolutely fine. Doing well is more important than doing it in 4 years. Further, at IIT Kanpur, we have now allowed the students to drop a course without any penalty for up to three months in the semester. So a student can take 5 courses in the beginning and at any time, he feels that he is unable to cope with these many courses, can drop 1 or 2 courses, and there is no mention on the transcript of dropped courses. This has helped students maintain their CGPA. Of course, they still waste a lot of time in the first 4-8 weeks in doing more courses than necessary. Ideally they should not have taken 5 courses in the beginning of the semester, but still forcing them to continue with that mistake throughout the semester was making things worse. And it does become tricky to insist that students who are adults should be forced to go on reduced load, when they don't want to. So giving them option to drop later is worth trying by the institutes.

The second thing that can be done is to encourage student mobility. A huge problem in today's academic system is that the student who is asked to leave after one year or two years have nothing to show for that period, and not only joining another college is extremely difficult, you lose even what you had passed in that period. So you start afresh, if at all you can retstart. Just because the student failed in an IIT, he is identified as academically weak and hence undesirable by everyone. There is a stigma to failure. If we were to look at the student as someone who has potential higher than many students in many other colleges, and he just hasn't been able to cope up with one particular system, then it is easy to see that one potential solution is for this student to join a less competitive place (if academic competition was an issue), or a place closer to home (if there were personal issues where family could help), or join a place where he can get a discipline of his choice (if motivation was an issue), etc. And except for the top few institutes in the country, all institutes have vacant seats at the end of first year. But none of them want to touch any such undesirable student. I believe that all institutes should have some mechanism to evaluate applications at the end of their first year, and offer admissions based on their vacant seats. If these 73 students from IIT Roorkee could get admission in decent colleges and get credit transfer for courses that they have passed, it wouldn't be as tough on those students and their parents. And if IIT Roorkee could then fill up these 73 seats from students from other institutes who are doing very well in their respective colleges (so mobility in other direction is also desirable), it would indeed be a win-win situation for everyone.

Third thing that can be done in this situation is what FYUP of Delhi University tried to do. If you pass courses equivalent to one year of course work, you will get a certificate, if you pass courses equivalent to two years of course work, you will get a diploma, if you pass courses equivalent to three years of course work, you will get a BSc, and if you are able to pass all courses, then you will get BTech. So give flexibility to the student. Don't force him to leave. Allow him to stay for the maximum duration of the program (which is typically six years for BTech in most IITs), and at the end of six years, he will get whatever he is eligible for.

If we can combine both these ideas, then a student performing poorly can decide whether he would prefer a diploma from an IIT or a BTech from another engineering college.

So, sorry, if you expected me to comment on IIT Roorkee's decision. I wouldn't since I do not understand the whole situation. But, in general, greater flexibility in our academic systems would lead to reduced stress and better learning for everyone.


siddharth jain said...

I really liked the ways you have suggested in this article and the way you have without any hesitation explained the case of students coming in from relaxed criterion. I personally feel that with the implementation of OBC reservation, government increased the seats in order to have same number of general seats as before and in a very hasty manner increased the burden on the institutes which I don't think they were ready to take.In this drama of OBC and General, its the SC and ST candidates whose number increased magically . This magical increase is what has led to the present problem. I wanted to have your views also on the increased load on institutes due to this policy implementation.From my students I have heard that in IIT B that even second year students are working as TA's for first year students. Is this the way we think we can run our institutes of excellence? I fear this might further affect the global rankings of our institutes who are getting short on faculty members and getting richer in student number every year.

Prashant Saxena said...

I completely agree that putting a time-frame of 4 years on the B.Tech program is rather silly - specially since within the IIT, it is counted in terms of the number of credits.

I think students should be allowed to take over or under load as they feel like. The real smart ones can finish their degree in 3 years if they want to, while others can take more than 4 years if they so require. One can also encourage students to take a semester off, do an internship or some other valuable activity, and then come back and resume their programme. Just finish your 150-ish credits within a time frame of less than 6 years. This can help in reducing the "academic load" and students can explore their interests in more creative ways.

But this also requires an active participation from the administration's side as well. When I was at IITK, they didn't allow general category students to take an under load or a semester break under normal circumstances.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Siddharth, The 54% increase as a result of OBC reservation has strained resources. The infrastructure or faculty has not grown anywhere close to 54%, and now the government has cut down on plan budget drastically. But I look at the issue as an engineer. What are my inputs, what are my constraints, what are my resources, and what is the best I can do. And I am afraid, IITs (or other educational institutions) haven't done all that they could have done.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Prashant, well, we do allow since 2011 students to choose how many credits that can do without any permission from anyone (within a fairly liberal minimum and maximum limits). Semester break for any reason other than medical is still frowned upon, and I hope that too should be allowed liberally.

