Undue Focus on Marks is Hurting Students

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Success in Indian education, particularly at school level, is measured almost entirely in terms of marks obtained in some tests. A key goal of school education is to facilitate getting good higher education opportunities. And in India the higher education opportunities are almost entirely based on marks in class XII or some admission test like JEE. So, naturally, students, schools, and parents work towards maximizing marks in these exams in order to maximize their expected outcome. It is clear that focus on marks in Class XII and entrance tests is a good strategy for achieving the goal of good higher education opportunity. However, in colleges, particularly professional education institutions, the scenario changes completely – good marks/grades do not necessarily help in achieving the desired goals of college education. And actually, undue focus on marks can actually hurt the chances of achieving the desired goals. One of the desired outcomes for professional education like engineering degree is to get good placement. Almost all companies, when they come for campus placement, conduct rigorous tests and interviews – all focusing around students’ skills, knowledge, and ability. As companies are making substantial investment in the person they recruit, they spend a lot of time evaluating students rigorously, and are indeed able to separate students with better skills and knowledge from others.  Almost all the companies that I have interacted with (and it is quite a few) when pointing out deficiencies in students mention shortcomings in knowledge and understanding which they uncover through their tests and interviews. (E.g. “does not have deep understanding of programming/algorithms/systems…”.) They never talk about grades and are never impressed just by the CGPA (I have yet to find anyone saying, “vow the student has a great CGPA, we will hire him/her”.) So, it is clear that for achieving a main goal of professional education, namely getting good placement, it is the knowledge and skills that matter – marks are at best an initial reflection of that. Students with better understanding, knowledge, and skills are the ones who will get the placements they desire. Now let me come back to the topic of this note – how undue focus on marks hurts.  Students, in an attempt to get better marks, often resort to:

  • Cheating in assignments/projects – assignments and projects are important instruments of learning in professional education..
  • Shallow learning – students learn just to give the test and get marks. Such learning does not improve the understanding/knowledge and never lasts.

As assignments and proejcts are always done in an unsupervised setting, in pursuit of marks, students often cheat (copy from friends, internet,…). Instead of struggling to solve these themselves, a struggle which is essential for developing the understanding as well as the capability of solving problems, students give up easily or take the easy way out. But this “easy way out” can at best get some marks – not for learning. There is NO easy way out for learning – knowledge and skills have to be acquired by the student him/herself – nobody can do the learning for someone else, and there is no royal road to learning. And shallow or passive learning may get marks, but certainly does not help develop deep knowledge or understanding that will last, or that will help in developing problem solving abilities. Any interviewer will be easily able to judge after spending some time with the student, that the understanding is shallow and bookish. To summarize, if a student wants higher education to help them achieve their goals in life, they must get out of the school mindset of focusing on marks and must focus on learning. Only with good learning can objectives/goals of higher education be met. I would like to add, however, that if a student learns well and deeply, good grades will come – I have never seen a student who has good understanding of the different subjects in his program and ends up with poor CGPA.

Role of Alumni in for an Institute

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I gave my first convocation speech at IIIT-Delhi in Nov 2012. Mr. NR Narayana Murthy was the chief guest. My full speech is available at Institute’s site (here). I thought I will share/record some suggestions I gave for the alumni of IIIT-Delhi – those portions of the speech are given here.

“Let me now take this opportunity to put before you, the first set of alumni of IIIT-D, a few suggestions, as trends you and your families set will guide others to come in later years.  But before that, let me mention the important role of alumni for an Institute.

To a large extent what alumni do with their lives define the stature of an Institute.  And we have provided a strong foundation for you to do well in life – good education from a dedicated faculty, and a strong value system of academic honesty, hard work, and professionalism.  Alumni form a special stakeholder for an Institute as their only interest is to see the Institute flourish and grow in stature –  the more the Institute grows in stature the better it is for the alumni. This makes them a unique stakeholder as all other stakeholders like students, faculty, staff, and administration, have other stakes as well. I have two specific suggestions for your consideration to play your role as a responsible and important stakeholder of IIIT-Delhi.

First, stay engaged with the Institute. This is extremely important. Visit the Institute when in Delhi and meet with faculty and students, respond to our emails, ensure that your contact information with us is correct, visit the Institute website regularly to keep abreast of what is happening, give suggestions, etc.

