By Sharad Patil
It is generally acknowledged that there are many things seriously wrong with our system of education. Otherwise we could not have become so corrupt or so incompetent. Of course it is possible to argue quite convincingly that because we are so corrupt and incompetent, we have produced the present system of education. But then it is the usual question about the precedence of the egg or the chicken. Whatever that may be, and we will leave it to the sociologists to argue, and analyse it interminably, surely there is little doubt that the education we get these days is far from satisfactory. Particularly deplorable is the situation is what we call as higher education which may be defined as any programme of education which follows the 10th class.
To be specific, any form of education does not seem to have concerned itself adequately with the very purpose of education:- acquisition, analysis, and utilisation of knowledge (vidya as we call it) and perhaps most importantly, to develop our children into good citizens of our society. Of course the difficulties involved in developing a good educational institute are enormous and varied:- some of them being scarcity of funds, scarcity of quality teachers, quality books, quality facilities and so on. However there is one aspect of education, namely examinations, which is quite important in shaping the attitude of the students, and which is relatively easy to modify and improve. The point I want to make here is that one can use the examinations to help in developing the character of a child, to direct his/her attitude and improve his/her capabilities.
I teach physics at IIT Bombay, which admits certain flexibility to teachers to experiment. I would like to describe a form of examination which I have been conducting here. It reveals many aspects of the mind and thinking of our young students which are interesting and thought provoking. I am aware of the fact that the students of IIT are not the average variety, nor is physics a typical subject. Nevertheless, I think the implications are not specific but are relevant to all students and to subjects other than physics.
There was no time limit. Students were allowed to bring notes. And there was no invigilation.I started with the intention that the examination should simulate the problems one faces in real life. As such it should test the ability to analyse a given problem. In this process, information recall is not as important as the ability to sift through the information and separate those parts which pertain to the given problem. These relevant elements should then be used to solve the problem. Of course, information and its meaning are important, but in real life it is not necessary to remember all the minute details of the various formulae; they can be obtained from books and notes. And certainly, the element of time is not particularly important in real life. It does not matter very much whether one solves the problem within 10 minutes or in 1 hour. These factors essentially decided the type of examinations we should have. The question paper consisted of a few problems. There was no time limit. The student could take 5 minutes or 10 hours to write the answers. They were allowed to bring notes but not printed books (to ensure that some students do not have additional advantage). The most important point, however, was that there was no invigilation!
I would go to the place of the examination, usually in our own department, and tell the students: “If our education has not taught us the principles of honesty and fairness, then we might as well forget all about it; it is a total failure. Please give me your word that you will not use any unfair means. You can use your notes, take as much time as you want but not more than a day. You can go for tea, lunch or dinner and talk to anyone but not about physics. I am certainly not a policeman and I trust you and your conscience to follow these guidelines.” After distributing the question papers and answer books I would stay there for about half an hour to sort out any difficulties that arose in understanding the questions and then go back to my office. Once every hour or so I would drop in into the examination room to find out if there were any difficulties. In between some of the students would come to my office to clarify some ambiguities. Around 7.00 pm in the evening I would again go to the examination room, give the students the keys to my office and instruct the students that the two students who would finish last had the responsibility of turning off the lights and fans, close the examination room, and leave the answer books in one of the drawers in my office. I have followed this procedure for about 20 years now. What has the response been?
First of all, let me make it clear that to set questions which require an analysis, beyond the basic theory, is not the easiest of tasks. Sometimes it has taken me hours to set a single question. The questions must be of the kind to answer which it is not enough that the students have their notes on hand. It is also necessary that one has carefully thought about the basic results and their implications. These questions demand a deeper understanding of the subject and encourage creative thinking so that it can be used to develop in the student the correct attitude towards acquiring knowledge.
