Widen the Entrance Criteria in Higher Education Institutions

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It is well established that good quality higher education is the best way to open doors to a variety of opportunities – that is why world over students vie to get into the best universities and colleges. Due to this, while school education is meant to lay the foundation for a broad development of the individual, the single most important goal of school education becomes getting admission in a high quality higher education institutions (HEI).

Admission to our HEIs is based almost exclusively on performance in exams – class XII or entrance test. Most engineering institutes admit students through entrance test, though now class XII marks are also given weight, and most universities like Delhi University give admission based on class XII marks (though have some seats for sports etc). So, regardless of what educationists may like to see, students, parents, and teachers all eventually align to a single goal as outcome of school education – doing well in class XII exams and competitive entrance tests. As nothing else matters for achieving the important goal of getting into a high quality HEI, other aspects of development that the school education is supposed to provide, are mostly ignored.

As a result of  this exclusive focus on exams, a student who does innovative projects in schools demonstrating innate talent and interest for engineering is precisely the one who may not make it to the best engineering institutions as he/she “wasted” time doing these projects – time which could have been more optimally used in coaching classes. Similarly, a student who does internship in some company and writes a report on the economics of a sector – perhaps the ideal candidate for an economics program – may not be able to get into a good economics program as others who spent all the time preparing for exams get higher marks. Similarly, students who engage in school debates, participate in social work, sports, or other activities that can broaden their development and horizons, are often at a disadvantage for getting admitted to HEIs as compared to those who spend their time preparing for tests. This uni-focus on attaining high test scores also inevitably leads to shallow learning styles which maximize performance in tests but prevent deep understanding of subjects.

This focus on exams cannot be changed just by exhortation or changing the pattern of the exam or bemoaning the state of affairs. We have to squarely accept the fact that the most important goal for a student is indeed getting admission into best colleges, and if we want students to have wider development in schools, we have to widen the criteria for admission to include achievements and efforts outside tests.

One direct approach can be to assign some marks (say 20 out of 100) for achievement in other spheres while the remaining 80 can remain based on results of class XII and entrance test. With this, the problem reduces to developing sound procedures for assigning marks out of 20 for achievement in other spheres. This will be a challenge but not one that is unsurmountable – PG/MBA programs or public service exams routinely do this, by having an interview and assigning some weight to it.

IIIT-Delhi has been following another approach for the last few years for this. In IIIT-Delhi, for admission in BTech program, up to 10 bonus marks (on a base of 100) are given for achievements in various spheres, through a published criteria. For example, bonus marks are given to students who reach final stages of various Olympiads, participate in national school games, have Chess FIDE rating, get an award in the INSPIRE or IGNITE program, win prize in programming contests, have ministry of culture’s scholarship for talent, etc. The program was slow to start, but in the previous two batches, over 10% of the students admitted are ones who have received bonus marks.

We have also done some analysis of how these students perform in our Institute. As we had anticipated, the first year performance in the Institute of the students who had received bonus marks was significantly better than the performance of students without bonus marks (the average CGPA was higher by more than 1.) This clearly demonstrated that students with broader base are likely to be better prepared for higher education.

Most US universities, while giving a considerable weight to SAT scores and performance in high school, consider a host of other factors and achievements for admission. In fact, in top universities it is now known that just good grades and SAT scores are not sufficient, and students must show other achievements. This hugely motivates families to develop other aspects of a students’ personality – sports, culture, social work, volunteering, etc. If we start incorporating achievements and contributions in other spheres in admission to most of our top HEIs, we may also see an increase in motivation and drive to undertake such activities in school – this can only be good for our students and their development.

First Year of College may be Critical for Success

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Many faculty have observed that often performance of students in later years of a 4-year program is similar to the performance achieved in the first year. At IIIT-Delhi we did some analysis of student performance in the Institute in various years and relationship between them. IIIT-Delhi has a rigorous and demanding education program, as good as the best in the country, and taught by faculty with qualifications similar to those of faculty in established IITs. Its program, though somewhat different and more innovative than in older institutions, is similar to the programs in IITs and top universities across the world – it has a common first year program, core courses for the discipline done in a few semesters after the first year, and mostly electives in final few semesters. Therefore, I suspect the trends in our analysis may hold for other similar autonomous institutions which have high quality education.  Some interesting findings are:

  • Correlation between performance in first semester and second semester is over 0.8. In other words, for most students, performance in second semester is similar to the performance in the first semester.
  • The performance in an academic year is very strongly correlated with performance in the previous academic year – again correlation of more than 0.8. In other words, performance in 2nd year has a strong correlation with performance in 1st ,  3rd year performance is highly correlated with 2nd, and 4th year performance is highly correlated with the 3rd.