Second, give back to the Institute, financially and otherwise.  For an Institute to be strong and protect itself from interference from outside, financial autonomy is essential. Towards this, as has been shown by great Universities of the world, a strong endowment/corpus is necessary. We have set a goal of Rs 100 crores corpus in 10 years – we have made a good start and have about Rs 2 Crores corpus, with at least six people contributing around Rs 20 Lac each. My suggestion to alumni is to contribute 1% of your income yearly to the Institute, and increase it when you are well-off and can afford to contribute more. If each alumnus does this, this support will enthuse others to contribute, creating a strong support base.

To be with you in this drive of giving back to your Institute, and to walk the talk, I have instructed our finance department to deduct one month on my salary every year as contribution to our Institute. And this has already started – before you graduated one month of my salary was donated as the initial contribution by your batch.

Besides giving yourself, there will be opportunities for you particularly when you are senior, and for your parents now, to have corporations, philanthropists, agencies to establish Chairs, Fellowships, Scholarships, Awards etc at the Institute. Please help bring such opportunities to the Institute.  I can share one personal example of this. When I was spending my Sabbatical from IIT Kanpur at Infosys as Vice President, Mr. and Mrs Murthy wanted to set up a Chair. I quickly worked with them and provided all the help, resulting in the Chair getting established in IIT Kanpur.

Later when you are senior and have more experience and knowledge to share, there will be other possibilities of giving back, particularly if you have remained engaged. E.g. offering some courses,  giving lectures, conducting short programs/workshops, facilitating placement and internships of our students, etc.”

Report on PhD Production in Computer Science highlights the Opportunity for PhDs

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On behalf of ACM India, I conducted the first survey on PhD production in Computer Science in India. The report has been published and can be found, along with the background, here.

As the report clearly shows, while the number is not as low as one thought, it is still about 125. And if you consider PhDs from only the top 20 institutions in the country, the number is in two digits. And the projections are that this number will only double in about 5 years.

This study actually highlights the tremendous opportunity for those who are doing PhD in CS in India. Academics is growing rapidly with so many new IITs, IIITs, and other Institutes coming up. Even if you consider each such Institute will need about 5 faculty members each year, 50 upcoming Institutes can easily consume 250 PhDs. Then there are at least 20 research labs in many software companies, including the large software companies which seem keen to expand their R&D capabilities rapidly, and various other companies that can consume PhDs. Overall, the private sector can also consume about 250 PhDs per year. There are other opportunities in Govt sector also. In a nutshell, the supply is significantly lesser than the demand. And this gap is likely to increase as demand is set to increase.

Due to this mismatch in demand and supply, and the growth of academics, the compensation for fresh PhDs is now very good. Companies will often pay a package starting from Rs 15 Lac to Rs 25 Lac or more for a fresh PhD. Academic packages are also quite good after the sixth pay commission – an Asst Prof can have a yearly compensation of Rs 8 to Rs 12 Lac. Compare this with the starting package for software jobs – except for a few multinationals, the starting package tends to be around Rs 3.5 Lac for the large and medium sized software houses (which is where 90% of the software jobs are), and Rs 4 to 6 for the niche players. Even if one counts for the 4 to 5 years that one has to spend in getting a PhD, compensation wise, a student who does a PhD will clearly come out ahead.

And then there are the really strong benefits of doing a PhD – the main reasons why people preferred this route even when the compensation was not good. And that is, the freedom to explore and chose your own work agenda, the non-repetitive and challenging nature of work, the culture of R&D, lack of hierarchy, being a member of the global community of researchers, etc.

Overall, while the PhD production report does not have too much good news for those who want to recruit PhDs, it is good news for those who are considering doing PhD.

Impact of Grading Schemes on Students’ Grades

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In this post, rather than a personal view or opinion, I am sharing the findings of a small study we did on impact of grading schemes. Grading schemes in universities vary with many systems in existence. To study the impact of grading schemes on student’s performance in terms of SGPA/CGPA, we have performed a small study to study two common grading schemes. Scheme 1 which uses letter grades A, B, C, D, and F with corresponding points as 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. And scheme 2 which uses grades A, A-, B, B-, C, C-, D, and F, with corresponding points as 10, 9,…, 4, 2. 

Experimental Setup

To analyze the impact of the two grading schemes, we have used the data of students’ marks from three core courses: Computer organization, Data structures, and algorithms and Probability and Statistics, each with enrolment in of about 140. The data of the students from these three courses was first divided into two groups of equal sizes Group 1 with even numbered students and Group 2 contained odd numbered – i.e. both groups had about 70 students in each class with similar performance.

