Current Approaches to Teaching Cannot Deliver High Quality Education

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Let me start this note with a simple assertion: education is about learning by students, where learning includes not only knowledge and understanding of a variety of concepts and phenomenon, but also development of higher order skills and capabilities for applying knowledge for problem solving. (For those who want to go deeper, learning can be classified using Bloom’s taxonomy, revised version of which has these levels: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create; In my statement, I have combined the lower two levels in “knowledge and understanding” and higher order four levels – apply, analyze, evaluate, and create into “skills and capabilities”).

Let me also upfront state my opinion, which I am sure will not go down well with many: our approach to education, even in many of the top places, is mostly geared towards developing knowledge and understanding with little emphasis on developing skills and capabilities. Hence the title of this article.

Our current approach to education in almost all institutions take a teaching oriented view – for a course the “syllabus” is defined as a list of topics to be covered, and during the semester, instructors give lectures to cover the topics, in which the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. Good institutions will ensure that the topics are covered, the not so good ones may not even ensure this. In the better Institutes, there may be labs and assignments, though often the final grades depend largely on exams. This teaching oriented approach to education can at most deliver mediocre education – high quality education is not possible. There are a few reasons why it is so.

First, when a list –of-topics is the course design, then entire thought processes is about “covering the material”, and in the class, at best, the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. It is now well established that students mind is not like a vessel in which information or concepts can be poured through lecturing – learning is a constructive activity and a student learns only by what a student herself does and thinks. In an education style where lecturing is the primary method of teaching, followed by some exams to test the understanding, the focus will mostly be on knowledge and understanding. This approach does not render itself to development of skills and capabilities, for which far more practice (assignments, labs, projects,…) by students under careful supervision and feedback is needed. As exams, by their very nature, can test mostly concepts and understanding (at worst they may just test for factual knowledge), this cycle of lecturing and exams can lead to learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s hierarchy, but does not help develop the higher levels skills and capabilities that are the hallmark of high quality education.

To move towards higher quality education which develops not only deep understanding of acquired knowledge but also development of skills/capabilities of applying the knowledge, it is necessary to move towards learner centric education, as is being done in most developed countries, and as is mandated by the Washington Accord.
The learner centric approach has three key aspects. First, for a course learning outcomes have to be defined, not in terms of list of topics, but in terms of knowledge and skills that the student should have at the completion of the course. Second, the course syllabus and design has to such that it can deliver the learning objective – the lectures on topics have to be supported by suitable exercises and projects with proper and critical feedback to allow practice which can help develop skills, as they cannot be developed in a lecture theatre. Finally, the grade given to a student must be based on an assessment of how well the student has fulfilled the learning outcomes. So, if a learning outcome says that at the end of the course the student will have “the ability to solve problems using x,y, z”, then this must be assessed directly.

Of course, designing the course in this manner in itself does not lead to better learning. This course design has to be delivered by competent faculty – a challenge for many universities and colleges who simply don’t have competent faculty. Those institutions who have good faculty, however, can transform their education from teaching oriented approach to learner centric approach, which can lead to huge improvement in quality of education. It may be added, that this type of approach is what accreditation looks for.

At IIIT-Delhi, we follow a learner centric approach – for each course there are “post conditions” which state what the students knows and can do at the end of the course. The course design includes the assignments/projects that are to be given to deliver the post conditions particularly about skill development, and in final grades, weight is assigned to performance in assignments and projects.

In the end, let me add that this “list of topics” approach has worked reasonably well in the past in some of the top institutions. This was so as these top institutes were very small with low student to faculty ratio and had a very good faculty – this allowed faculty to develop some skills and capabilities through personal mentoring and oversight. This approach cannot work now as the skills and capabilities needed are far more complex and often change, and the scale of education is significantly larger now. These require a systematic approach as the earlier mentorship based approach cannot scale up.

High Cost of Quality Education and Who Pays for It

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As we all know, fees in IITs has been increased to Rs 2 Lac/year, though the committee had recommended a fee of Rs 3 Lac/year. Even at Rs 3 Lac, the fee would have covered perhaps about half of the actual cost per student of running an IIT.