Before discussing what these correlations may mean, it should be emphasised that these are statistics – they apply in a general sense and not to an individual. An individual student’s record may not follow the above pattern at all – someone may have had a bad 1st semester/year (due to illness, lack of seriousness,…) who can do much better later. And someone who takes first year seriously and then slacks off, will find performance falling.

What do these mean for students in a general sense.   The data seems to suggest that the first semester and year can often be the most defining year of a students’ college education, and the performance in first year often reflects the level at which the student is likely to perform academically in the rest of his/her program. First year of the program is when the students are settling in their new life at a university/college with the freedom and responsibility that comes with it – a life very different from that in school which is far more structured and defined by the teachers, school discipline, uniform, parental oversight, etc. It seems that the students define their approach to college life and academics in the first year and often develop habits, discipline, and balance (or lack of it) which is likely to stay with them for the rest of the program.

As mentioned, while the data suggests this for most student, it need not apply to all students. If a student misses building the discipline and balance in the first year, but realises the folly of his/her ways later (say after a semester or a year), this data should be treated as a statistic that can be overcome – by putting the due effort for making up for the lack of effort in the first sem/year, or by repeating the first year, if the university allows. (In IIIT-Delhi students who do not pass some number of courses in the first year have to repeat the first year. In the past we have seen that there are some cases of students who have changed their behavior after repeating the year and have successfully completed the program with good CGPA.)

What does the data mean for academic institutions and administrators? One clear insight is that first semester (and the first year) can be extremely critical to a student’s success in the program. Therefore, to help students succeed in the program, it is important to provide good support to them in their first semester (year) – not just for academics but also for developing good habits and discipline. This implies that the systems we have for later year students, may not be well suited for students in their first year, who require closer monitoring and more support and counselling.

To conclude, data suggests that incoming students should be extra cautious and alert when starting their higher education program – while a student must explore new ideas, build new bonds, try new activities, pursue non-academic interests, engage in deep discussions in the canteen, etc, he/she must not lose sight of academics, as that is the primary purpose of entering a university. Students must develop sound habits and a good discipline and balance in their first year – the habits and discipline developed in first year is likely to persist through the rest of their program; laxity in the first year may make it harder to make up in later years.

And for Institutions the data clearly suggests that special measures must be taken to handle students in their first year – they are just transitioning from school to college and support must be provided so they can develop a proper balance and discipline to handle college life. (At IIIT-Delhi, a few years ago we started a one-week induction program for the new students where issues like this are discussed with them by counselors, senior students, and other professionals. And we have started a program of monitoring first year students more carefully in the key courses and provide extra support where needed.)

Summer Camp for School Children at IIIT-Delhi

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In summer 2016, IIIT-Delhi organised a 5 week summer camp for school students. I attended the valedictory session, and asked the students “what have you learned in this summer camp that you will take back to your lives after the summer camp”.  Here are some replies (almost verbatim):

  • We used to be afraid of going on stage, but now we are confident to go on stage and perform
  • We learned the right ways to work in groups –  we should first listen and understand everyone’s approach , know the thoughts of fellow group members and then we should think how to work with them, we should not impose our thought on them right away
  • Discipline and punctuality: we should always respect time and be disciplined
  • A student should not hurry in learning something, we should be focused towards getting something but should not be in hurry to get that
  • We should have patience and work hard towards our goals – sometimes we make mistakes only because we are in hurry
  • We should not be afraid to participate in competitions
  • We should not be afraid to make mistakes, we should learn from our mistakes
  • We shouldn’t hesitate in asking questions in the class room
  • We should be focused towards our goals; people will try to distract us, but we should remain selfish towards our goal.
  • We should not be disheartened by our failures or mistake, we should take pride in that and get motivated by them
  • We should not demotivate others.

You may be forgiven to think that the participants of the summer camp are very senior students or scholars and were taught by erudite faculty – these are indeed words of wisdom that are expected from people with experience. But these are statements from 12-14 years old students of class 8-9 from a few of the neighboring government schools! And the summer camp was taught by IIIT-Delhi’s student volunteers – most of them in first year of their BTech program.

When I asked the question, I thought it was a hard question for kids of this age. And I asked them to think for a few minutes before answering – half expecting that they will answer by mentioning some knowledge or skill they had acquired in the summer camp. But I was completely floored, and touched, by what these students, mostly from disadvantaged families, had to say – these are lessons that we, in privileged institutions, can learn from these students.