First, Group 1 was given to the six professors from three institutions, and they were requested to grade the students using the Grading scheme 1. They were given the entire spreadsheet of performance over the semester, but without the student names. After 2 weeks, Group 2 was given to the same professors for grading using scheme 2. The purpose of the two week gap is to make two grading exercises independent of each other.  At the end of this experiment, we had the grades provided by six professors using the two different grading schemes for sets of students whose performance was effectively similar. And we had this data for three different courses.

Analysis and Key Observations

  • Average grade point of students (after taking the average grade point of six professors) is approximately the same at around 6.5 (average of scheme 2 was higher by about 0.1, but given the small sample size it was not taken as statistically significant.) This is an useful  insight – it shows that professors do not simply take students falling in A category in Scheme 1 and divide them into A and A- (and similarly for B and C), as that would have resulted in significant reduction in average grade in Scheme 2. But, as is intended, by having finer grades in scheme 2, Professors put some A students (of Scheme 1) in A-, but also put some B students (of scheme 1) in A-. (It is worth pointing that some professors consistently gave higher average grade in one scheme, while others gave higher grade in the other scheme.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of top students is higher with grading scheme 1 across courses. This is to be expected as in Scheme 2, some students from A grade in Scheme 1 will get moved to A-. However, one Professor gave more As with grading scheme 2 in one course. (To study this, we determined the average grade of top K students, varying K from 1 to 15, i.e. up to about top 20% students.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of bottom students is higher with grading scheme 2 across courses.  In other words, bottom students would prefer grading scheme 2. This is also as expected – with finer grades; fewer students should end up in D and F.  Here also,  two Professors gave a larger no of Fs with grading scheme 2 for one course each, (For this also, we studied the grade of bottom K students, varying K from 1 to 15).
  • The average number of Fs reduces with grading scheme 2 to about half of those in Scheme 1. Even at individual professor level, number of Fs reduce –  4 out of 6 professors have given more or equal Fs with grading scheme 1 than grading scheme 2 across all the courses; in some courses, the same professor has substantially lower threshold for given F in Scheme 2 than in F.  One can argue that as there is no D- grade, there should be no impact on number of Fs. But data seems to suggest that overall, having a finer grades seems to reduce the need for failing students.
  • The data provided us an opportunity to analyze the consistence in the grading behaviour of professors. For this purpose, we postulated five consistency hypotheses:
    • H1: Equal or more As in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H2: Equal or higher cut-off for grade B in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H3: Equal or higher cut-off for grade C in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H4: Equal or higher cut-off for grade D in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H5: Equal cut-off for grade F in grading scheme 1 and in grading scheme 2

We then determined how many of these hypotheses were satisfied by different professors.  We found that 5 out of 6 Professors  satisfied 4 or 5 of these (four did not satisfy  H5, as mentioned above). However, one Professor satisfied only 2 of these.  In other words, most Professors are quite consistent in their grading behavior across schemes (except for F grade.)


I would like to thank Mayank Pundir for his help in analyzing the data and in writing the report, and Vidushi Chaudhary for her help in performing the experiment and initial analysis. I would also like to thank the professors who participated in the study and graded the students using the two grading schemes (not mentioning their names for confidentiality).  Details of the analysis are also available with the author.

Desired Skills/Capabilities in Graduating CSE Students for a High-End Engineering Career

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At IIIT-Delhi, objectives of BTech program are to develop graduates for careers in high-end engineering professions and research. (We want to emphasize on “high-end engineering careers” as the vast majority of software careers in India need moderate expertise in computer sciences – as demonstrated by the fact that many large software companies take engineers from any discipline and make them suitable for their work after a couple of month’s training. As at IIIT-Delhi we have a rigorous program in CSE, we believe that it should be to prepare the students for more cutting-edge work in technology and product companies, research, and innovation and entrepreneurship.)

To develop the skills needed for high-end engineering careers, we need to clearly understand them and then ensure that the BTech program is developing them. During a recent review of our curriculum, for the objective of developing high-end software engineers, we decided to take feedback from senior engineers of some technology companies on what skills they expect in graduating engineers. The companies included most of the top technology players like Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Yahoo, EMC, Siemens, Netapps, and smaller technology players like AirTight Networks. The questionnaire we sent asked what Technical skills they expected, and what Meta/Soft skills they expected in graduates of a CSE program. (It was satisfying to note that our curriculum focused on developing many of these skills. Still some ideas emerged from this exercise for which we have taken suitable actions.)