High quality higher education is actually expensive. Let us understand why it is so. In most  areas that change rapidly, like engineering and sciences, high quality education is only possible in institutes that have a strong focus on research. The reason is simple – without engagement in research, the faculty is likely to get outdated, leading to  its education becoming outdated. This correlation can be empirically observed as well – across the world the best places for technical education are also the Institutions that are ranked the highest in research.

With new pay scales of 7th pay commission, the direct overall cost per faculty will average more than Rs 20 Lac per year in Institutes like IITs.  As in such research focused institutions the student-to-faculty ratio may be about 10:1 or lesser for BTech students (the overall ratio will be much higher as such institutes have a high number of PG students who pay minimal fee).  This means, just to cover the cost of faculty, the fee will need to be about Rs 2 Lac per year per student. And in a research focused institution, as it has to invest in labs, library, travel support, PG programs, etc. the cost of faculty is around 1/3rd of the total expenditure. This means that the overall cost of education per BTech student is about Rs 6 Lac per year.

(It should be noted that in many private colleges which only focus on teaching, the costs are significantly lower. Their average cost per faculty is less than half of an IIT, the BTech student-faculty ratio is twice or more, and as they do not invest in research their faculty costs are two-thirds or more of the expenses. These translate to the cost per student of Rs 75K per year.)

The burning question of current times is who pays for this high cost of high quality higher education. A few decades ago, globally it was accepted that higher education is public good – i.e. it is in the interest of the society/nation to have people go for higher education and that the society will benefit from more people with higher education. With this understanding that higher education is public good, world over, including India, higher education was highly subsidized by the Government.

Today the scenario is different. Higher education is increasingly being seen as private good, i.e. the individuals who get higher education are the largest beneficiaries of it. This empirically also holds – people with higher education generally earn more, and people who get high quality education from top institutions often earn substantially more. If higher education is private good, then it  follows that the individual should pay its cost, at least most of it. Due to this, government subsidy for higher education has been reducing in many developed countries like US (where most state universities have seen a steady decline in government support), UK (where fee were raised substantially, despite hue and cry, a few years ago), Australia, etc.

This argument that quality higher education is a private good and hence should be paid for by the beneficiary is slowly coming to India also. But in India, as higher education is the ticket to individual upward mobility, it is imperative  that this opportunity is not denied to those who cannot afford to pay the cost. Therefore, there is a need for models for financing so as to ensure that access to higher education is available to all, yet the individuals who benefit the most pay for it, when possible. 

Clearly subsidy is not the answer for providing access, as it subsidizes costs for all, even for those who can easily afford it, from public funds. Also, as gross enrollment ratio increases, and the demands on Government funds increase for other public goods and services, it will become increasingly harder for the Government to afford or justify subsidy of higher education.

One possibility is that student pays, but easy access to education loans is available. Education loans are already widely available in India, and some Governments like the Delhi Government, have made the access to these loans even easier by becoming the guarantor for such loans.

However, education loans are still expensive and not all students can afford it, particularly if the job prospects after education are not very bright, as is often the case. Recently, my colleague and friend M. Balakrishnan and I wrote an opinion piece in Indian Express on an alternative to education loans for paying for the high cost which is fairer in many ways. In the proposed scheme, a part of the fee for the student is deferred, and the student pays for it after he/she graduates, with the condition that the payment is limited to some percentage of his/her salary for a few years. This innovative scheme reduces the need for loan, and converts it to payment which is done after the student is in employment and the amount is dependent on the paying capacity of the student.