Did the students keep my trust and refrain from using unfair means? The most important fallout from these open examinations – open in notes, open in time, and open in trust, has been the response of the students. I have generally offered my students the choice of the usual closed book, three hour examination or the open examination with self imposed constraints. Every time the students have chosen the open examination which in many ways is much harder. Then there has been the all important question: Did the students keep my trust and refrain from using unfair means? Did they not communicate answers to one another, or discuss with other, or refer to books? They certainly had all the time and opportunities. I do not have a definite answer to this question but I am confident that by and large they have kept this word and my trust. In support of my assertion let me describe a few incidents.
Over the last 20 years, 2 examinations per semester, two semester per year, that is about 80 examinations, I have come across only two violations of this code of trust. In one case while evaluating the paper, I discovered Plank’s constant ‘h’ appearing and disappearing in successive steps of one answer. This mystified me and I sent a message to the student asking him to see me. The same evening, the student came to my office around 6.30 PM. Before I could begin, he confessed to copying from his neighbour. He asked me to mete out any punishment I thought fit to give him. I just expressed my disappointment and a hope that he would not violate the code of trust in future. This student is now in a good university in the USA and he writes to me occasionally assuring me that he has kept his word since then.
In another incident, two students dropped into my office around 6.30 pm and voluntarily confessed to copying a small part of the answer from each other. They were ready to accept any punishment and stated that this was to be their last act of copying. On my part, I left out the copied part from grading. It is possible that there were some other instances of the use of unfair means which have not come to my notice. I am sure they have not been serious. It should be noted that in principle one can detect copying by observing striking similarities in answers, particularly those which are erroneous. I have also consulted several students, particularly the toppers and they have assured me the ‘conscience’ guidelines have been followed by and large. The frequent answer has been “Sir, you have trusted us. We have to return that trust”. This point appears to have become a matter of prestige to them.
The student failed the course but in my opinion he passed a more important examination, one on integrity.Having mentioned some of the failures, it is with great pleasure that I record some positive, heart warming responses to the open examination. In the final examination this semester, one student took a break from the examination. He went back to his hostel and was having tea on one of the lawns when a friend joined him. Queried on what he was doing, the student replied that he was having an examination in statistical physics but was taking a break. His friend said, “Those senior toppers are there on the next lawn. Why don’t you go and get the solutions from them?” The student to his great credit is reported to have replied, “I cannot do that. You see, he trusts us”. In another incident, i met a former student after 10 years. In the meantime he had completed his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University and had just joined IIT as a faculty member. He recollected that I had conducted physics tutorials for his section. He added, “One thing I will always remember. We had a quiz. You came, distributed the paper and said, ‘Oh, surely I can trust you” and went away. And believe me, not one of us copied or used any unfair means.”
On another occasion I went to the examination room at around 7.00 PM. There were only two students and they were talking quite loudly. I got the impression that the topic was non-physics, but made no comment. When I examined the answers, I specifically compared the answer books of these two students. And with great relief and satisfaction, I found no similarity in the answers of the two. Indeed, one of them secured about 40 marks out of 50 whereas the other secured only 20 marks. The one who secured 20 marks had all the opportunities to improve his score but to keep faith, refrained from doing it.
Another event is still fresh in my mind. Just last month, in the final examination of the course on statistical physics, one student wrote the answer to just one part of only one question and a short humorous poem about the strange behaviour of electrons. The answer fetched him 3 marks and a fail grade. Again the student could have used any number of means to pass the course. He had the whole day to do it but he did not. He may have failed the course but in my opinion he passed a more important examination, one on integrity.
These then are some of responses I have received in our small experiment in trust. Some small setbacks yes, but mostly heartwarming incidents. It may be that such an experiment can be conducted only in small groups of 20 or 30 and in an intimate atmosphere which IITs provide. Nevertheless, it is reassuring. When I think of these boys and girls, surrounded by the harsh world, instinctively realising the value of integrity, returning a little trust with so much more, I cannot but feel proud and optimistic about the future of our country.
(Dr. Sharad Patil is a Professor in the Department of Physics at IIT Bombay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)