This note  gives a summary of the feedback obtained. It is worth pointing out, particularly to students, that the feedback almost entirely revolved around understanding and skills – grades and marks were not mentioned even once by anyone. It needs to be emphasized to students that short cuts to getting good marks are of no help in careers in these companies – almost all of these companies conduct multiple rounds of tests and interviews to assess the understanding and skills. I hope this feedback from the very places which often constitute dream jobs for students might strengthen the resolve of those students who want to work hard to learn and build their capabilities (the only way!) to continue on their path.

–In Meta/Soft skills, a few skills/capabilities that were highlighted most in various forms are:
  • Ability to quickly learn new concepts, languages, technologies, best practices. As one might expect, in today’s world, continuous up gradation is essential and it is to be expected that whatever one knows may become obsolete soon and so one must have ability to learn. In a high-end technology career (like most knowledge-based careers), ability and desire to learn is critical, along with desire and motivation to keep improving in whatever one is doing.
  • –Problem solving ability. This has many aspects and were variously expressed as: logical and critical thinking; ability to connect new challenges with old problems and past experience; ability to apply diverse/disparate concepts for solving a problem; ability to think at abstract level, and drill down to details; ability to leveraging existing tools and knowledge for problem solving; ability to formulate a problem, thinking of different ways to approach; ability to work with unknowns/ uncertainty ; ability to identify bottlenecks and articulate them well; ability to search for information to fill these unknowns, reduce uncertainty, remove bottlenecks
  • –Communication skills.  Explaining things to others in a clear and structured manner; ability to speak and write with clarity and succinctly.
  • –Team work. Ability to work in teams, which can need skills like taking leadership when needed, but following when required; skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts, work in time constraints and with responsibility, etc,

While the meta/soft skills may be general for any high-end engineering skills, the feedback for technical skills was far more focused for CSE (as the questionnaire was focused on computer science). The list of desired capabilities and skills here is longer and more detailed. Some of the key skills that were highlighted are:

  • –Solid Data Structures and Algorithms. Deep understanding of these subjects, how to combine them, how to find/design suitable ones for a problem, etc. This is not surprising as indeed these are the most foundational topics on which much of CS rests.
  • –Strong in OOPS.  OO Design and principles, subtle aspects of language, strong understanding of the language capability and limitations, its design and implementation,
  • –Good understanding of OS, DBMS, Networks. These subjects were highlighted whose understanding is extremely important on being a successful software engineer for high-end work.
  • –Ability to write well structured and efficient code.  This view was expressed in various ways.  E.g. ability to evaluate efficiency of the code at different levels – algo, DS, execution level (OS), hardware – to reduce memory as well as time; understanding of different layers of the system, and ability to evaluate/assess the program at these different layers
–Various other skills that were pointed out were: ability to leverage libraries from disparate sources and create abstractions on top; good debugging skills; familiarity with different programming paradigms – what they can do, how they are implemented, where they are useful…; understand different situations in which a system can work or fail or may be used; working knowledge of standard tools and IDEs; ability to read others’ code and analyze it, provide feedback on it, work with it / enhance it efficiently; experience of working on a real project (with real delivery and users/customers).

We found these inputs very useful in fine tuning our courses and the type of projects and assignments we give. I hope others find it useful as well. I sincerely hope that students will get the message loud and clear: build these types of skills and capabilities if you want to have a high-end (and well paying) engineering career – and leverage your Institution’s education program and courses effectively towards strengthening these.

What Young Faculty Want from Institutes for Improving their Productivity

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As mentioned in the previous post, last year, while discussing the yearly review of faculty at IIIT-Delhi, I had asked two questions from all the faculty members – what they need to do to be more productive, and what the Institute needs to do for them to be more productive. In the previous note, I gave the summary of responses of the first question. In this I will give the summary of responses to the second question. I have kept them separate as I strongly believe that while Institutional support is essential for being productive, once basic support is in place, as is the case with many research focused Institutions, the main challenges for a researcher fall in him/her domain. Put it another way, even if many of the Institutional shortcomings are eliminated, many researchers will not become productive unless they squarely address the challenges at the individual level – two most important ones, as the feedback revealed, being research focus and orientation, and more time and better time management.