There is still need in the country for schemes to ensure that access is not denied, while not subsidizing education for all. Towards this, there is a strong argument to support income-linked fee-waivers, in which students whose families can afford, pay the full fee, while partial fee waivers are given to students whose families cannot afford the high cost. (In US this approach is often referred to as “need blind” admissions.)  Implementing such schemes is becoming far more feasible now with better reporting and tracking of incomes and linking of assets with Aadhaar, PAN, etc

IIIT-Delhi has been operating such a scheme for many years. While the fee has been kept close to actual cost as the Institute has to become self-sustaining on operational expenses. for ensuring access to its high quality education, IIIT-Delhi has income-linked partial-fee waiver scheme which provides for 100%, 50%, and 25% waiver for students from families with different levels of income. Recently, the Government of Delhi has agreed to cover this subsidy, allowing the Institute to widen this program and continue it. This innovative model, now backed with Government support, provides a good balance between charging the real cost of education and ensuring access to all.

I believe there is need to evolve more innovative methods to ensure access to all, while minimizing subsidy where not needed.

 

Using Online Courses for Credit in Degree Programs

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Over the last few years, well known experts from top universities across the world have been offering online courses through platforms like Coursera and EdX. These courses clearly offer high quality instruction at very little (or  zero) cost. However, their use in providing quality education, particularly to students enrolled in some degree program, has been minimal in India. In this note, I am sharing some experience at IIIT-Delhi in how we leverage these for improving our education. I understand that IIIT-Delhi may be one of the few (only?) institutions in the country using these rich resource.

Online Courses for Credit

It became apparent to us that despite limitations in education in various institutions, students simple do not go and “learn from the best” using the free course – only a few dedicated students use them (and these are probably the ones that dont need much help anyway). It is now clear to most educationists that while enrolled in a degree programs, students are not able to go and use these courses for the sake of better learning, as they study largely for getting credits to count towards graduation.

The Academic Senate of IIIT-Delhi decided that the Institute must leverage the top-class courses being offered by globally renowned professors through these recognized platforms for augmenting our elective offerings, thereby making a wider variety of choices available to students for their elective courses. To enable this, the Senate added a provision for students to earn up to 8 credits  (equal to about 2 full load course) through approved online courses.

Interestingly, even after enabling regulation for earning credits, we did not find too many student takers. We realized that students were not able to plan suitably to incorporate these online courses in their program.

We then decided to structure this better and integrate it in our academic planning. This we did by identifying online courses that are being taught during our semester (i.e. those which started and ended within our semester), and then “offer” them to students like other regular courses of the Institute. That is, the students can register for them as part of their regular registration for the semester. We took inputs from students on which online courses to offer.

This worked. In previous two semesters we have offered 3 online courses each, and this semester we are offering about 8 courses. Courses vary from technology oriented to music appreciation. The enrollment in each course varies from a few to about 40.

Administering Online Courses

Administering online courses also required some thought. First, for assigning credits to an online course, we looked at the total estimated effort in each approved course and then assigned credits based on our internal guideline of how much effort is expected for a course. E.g. most 8-10 weeks duration courses are given 2 credits, as the estimated effort of about 50-60 hours is commensurate for the 2 credits course at IIIT-Delhi. Courses where the total effort is lesser than required, additional work in the form of case study or project was given. (A full course in IIIT-Delhi is for 4 credits, with an expected work load of about 10 hrs/week.)

A course in the Institute must have an Instructor, who is responsible for finally submitting the grades for the enrolled students. And it is the Instructor’s responsibility to ensure that Institute guidelines are being followed. For this, we did the following:

  • An Instructor is assigned for all the online courses being offered in the semester. For each course, an account is opened in the Learning Management System (we use a locally developed LMS – Backpack), through which announcements are made, and required submissions are done.
  • For each online course a TA is also assigned, who is required to enrol in the online course and do the course – this ensures that TA knows what is happening in the course, and can advise the instructor, and collect suitable data from the online course from enrolled students.
  • The TA connects with the enrolled students once every 2 weeks for a course to review progress of students. Each enrolled student submits a form to show that the student is “attending” lectures and doing the assignments. The TAs meet the Instructor regularly to brief about the progress of the courses.
  • For courses that do not have sufficient work, additional work (in form of case-study, assignment, project,…) may be assigned by the Instructor to ensure that there is sufficient load and learning for the credits.

Grading

The Senate decided that in these courses, as a full fledged assessment is not feasible, the grade will be S/X (satisfactory or unsatisfactory). Even for this, it was agreed that the Institute must do due diligence to ensure that students are learning.