Sudarshana Sinha said...

I remember in one TV interview Dr. Devi Shetty, cardiologist opined that there should be no competitive exam. like JEE, AIEEE etc. Let the students enter in the colleges of their choices. Admit them. But make the course so hard that within a few months' poor students would realize that they have misjudged the course they have undertaken. Automatically, they would leave the campus and find other courses suitable for them. This can also be thought as an alternative as it would not waste much time of their academic career. Remember in USA, corses are designed to complete degrees in 5 years.

S said...

@Siddharth: What is wrong with second year students being TA's for first year courses?

In fact, I think that this might be actually better: some of those second year students might have a much better understanding of the difficulties they faced with the material the year before than the instructor and the senior TAs, for whom the content of first year courses is likely to be as "obvious" as 2 + 2 = 4 at their age.

As for "excellence", many "institutes of excellence" around the world (MIT, Caltech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, you name it) follow this model and with very good effect. It is a pity IITs have not been able to do so due to bureaucratic hurdles and I admire IIT Bombay for taking the plunge.

Nitesh Bhandari said...

Loved the policy of letting the students drop the courses without a penalty.

A suggestion. It can be better if they are counselled after first month (or half a month) of bad performance that they should consider dropping the course with worst performance. This need not involve humans (as that will cause delays, ego issues, poor tracking).

Even better, the "system" can make them choose or just plan an exit. Let them post comments which can be a flag for help, for then a counselor to step in.

Humans are bad at choosing what is best for them. Sometimes they still make bad choices when the good choices are "obvious". They can hate another human making choice for them. It can be a PhD thesis topic to see what happens when it is a smart machine suggesting them choices (amazon, flipkart, matrimony sites). :) Why not academic courses?

Anu Ranganathan said...

Very nicely articulated. And good to see practical suggestions for tackling the problem rather than just describing or ranting about it.

Shreekanth Prabhu said...

My analysis based on my experience 25 years back is that IITs look for problem solving skills as a competency. This requires attention for details to understand a problem, concepts, ability to analyse and come up with a solution without cluttered thinking. Like this there are multiple competencies. Another I found hard was Engineering Drawing and Lab work. Unless you improve on this horizontal competency that weakness shows up course after course. In fact grading patterns will remain same at least for common courses, course after course. Testing one on subjects is like asking somebody to sing in different languages without training the voice. The other aspect I found was during semester everything was rushed through and we had too long vacations. There was too much pressure. True learning can happen only in a calm and reassuring atmosphere. This requires proactive approach with belief that everybody should have a go at it, while it not being an entitlement. The situation improved for me when I moved into department, where I could study with greater calm. Finally what is the fundamental value proposition of IITs. The way I saw it -it was just "challenging students" without strategic interlock with industry or research or career path. This is fine in some manner, but a sense of purpose is important to motivate people. That is how organizations like ISRO deliver missions without IIT engineers. We probably do need few pioneers and cream of nation, who define new disciplines. Others need some plan on path they follow. Finally IIT education should not be like marrying Duchess where honour is greater than pleasure.

Sneh Kumar said...

Respected sir
I think that IITR wants to make an example out of this incident and they are exercising their power of autonomy for this.
What rights do they have to expel students? How can they ruin student's career like this? It is totally outrageous.
Even though IIT's are autonomous institutes but they are still under government's laws.
I hope that hrd ministry take away autonomous nature of IITs to prevent such misuse of power.
I am an IITK graduate and this incident saddens me. They should help students to improve their performance rather than discouraging them by terminating them.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sneh, Without commenting on the IITR decision, since I don't know enough, I will only say that the education in India has been destroyed by such knee jerk reactions. Every time, any educational institute has done something which is politically incorrect (whether right or wrong is not the issue), there have been demands to restrict autonomy, and politicians and bureaucrats have obliged. You are doing the same thing. I think it should be possible to discuss large issues of autonomy without getting bogged down in examples. Do you really believe that in general, politicians and bureaucrats can take better academic decisions than professors in that university. And if there is a decision by a university which is wrong (again, I want to emphasize that I am not calling the IITR decision right or wrong), then should we go to courts for redressal or should we go to politicians. Normally, courts are very quick to provide interim relief if there is an obvious case of misuse of power.

Prof.Vyas said...