For the second question (about what the Institute should do for an individual to be more productive), interestingly strong patterns did not emerge, as they did for the first question. There were even some responses saying “nothing”. Still the two points that were mentioned by a couple of people were:

Reduce class size and reduce teaching. This point is clearly well taken – while eliminating teaching can be detrimental to research in an academic setting, reducing class size and the number of courses a person has to teach can free more time for research and indeed embed research in teaching as well. (We had a follow up workshop in the Institute within faculty on research productivity and as an outcome we agreed to reduce the teaching load for some years.) Related to this was another issue: Improve the quality of TAs – clearly with more effective TAs, as our western counterparts generally enjoy, teaching effort can reduce without diluting quality.  

PhD students – improve their quantity and quality. This again is a point well taken – if we can have higher quality PhD students in larger numbers, clearly productivity of faculty members can increase. This is not just a problem of increasing intake, but also of having systems of evaluation and encouragement that will keep the quality and aspirations of PhD students high.

–Other issues that were pointed out by a few people include: space for lab (this is clearly important for areas that have specialized equipment),  computing resources/infrastructure, improve focus on research at the Institute level (another important point that as Institutions, while we talk about research, we often spend far more energy in teaching oriented discussions and issues); senior person in my area to provide some mentorship; m

edia/outreach – to message to non-academic world about the work being done; s

trengthen admin systems through IT; s

trengthen HR support; m
ore individual time with Director; r
educe negative vibes; i
nternal initiatives for promoting research; reduce
involvement of faculty in clerical work; g
roup interaction should improve; s

mall workshop organizing capability.

As with the other note, standard caveat applies: these issues may or may not be relevant to other institutes.

What Young Faculty Should Do to be more Productive in Research

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At IIIT-Delhi, after the yearly review of all faculty members, the Director meets with each faculty member and discusses the review of the individual faculty’s yearly performance. Generally, the meeting will also discuss what support the faculty member needs for his/her work. Last year, I posed two specific questions to each faculty member.

  • Q1 – What do you need to do for you to be more productive.
  • Q2 – What does the Institute need to do for you to be more productive.

In this note, I will discuss the general summary of feedback on Q1. As almost all the faculty members are talented and bright young Assistant Professors (all have PhDs from fine Universities/Institutes across the world), and as the focus was primarily on discussing research productivity, the summary of the feedback may be taken as a reflection of what young faculty should do to be more productive in research. (Caveats – the faculty in IIIT-D is mostly in CS and EE, and hence some of the views may not be applicable to other disciplines. Also, the comments, even though are from the perspective of what an individual should do, may not be relevant to other Institutes and situations.)

Though a number of issues were raised, interestingly two points emerged very strongly and most people mentioned that as something they should do to improve their research productivity. These two points were: R&D Focus, and time management.

R&D focus was expressed in various ways: Focus more on the projects at hand before moving to other projects (i.e. pick a few projects/problems and take them to completion before moving on); focus on limited or fewer things or problems rather than having a very wide agenda; focus on right things (i.e. prioritize what are important problems/projects to work on and then work on those); concentrate more on R&D; be more aggressive or ambitious on research.

Time management issue was also expressed in various ways: balance between teaching and research (i.e. balance the time spent between the two and do not end up spending most of the time on teaching); reduce time in non-academic tasks; learn to say no to students and others; better email management so as to avoid being reactive or responding to email all the time; better delegation to save time; spend more time in office and on research.

Other issues that were expressed by some, though not that commonly are: managing personal issues, increase awareness of value of contributions, improve writing, train/better handle the PhD students and their constraints and work habits, learn to better handle Indian constraints, limit teaching to a few courses.

I believe that the two main points that came out – research focus and better time management – are indeed the most important issues which if young faculty members can address well can help make them more productive. Lack of focus on R&D is undoubtedly one of the most important causes of insufficient achievement levels in India – if one is not focused on R&D, as often is the case with faculty members and young researchers in various institutions, clearly the quality and quantity of research output will be low. There is no short cut to being a successful researcher – like success in anything else, it requires dedication, sharp focus, and hard work.

The second issue highlighted is also extremely important as faculty members, unlike their counterparts in research labs, have many more responsibilities and commitments – teaching, serving on various committees within the Institute and outside, interaction with students and external people, etc. So unless the faculty member manages time well, it is very easy for him/her to spend most of the time in teaching related tasks, discussing in committees and meetings, interacting with students and others, etc. If faculty members can spend more time on academics in general, and devise effective personal methods to address these issues on how to effectively manage the time so less is “wasted” so more is available for research, they will have much better control of their time and be more productive.

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