With S or X grades, the problem of grading got simplified somewhat. For giving an S, the following criteria is used. A student gets an S grade if he/she: (1) has listened to all of the lectures, (ii) has done all the assignments, (iii) has taken all the exams and done well, (iv) has done any extra assignment assigned, and (v) when possible, get a certificate of completion from the online course (this will be useful for the student otherwise also).

To implement the above policy, the following is being done:

  • Attendance: This is checked by looking at record of student having submitted the non-graded quizzes given at the end of the lectures, or the in-lecture quizzes (or the “tick” that appears if a student attends a lecture). As this data is not always available, the student is also required to submit a short summary of the title of the lectures in each week, and a small description of what was covered.
  • Assignments : The online platform provides record of submission of assignments – this can be used. Students show the record of this to the TA.
  • Exams : The records for these are available from the online course – students are required to submit these to the TA.
  • Extra assignment: Easy to check as this is internal and outside the platform. Report or software or other form of deliverable is used to check.
  • Certificate: If a certificate of completion is provided by the online course, then the student has to submit it to the TA.

Experience So Far

Of the approximately 75 students who have completed these courses (another 100 are currently enrolled) only 1 has got an X grade. That is, not only have the rest completed the course, but have completed it reasonably well as ensured by the process described above. This is quite remarkable when compared to the completion rates generally published for such courses (less than 15%); even for paid courses/certificates the completion rates are significantly lesser.

The student feedback in these courses is positive and a vast majority feel that the course was “very useful” (score of 4 out of 5), and most felt that the course gave them an experience similar to or better than a regular course.

Students are quite excited about the possibility of doing these courses for credits as part of their program as it allows them a whole range of courses that are otherwise not available to them. We are also seeing a growth of non-discipline courses, which students take as “open elective” credits.

Some Challenges

The main challenge currently is that as we are offering these courses as part of our offerings for a semester, the online courses must be contained within the semester. I.e. the start date and end date should be within (approximately – we can adjust a little) the semester’s start and end date. This limits the set of courses that can be offered. The model of allowing a cohort to start a course as and when desired, and end after the specified duration, and still have all the assignments and assessments available, can relieve this. Similarly, self-paced courses, provided they have all the assignments and tests, can also relieve this problem.

We have found that to check our criteria for grading, records provided by the online courses often fall short. The focus of the course providers seem to be on certification – and efforts are being made to make them reliable. However, for use within schemes like ours, more than certification, some other records to capture students’ progress can be very helpful. I think they can be very easily incorporated in the platforms.  In particular, good records of students’ attendance can help (e.g. whether the student fully saw the lecture, how much time the student spent on each lecture,…). Improved records for assignments and tests/exams will also help. Finally, suggestions for assignments or projects for further/higher/enhanced learning can also help Institutes like ours, and students who want to go beyond the minimum.

 

Faculty Attrition in Research Universities

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Faculty in a research-focused university are expected to do quality research and quality teaching – knowledge creation and dissemination being the twin goals of such an Institution. Due to the importance of research, for faculty positions in such institutions, PhD degree is normally a requirement.

However, just after PhD, neither the person, nor the selection panel of the institute, is fully sure whether the candidate is fit for an academic career with twin objectives. There are PhDs who are good in research but either do not like teaching or are not good at it, and there are those who can do good teaching but cannot do good research. For the former, a career in a research lab (Govt. or private) is more suitable, and for the latter a career in a teaching focused institution is better. For those who can do good research and do good teaching, an academic career in a research focused university is not only the most suitable, but probably the most rewarding and desirable. (It is not clear what the most suitable career path is for those who are neither good at research nor good at teaching!)

Often the clarity on which category a person belongs to and whether he/she can effectively manage a twin-objective academic career comes only after a few years of experience in academia. Unfortunately, often due to “permanent” nature of the academic jobs in India, even in research focused institutions, after the few years of experience, the person does not leave to follow what may be more suitable and appropriate path, but remains in the current job, even if he/she is not cut out for it. Clearly, such a person is unlikely to succeed in this twin-goal academic career, and the Institution is unlikely to derive the type of output it expects from such a faculty. Even the best academic institutions have many faculty members who are not quite fit for the twin-objective career, but stayed on….

