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.

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