In particular, the lesson on discipline and punctuality, which they not only articulated but also followed in their behaviour – most students would come to the class before time – a fact our volunteers pointed out in amazement and surprise. This is clearly something students of priveleaged institutions (mostly from well off families) can learn – while these students came eager to learn as they had got access to something nice, in colleges and universities, even in the top institutions, we face the problem of students not attending or coming late in class, and not following the basic discpline of putting effort for their learning. I guess many of the college going students, as they perhapes got most things in life easily – provided by their families, feel that even knowledge and skills will come easily without discipline and effort. Alas, knowledge and skills (and things like health) are capabilities which even the richest person in the world can get only by his/her own effort – resources/money can at best smoothen or facilitate the process.

Now some background. This summer camp was the outcome of a program that we had launched in IIIT-Delhi for helping students in government schools in our neighborhood using student volunteers from our Institute. The program itself was inspired by the efforts of the Delhi Government for improving education in government schools – many academicians and thinkers believe that for improving education and student development in the country, improving the quality of education in government schools is essential. And we felt that an Institute like IIIT-Delhi can try to contribute in small ways to this.

In the program, teams of students visited a few schools on Saturdays for a few hours during which they engaged with students of different ages. The interaction was around problem solving, general knowledge, maths, communication, fun activities, etc. – by design it was not regular subject teaching.

Based on experience of our student volunteers, and their enthusiasm, we decided to organize this summer camp. Students from about 10 schools were invited for this 5 week program (about 4 hours every day). A set of student volunteers from IIIT-Delhi was identified to work with the students. It was agreed that the summer school should be fun and around building their confidence and some skills. We finally decided that the summer school will discuss concepts from maths and science, personality development and communication skills, computer skills, and general knowledge in the program, besides playing games. A training program was organized for the student volunteers of the program. It is completely to the credit of our student volunteers and the student leaders of the program that they ensured that the programs are interactive and fun.

Many of our student volunteers (appx 20 from first year) also used it to complete their Community Work (CW) requirement of graduation. CW requires each student to spend about 75 hours doing community work – it is a requirement for graduation. Mostly students work with various NGOs during summer for CW – many of them teach in some programs run by various organizations. This summer, our summer camp became another option for CW – and many students took it with gusto, led by some senior students who were driven by pure passion.

Seeing what I saw – a set of happy and excited kids who are not afraid to stand up and talk or give a small speech in the lecture hall of IIIT-Delhi – I am convinced that this is a remarkable program we have initiated. While it started as a program for “giving back” to society, it is clear that our students and us also gained a lot from this – I personally feel very satisfied with this contribution of our Institute and its students. And if some of these students, using the confidence they have gained and aspirations that got kindled, finally end up in institutes like IITs or IIIT-Delhi – it will be the clinching proof of how students of Institution like ours can contribute, without compromising their own goals while also deriving a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing what their efforts can do.

Let me end by acknowledging with respect the dedication of the students from IIIT-Delhi  who coordinated and ran this program with commitment, and ownership.  I am sure that with this success, and happiness that accrues, we will have no difficulty in getting support from our students for continuing this program in coming years. I also hope that this program becomes a model which students in other Institutions/Colleges across the country can use to organize summer camp in many more institutions and colleges of higher education across the state/country.

Some photos from the summer camp can be found in this post. An article on this in the newspaper Hindustan can be found here. A story on this is on our site.

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.

Effective Study Habits

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Most students want to do well in their studies – they want to learn, get good grades/marks, and do well in opportunities that good education can provide. In College life, besides studies, self growth is also an important goal for students. Therefore they need to effectively balance the two goals, which often conflict. In this pursuit, effective study habits can be very useful. They can help to learn effectively and efficiently, thus leaving sufficient time for other activities in life without compromising your academics. However, we have realized that many students are not clear on how to study effectively.

There is literature on this subject available – indeed there is a full book on it (multiple copies of which are in IIIT-D library). However, students often think these are too idealized or impractical, or that they do not apply to their environment or situation.

To better understand what works well in an environment like that of IIIT-Delhi, one of our graduating students (Digvijay Singh) interacted with a set of students from his batch who were known to have good understanding of various subjects, who we will refer to as effective students (this set of students we determined not by grades but by their performance in interviews and exams conducted by best companies that visited us and general input from faculty and students about their understanding, knowledge, skills.) We further validated the outcome of this study by interacting with a set of students of the current batch who have been doing well. It should be noted that not all of them are in the high CGPA category – many of them are below 8.0. It should be pointed out that this is not a statistically and scientifically rigorous study. Also, the habits mentioned here are the common ones, which most effective students we talked to followed. It does not mean that these are the only methods. However, I believe if these practices are sound and if students follow these, they can expect to be effective in their learning.