To ensure that only the suitable candidates remain in the twin-objective career, it is important to systemically support movement of faculty in early years. In other words, if a faculty member or the Institute finds that he/she is not suitable for the twin-objective career, the system should encourage him/her to leave the institution early to pursue careers most suitable for themselves. The tenure system, in which a new faculty member has some initial period to prove, both to one-self and to the institute, that he/she is suitable for this career, before the job is made permanent, is one of the best model for this. Championed by the US it is now followed in some form in most countries – now even IITs given an initial contract of three years to allow the new faculty to prove that they are suitable for the career.

Overall, a limited attrition among early stage faculty, supported through a system like the tenure system, is desirable both for the Institution as well as the faculty members, and the presence of some attrition among early stage faculty is a healthy sign. In fact, it is the absence of any attrition that should be a source of concern.

Assessing a Faculty Candidate

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In the last six years I have chaired over 25 selection committee meetings for selecting faculty for our Institute, IIIT-Delhi. I have also participated as expert in many selection committees in different IITs. It is clear that there are a few key factors that research-focused institutions like IITs, IISc, some IIITs like IIIT-Delhi emphasize during their deliberations. I am sharing some these here in an attempt to share with potential faculty candidates about what is important for their career. Clearly this note is not a comprehensive list of factors that are considered; nor is it some kind of formula for doing well in selections. The aim is primarily to help candidates realize what is important for academic career, and hopefully they will take suitable actions during their PhD to strengthen these, if they want to pursue academic careers.

First, let us understand some broad ideas governing selection (and promotion) of faculty members in research-focused institutes. First, as the main roles of a faculty member are to do high quality research and high quality teaching, the focus of assessment is on these parameters. (Service, the third important role of a faculty member, is often not assessed during selections.) For assessing these, the quality of the past record, and the future potential of the candidate are both considered. The importance of these two differ at different levels – for Assistant Professor the quality of past record is important, but an assessment of future potential plays a very important role. For selection/promotion to Associate Professor, record becomes more important, and by the time promotion for Full Professor comes, record is the main factor.

This note is primarily about selection at the entry level (Assistant Professor). Main inputs during the selection process are: (i) research record as demonstrated by publications, (ii) pedigree, education record, and projects (iii) reference letters (which gives views about the record and potential of the candidate from senior academics and researchers), (iv) clarity, depth, understanding, and vision displayed during the technical seminar and interaction with faculty and selection committee (and in research statements required by some Institutes like IIIT-Delhi.)

The research record is mostly assessed by the quality of venues where the papers have been published, as it is expected that the impact, as measured by citation etc, may not yet be known. Here, a candidate with a few publications in top quality journals and conferences (and others in decent places) is likely to be strongly preferred over one who has a larger number of publications but all in average venues. In fact many average venue publications with no top venue publication can be a source of serious concern. I am aware of cases where candidate with very few publications have been selected unanimously, while those with large number of publications has been rejected unanimously. Research statement, where asked, is an additional input – a crisp statement which indicates some good understanding of the context, and the types of problems the person wants to work on in the coming few years is likely to be viewed positively.

Pedigree and education record is assessed by the quality of course work, including the projects one may have done. Projects are important to demonstrate that the person is able to apply theory to engineer and build systems – a capability that is very useful when one is teaching courses. Teaching statement is another input – it is important to clearly specify the type of courses one would like to teach – both at core level as well as advanced level, along with the approach. A teaching statement saying that the person can teach a whole range of diverse topics is not a good statement.

Reference letters provide support for the above as well as the last factor. Here I can provide useful input more as a letter writer. A graduating student is likely to get strong letter from professors if he/she has, of course, done good research work. But the letter is likely to be stronger if the scholar has displayed rigor, responsibility, innovation, and initiative during the years he/she has worked with the professor.