Thank you for taking up a relevant issue with excellent analysis. The idea of not taking up so many courses in one semester is so usually, successfully , practiced here in European Universities. Even after Bologna Process when many European Master programs are involving more than one country for one Study program and thus results in higher mobility for the students, as they do Fist year in Germany and the Second year in UK, and therefore one has to complete his/her semester course work in a year itself, but then also they give second/third attempt during Semester/Year breaks and help students take a slow path and do it rather with better understanding, clarity and with more confidence. So this practice should be rather more encouraged...if we are really to handle the paradox-"Access alongiwth Excellence" in Higher technical education in India..

sriram said...

Very refreshing article. Thank you.
Certain articles refer to the IITR evaluation as 'Relative' and few students are bound to fall below 5. In that case , if this is true and followed by say IITB , then at least few students who had come in top 50 in jee adv will be shown the door. How ridiculous that can be?. I am not sure if this is indeed the case. Appreciate if you could throw some light onto this. What I have seen is a circular on % marks mapped to CGPA posted on the web. This does not talk of relative grading but only absolute. I only hope that relative grading is false information.

What I have observed is students are losing interest due to one more factor that I year common subjects where they are made to study same topics that they have studied for JEE. Why do you force a CSe student to go through Organic chemistry in depth?.Overall development theory? . I think we need to come out of this mindset and start introducing a flexible framework so that students will come to know about the subject first before they decide to go deep into it. In this respect , 'Fractal academics' followed by IIT hyderabad looks to be a novel idea. Time for others to see its merits and follow.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, The mapping seen on the web is only to demonstrate equivalence for the purpose of jobs. There are still a lot of employers and indeed academic institutions (even IIM Ahmedabad) who demand that the performance be measured in terms of percentage, and if the university assigns grades, then it should give a certificate of mapping between CGPA and marks. The grading in IITR is relative, as is the case in most engineering schools across the world. And relative grading does not imply that some have to fail. Relative grading does not even imply that someone has to have a CGPA of 4 or 3 or a very less CGPA. So the statements that we are hearing in the media and seeing on the web are just reflective of the frustration of these 73 students and have very little basis in truth. But I can see that someone who is being asked to leave after putting in so much hard work to get in, will not be giving a coherent statement against himself/herself and the media will also like to highlight plight of these students since that news sell better.

There is at least one serious allegation in the media. While the students and parents signed the declaration that they understand poor performance will lead to program termination, the definition of "poor performance" was not communicated to them till the second semester. Now, of course, I have seen a statement from one of the affected student saying that if he knew that they need to get 5.0, he would have worked harder to get 5.0, essentially implying that he deliberately, knowingly and with a plan failed the course, which he wouldn't if he knew the consequences. I don't think IITs should keep such students who don't understand the consequences of failing the course. But having said that, if the definition of "poor" performance was finalised too late, then even though I think it should not have made a difference to the student performance, still the fairness demands that that definition be not used with this batch. (But, this is just an allegation in media. I haven't heard from IITR whether this is true or not.)

I am quite intrigued by the fractal academics of IIT Hyderabad, and it appears to be a good innovation.

The first year curriculum is primarily dictated by the need of branch change. Otherwise, having one or two department courses in the first year would be easy to adjust, by pushing some of the "broadening the horizon" courses to later semesters. And if we are doing things in the later semesters, the students could be given an option between organic chemistry and something else. I think it is really this need to be seen fair that is at work here. If everyone has to do the same set of courses, then let us what topics will be useful for most number of students and teach those. I would think that branch change to different programs could be based on different set of courses which could be considered an indication of interest and future performance in that discipline. But not many takers of that view. Everyone must be compared with the exact same set of courses for branch change.

Thanks for your comments.

sriram said...

Thank you. Your suggestion for the basis of branch change looks very good. Students must choose Subject over institution. I would recommend a stop to these branch changes. Students must do some groundwork on what they are interested in. This would enable the institutions to introduce domain specific courses right from I semester so that by third semester they are in a position to take up internship in some other institution or industry. Too much of generality is making them not to have passion for anything.
I know cases where few students are choosing Chemical eng even if they are not interested in that just because they want to study in one particular IIT (and dreaming of branch change to CSE). What justification they can do to the subject , how can they be creative if they are not internally interested in that subject?. This is fashion following by students. They should stop being simplistic. Somehow we need to make the system such that students apply themselves right from day 1 and work towards contributing to their field rather than just scoring marks of existing topics.
Thank you.

Rajan Bhatia said...

Why one should be surprised?You can admit students based on relaxed criteria but thankfully there is no relaxation criteria in annual exams.This was bound to happen.Few days back i read that students with zero marks in advanced would be admitted to preparatory courses.Do you expect the faculties at these courses to bring them at par with other students in a year's time.
This system of relaxation has not only ruined the career of these students but also deprived other students of these valuable resources.