The three main effective study practices that emerged are:

  • Lectures. Attending lectures regularly and taking notes in them, even if the lectures are not very exciting/engaging, is a practice most effective students followed. This makes sense –students who do not follow this in the hope that they will “make up” for the lectures they miss, generally do not end up “making up”, and soon find themselves lost with too much to catch up. And missing lectures can easily become a habit, which is clearly to be avoided. The two aspect of this practice are (i) attend the lectures, (ii) make notes in the lectures – not copy what the faculty is writing, but making notes in your own language. The second point is important – copying from the board/slide is a passive act which does not help in learning, but making notes in your own words is an active learning task, which engages the student and helps in learning. Paying attention in lectures actually helps save time – a student is likely to take much more time to understand and learn the topic by him/herself, if he/she does not attend the lecture, or is inattentive.
  • Assignments. Do the assignments yourself – most effective students did most of the assignments themselves, even if it took them more time or even if they were not able to complete in time. While lectures introduce the topics and concepts, the real learning and skill building of a student happens during assignments – this is where the students practices and tries to apply the concept/method. So, without doing assignments yourself, there can be really no learning. It should be noticed that taking help (not copying) from friends in assignments is fine, particularly when one is stuck. Indeed taking and giving help in form of discussions, explanations, guiding is a good way of learning.
  •  Weekly revision/sync-up. All effective students have some method of ensuring that they have revised the material covered in the previous week or so, and that they prepared for the next week’s lectures and work. This practice I am calling weekly sync-up (even though students might be practicing this over somewhat longer periods.) Some revise regularly, some do revision with the assignment, some during the weekends, etc., but one common theme is that they sync-up regularly and ensure that they are not behind or lost, as they realize that if they continue while being lost, they will not recover. (One student said that if he could not follow two lectures well, it was a big warning sign and he would put extra work to catch up.) This practice ensures that even if they missed a lecture/assignment, they make up for it and do not fall behind. Without this practice, there is a real risk that a student can fall behind so much that it will be very hard to catch up,…. In a semester of 4 months with a student doing 5 courses, one simply can’t really afford to fall behind too much!

This can be viewed as the LAW for effective studying. Follow the LAW, with suitable enhancements/ modifications to suit your style, and the chances are that you will become an effective learner, and derive the benefits that come from that.

There are some other practices which some effective students also used:

  • Prioritising work. When there are many tasks from multiple courses, as well as from other activities, there will clashing deadlines. Prioritising will clearly be important in such a situation to achieve the most in the limited time. As one student said: “In such a scenario, life becomes a lot easier when you manually set down targets to be achieved by what deadline (which maybe before/ same day as your submission deadlines). Use sticky notes as gentle reminders to yourself so you can use your time wisely when brunt of work is more.”
  • Group study (though many prefer individual study)
  • Group and individual projects. As said by one student: “While it is good to do projects in team to learn teamwork and leadership qualities, I used to push myself and sometimes go forth with individual projects. Undoubtedly, it takes more effort and time, but it boosted my confidence in my own abilities to handle projects single-handedly and made me more self-reliant and self-sufficient.”
  • Help other students – explain to them as explaining helps them understand better (my note: by discussing/clarifying you are helping your friend, but by providing your assignment to your friends for copying you are actually hurting them as you are discouraging them to learn, besides taking them the slippery slope of using unfair means.)
  • Take help from friends for understanding – most students indicated that face-to-face discussion with friends was the first and most common approach they used for clarifying doubts/material. If this did not work then they will go to discussion forums, instructor,…
  • Academics gets the first priority – this is more a value statement but was commonly echoed by most of the students. While they all engaged in other activities (most of them are quite active in clubs, events, etc., they are clear that academics get the highest priority

Besides these practices, there is one attitude/trait I would like to highlight, which I have seen in many students who have done well in whatever they do after college education – and that is curiosity and initiative to go beyond the courses. Many effective students engage in some technical activities that they do which are not needed for their courses – i.e. they take the initiative to go beyond the courses. Examples of these initiatives can be: participating in competitive programming, participating in technical clubs, learning on your own about topics that interest you, listening to some technical lectures on YouTube/Coursera/EdX, trying out some concepts, learning some programming language on your own, teaching students who are facing challenges in their courses (teaching, it is well known and established, is the most effective way to learn – teaching to someone else truly clarifies the topic in one’s own mind) etc. I believe that those students who are ambitious and want to reach higher in life, developing this trait/style is absolutely essential.

I hope the students will devise their own methods for being effective students using the LAW, and going beyond. I hope this little study will be helpful to them in devising their own strategies.