The last factor is extremely important and heavily relied upon and is very important for PhD students and those aspiring for academic careers to understand. While publications are clearly important and necessary to show your research capability, a good understanding of the area and problems, what is important and what is not, how the area is evolving and where is it going, etc is very important. This capability comes from deep scholarship, critical evaluation of the works in the field, and clarity of thought and communication. It is given importance as only with it can a person do impactful work or insightful teaching. In other words this capability reflects the potential for doing good research and teaching. Hence, besides building a good publication record, a PhD student aspiring for an academic career, should also focus on deep scholarship and understanding, clarity of thought and communication, vision, etc. It should be added that the area of expertise is also an important factor in assessment, but its importance depends on the needs of the institution.

Finally, let me mention a small point that can help candidates in their own decision making as well as during selections. When a candidate visits an Institute, it will help to have done some homework about the Institution prior to visiting – this understanding can even be reflected in small ways by suitably enhancing the research plan and the teaching plan. This not only will create a better impression during interactions in the visit and selection committee, it can also help the candidate better understand the Institute and his/her fitment in it.

Though the note focused on selections for academic positions, all these factors will clearly play an important role during recruitment by research labs (other sought after career by PhDs) also, though they are more likely to give a higher weight to the nature of the research area and its applicability.

Is IIIT-Delhi the right choice for you

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IIIT-Delhi has established itself as one of the top institutions in the country for CSE/ECE research and education – it has modern curriculum and programs, its faculty is as good as the best in the country, and it has high quality and modern infrastructure. Its placement record is comparable to the best, and a good fraction of its students get opportunities for higher studies in good universities (visit placement page for records on these.) It is undoubtedly one of the best places for pursuing CSE/ECE.

However, it is also clear that the programs at IIIT-Delhi may not be suitable for all. Every year during the counselling I used to mention to prospective students some points about whether IIIT-Delhi is the right choice for him/her, and what traits a student should have if he/she is to effectively leverage the high quality education it offers. As this time there is no face-to-face counselling, I am putting down some key points here. (I had earlier written a note on my blog on the same topic. This one is more focused and tries to give a prospective student some specific guidance to self-assess whether IIIT-Delhi is the right choice.)

Based on observations and discussions with faculty and many students, we can identify three traits that are necessary for a student to do well at IIIT-Delhi. These are:

  • Ability to work hard. Each semester a student has to do 4 to 5 courses, and each course requires about 10 hours of total work per week (including lectures). This means that a student must be ready to work a few hours every day after classes, and 10+ hours during the weekend. If a student is not able to put in hard work consistently during the semester, the student may find difficulties in coping with academics at IIIT-Delhi.
  • Interest in programming. Students in both CSE and ECE will do many courses which will heavily involve programming in different languages like Python, C, Java, MATLAB. Many of the advanced courses and independent projects also involve considerable programming.  If a student does not like programming, he/she is likely to face difficulties and many courses can become stressful. For those who have no experience with programming judging this will have to be done indirectly. One proxy can be –  if you like doing logic-based puzzles and riddles, mathematical problems, analysing  different possibilities for a situation/problem, solving problems, etc, and have the patience for doing these, there is a good chance that you may like programming. Another way to find out is to ask a friend who knows programming to help you write and run some programs and use that experience to judge whether you will like programming.  (A clarification: you do not need to know programming from before – all students are taught programming in 1st Semester.)
  • Interest in learning. It is known that learning style of a student can either be surface learning or deep learning (a search on Internet on these will give many references). Surface learners focus on memorizing, learning just to pass the test, etc. – i.e. they don’t really like learning but do the needful to get the marks or pass the test (which often students do for Board or a competitive exam.) Deep learners focus on understanding the subject and apply their understanding to problem solving – i.e. they like to learn and understand and apply the knowledge, and do the needful for that. Most courses at IIIT-Delhi will challenge the students and require them to learn deeply and apply the knowledge in the assignments, projects, etc. Students who are surface learners can face difficulties.

