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Monday, July 16, 2018

Mountain out of molehill: Is 2 = 2.0

After a few days of suspense, the Madras High Court has stayed the single judge order asking IITs to reorder their ranks. (That the order really wouldn't have changed anyone's rank is not important.) And after a few days' gap, the counseling has restarted.

Let me recap the issue. The following was the instructions on the exam paper.

  • For each question, enter the correct numerical value (in decimal notation, truncated/rounded off to the second decimal place; e.g. 6.25, 7.00, -0.33, -.30, 30.27, -127.30) using the mouse and the on-screen virtual numeric keypad in the place designated to enter the answer.

Now, there were two interpretations of this line.

One, this instruction is meant only for those answers where the answer can be truncated/rounded off, and more specifically, was not meant for integers.

Two, presence of "7.00" and absence of any integer in the possible solutions implies that even integers had to be written up to two decimal places.

In my opinion, the first one is the right interpretation. However, the second one is a "reasonable" interpretation and since IITs are more interested in finding out whether you know the answer or not, we may award full marks for those who used second interpretation.

Second thing, I said was that instructions only suggest what is the minimum you need to do to get full marks and doing more should not be penalized. So even if writing two zeroes was suggested and was the correct interpretation, writing an integer as an integer is certainly a better answer and hence should be given full marks.

The opposite view point that was presented to the court and was written by lots of people as comments on various social media, including this blog was that the second interpretation is the correct interpretation and the first interpretation is so wrong that those who followed that should be penalized. And, following instructions is of supreme value in exams like JEE.

Frankly, I am bothered by the opposite view point. I am unable to look at it as a difference of opinion. There is something else at play here. What they are saying is that lack of an integer in the list and presence of 7.00 implies that integers had to be written in a particular way. Do they have any idea of what is implication, what is proof, etc. And then, saying that it is not enough to show that you know the answer, but following instructions is an integral part of an exam. Do they really believe that IITs are looking for students who can follow the orders and not think independently. If yes, IITs need to do a lot more in terms of improving its image.

In an exam, if I ask them to write names of any 4 prime ministers of India, and someone writes five names (all correct), should I penalize this guy for not following the instructions. Obviously, additional information, if wrong, can lead to penalty, but should there be penalty if the additional information is correct.

And as, someone commented, should IIT penalize someone who comes only one hour before the exam, when the instructions were to reach three hours before the exam. (I may be off in terms of exact time.) Obviously not, since following instructions are useful only to the extent of peaceful conduct of the exam and not beyond that. Similarly, following instructions in the exam are useful only to the extent of displaying your ability to solve problems in the exam and not beyond that.

To me, this alternate opinion is borne out of inability to take responsibility for one's actions. Almost every student tells his/her parents/friends that they deserved better in any exam than what the result indicates. I talk to so many JEE passed students every year for counseling, and the conversation always start with, "I was expecting a better rank, but...." And they are always looking for excuses to convince themselves and others that they are indeed better than what that rank indicates. (And they very well may be, the rank indicates nothing about them as a human being.) And as soon as they find out any excuse that anyone has used, they are very happy and start using that excuse themselves. Sometimes, even small coaching places, will tell their students that they deserved better rank, and it is all because of someone else (IITs mostly) that their ranks have suffered.

Because of this reason, one can easily predict that the kind of problem we had this year, will actually happen every year. Such issues have arisen every single year in the last few years, and will continue to happen in future too irrespective of how good the language is of all instructions and all questions.

IITs are normally very reluctant to change since they think that following what was not questioned in previous years would ensure less court cases this year. But I think they should learn from JEE 2018 where there were major changes (women reservation - I am really surprised there is no court case on this, fully computerized exam - there was a case, but dismissed early, numerical questions with answers not between 0 and 9). Irrespective of how many changes you bring about, all those who want to blame IIT JEE for their performance will latch on to one thing and the other changes will go unquestioned, and they will latch on to that one thing, even when there is no change.

The only way to reduce court cases is to reduce the value of the exam. Give students option. If not doing too well in one exam leaves good options open for students, they will feel more confident of owning up their performance and not look for excuses.

Till that happens, court cases will happen irrespective of what IITs do. So they shouldn't be afraid of changes. Changes do not increase the number of court cases.


Kishore said...


I would like to humbly submit that if I extend the argument of thinking on one's own feet or independently then a student can write an answer of 6.67 as 6.7 because as per laws of rounding off taught in physics and mathematics 6.67 can be considered as equal to 6.7, which is perfectly correct as per concepts of physics/mathematics and also as per the logic of thinking on one's own feet, even though instructions are not followed to the word.

But then you will come back and say instructions have not been followed. Now where has independent thinking gone. it should be awarded rather than following instructions to the word blindly. There can't be selective application of the instructions as per convenience of the IITs just to wriggle out from court cases. Either the instructions should be considered as the gospel truth or there should be complete flexibility provided the answer is correct as per concepts of physics/mathematics. Why should the flexibility apply to integer answers only.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Kishore, if you think that awarding a "better" answer than what instructions ask for is same as awarding a "worse" answer than what instructions ask for, then I have nothing to say. Of course, if the worse answer is almost same as the "better" answer, JEE should give marks. But as I said, to me, instructions mean what is the minimum I need to do to get full marks. Doing better should not be penalized.