We believe that a student needs all three traits to do well in IIIT-Delhi. If all the above three hold, then IIIT-Delhi is an excellent choice for you, and the Institute will love to have you as a student. Such students will blossom into top quality professionals through education at IIIT-Delhi.

If any of the above does not hold for you, you should seriously consider whether IIIT-Delhi is the right choice for you.

On another note – what a student does after graduation is a student’s choice, and it is expected that many students may opt for different kinds of careers after graduating. However, if a student knows at the time of joining the BTech program that engineering (CSE or ECE) is not his/her cup of tea, and is only joining the program to get a degree in engineering, then I feel there would be other options that will better suit this goal. The program at IIIT-Delhi is rigorous and strongly engineering focused. It is not a good idea to join this program if you already know that you don’t want to do engineering.

Preparing for your Future

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This is a small talk I have been giving to students in IIIT-Delhi on what they can do in their first 3 years of a 4 year program (or 1st year of their MTech program), so that in their final year, when they are assessed for jobs or higher studies, doors to exciting opportunities open.

Have converted it to a short video which is available here on IIIT-Delhi channel. The main theme/text of the talk is given below.

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Most students in technical education programs – BTech or MTech – are hoping that at the end of their education they will either get good placements, or get good options for higher studies.  For a job in a company, a company will pay you a compensation of X to a person only if you can generate 3X or more value for them. And for this they will assess understanding of various subjects, skills in programming, design, circuit building, etc, and ability to use the knowledge and understanding for problem solving.  They spend a lot of effort to figure out the capabilities and skills – most good companies will do multiple rounds of interview by technical people. In other words, you cannot talk your way through – you must possess these skills and capabilities to convince them that you have them.

For higher studies, in particular for MS and PhD, the main assessment is whether you have the capability to do good projects or do good research. For this, you do need a decent CGPA, but after that they will look at projects you have done, and papers you may have written. Letters written by your professors are given a considerable weight – and a faculty member gives a strong letter only when he/she has seen your hard work, sincerity, commitment, and delivery.

The question for a student is: What should you do in your first three years (or first year of MTech) to have these attributes, so doors for exciting opportunities open in the final year. For this, we can classify the students in two categories.

Category I student: One who has in his/her first three (or one) years

  • Solved easier problems
  • Developed easy program/circuits
  • Learned enough to do well in the tests
  • Avoided hard courses, did few projects, few initiatives
  • Overall optimized the effort – did what was asked; limited effort for learning; copied when it got too difficult; …

So, such a student’s capabilities are:

  • Can write simple/short programs
  • Can solve simple problems
  • Have some understanding of easy subjects
  • Have forgotten many things I had learnt
  • Can work just enough to get work done

Category II students: One who has in last three (or one) years:

  • Attempted many hard problems and solved some of them
  • Tried to develop deeper understanding in most subjects – by asking questions, doing problems, figuring things out,…
  • Taken many “difficult” courses, though didn’t always get good grade in them
  • Built interesting systems / software / projects
  • Took initiatives, engaged in many ways in academics and outside

So such a student’s capabilities are:

  • Understands most of the subjects and concepts well, and can apply them
  • Have the confidence to build complex systems and software and can solve hard problems
  • Understands complex topics, and have strong ability to learn new (and difficult) subjects
  • Can work hard and beyond what is required

It should be evident to all students, that if you want to be taken seriously, you have to be in category II. And this not just for technology job – even for non-tech roles, category II student will be highly preferred.

And which category you belong to is entirely your choice. It is not about the institute, particularly institute like ours where excellent courses are being taught by extremely qualified and competent faculty. All the things mentioned above are choices you make. So, it is up to you to decide which category you belong to and which doors you want opening for you.

For being in category II, you need to reflect about the (i) your level of effort, (ii) your learning approach, and (iii) your level of engagement.

Finally, if you want to do something to be in category II, here is my suggestion. Reflect upon this and resolve to take some actions. These should be such that you can yourself measure and examine if you are following them. Write them down – the post it on your laptop, make it your wallpaper, or whatever is needed to be reminded. And then follow it relentlessly.

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