Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bashing the Joint Entrance Exam of the IITs


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I have an update on JEE's bias against women.

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Outlook's Sugata Srinivasaraju has collected several strands of complaints against the dreaded -- and dreadfully brutal -- Joint Entrant Examination of the IITs. And in a welcome development, several IIT faculty members have come forward to voice their strong views against this "gruesome" examination that "reduces young people to automatons" who "[rely] on pattern recognition":

But what is the chief complaint about the JEE system and quality of students getting into the IITs? The JEE tests are said to be of an irrationally high standard, which makes students depend on intensive coaching at the cost of systematic scientific education and normal teenage activities.

Take a look at the critique of three IIT Kanpur professors on the JEE system in an in-house journal. Prof Vijay Gupta writes: "Teaching and coaching are two different kinds of things. Even the best coaching does not attempt to clarify concepts. It does not inculcate the spirit of inquiry. It does not train persons in starting from first principles. Instead it relies on pattern recognition. Do enough problems so that when you see a problem in the exam, you can recall the special trick required to obtain the answer.... Most entrants into IITs have not read a single book in their last three years or so." Prof B.N. Banerjee touches upon his classroom experience: "JEE has spawned a system that reduces young people to automatons, in more senses than one. They not only become robots in academics, as all of us can see in our core teaching encounters, they even resemble one another in personality. Gone are the sparkling eyes and scintillating engagements that used to be the teacher's joy..."

When the inputs for getting into IITs is itself flawed, how could one expect the finished product to be a bright spark? "One cannot get a diamond out of clay or ordinary stone, however much it is polished," says Prof M.R. Madhav. In a mail exchange, a IIT-Madras professor admitted: "One thing my colleagues and I seem to agree is about the damage that the gruesome entrance exam causes to the motivation of a student to study seriously after entering the campus. Having seen fellow students decades ago and my students now, I should say there is a deterioration."

I have linked to Prof. B.N. Banerjee's critique of the JEE from seven years ago; here are some excerpts:

Across the IITs, there is a deep-rooted belief that because JEE is the examination of the IITs, it must be of a standard that is much higher than that of other institutions. I have repeatedly heard the argument that the JEE question papers have helped in raising the standards of education in our country. Another argument often heard is that the coaching establishments are providing education of a high standard. These arguments fly in the face of the obvious fact that the average standard of our students has been falling over the past decade and a half. JEE has spawned a regime of science education through problem solving, in which comprehension is equated with the ability to work out the answers to outlandish, tricky problems. The more such problems that a student knows, the more acceptable he is to JEE. The little exposure that I have had to the methodology of the coaching establishments tells me that they do not educate; they break up the material into little modules that consist of problem types and the student learns to recognise and deal with hundreds of such problems. Understanding of the concepts has nothing to do with it. [...]

It is argued that, if the examination were any easier, it would be impossible to discriminate and select students. The fact is that, even now, we are not doing a very good job of discriminating. The examination is so hard and the scores so low, that chance plays a very big part. Who would be so brave as to assert that, of two low-scoring students in a low scoring examination, one is better than the other? Or that the student who just missed the cut is inferior? In my opinion, the successful candidates of JEE can be divided into three groups. These divisions would be, roughly, the first three hundred ranks, then the next five or six hundred ranks and finally all the others who are ranked below, say, nine hundred. On another day, the members of this third group may not make the cut at all.

Why have we been so singularly ineffective in reforming this examination which Newsweek magazine has recently referred to as "this notorious examination"? I do not have all the answers, but some explanations are obvious. I believe that the most significant factor is our inability to appreciate that the candidates for JEE are school students, coupled with our ignorance of the standards of school examinations. Perhaps we have the subconscious notion that we are testing IIT material. Perhaps we are shackled by the level at which we teach our core courses. Another possible factor is our constant phobia about the coaching institutions. The race between these institutions and the JEE paper setters is a vicious and self-nourishing cycle. [...]

What we need is one, single, standardized exam whose primary goal must be, well, standardization of curriculum and teaching in India's many school examination boards. Ideally, this exam should be organized multiple times a year (it should preferably be available on tap -- anytime, anywhere); and statistical weighting of questions -- standardization! -- should minimize the role of luck.

The IITs have exhibited a curious lack of vision by refusing to take the lead in creating and developing such a standardized exam. They have chosen instead to stick to a deeply flawed model that has many kinds of bias -- the worst being the bias against women.

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Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the pointer to the Outlook piece.

28 Comments:

  1. as said...

    The article though filled with correct anecdotes, fails to distinguish between symptoms and causes.

    It is absolutely correct that undergraduates study minimally inside IITs and are unresponsive to courses, but it is not due to mental burnout. It is so because of a complete mismatch between the desires and needs of the students and the curriculum of the IITs.

    There are two aspects to this:antiquated curriculum which is intellectually unexciting, the equivalent of rigorously learning to make 1st generation integrated circuits when the world is trying to create the future beyond transistors.

    The second is the mismatch between a well paying industry in India(IT, management, financial services) which could not essentially give a rats ass whether you know how to make better piston engines, strong reliable hulls for ships or device physics of semiconductors. What it cares for is that one can think analytically, a sort of generic intelligence. And students know this and have shaped their response according to this knowledge. They know that what is taught inside the classrooms is irrelevant to their futures. How can anybody be committed about activities inside the waiting room of a railway station?

    Personally, I think that the worst problem with the JEE is that it has no way of finding out who is passionate about technology in any broad sense. The lack of women is of course scandalous, the IITs seem to have chosen to appear like Caesar's wife rather than try to do the right thing.

  2. Pratik Ray said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  3. Pratik Ray said...

    Is the “super-tough” IIT JEE the real problem? Or is it a manifestation of a number of other ills. I would like to raise the following points –

    1. Will making the JEE easier change the figures: 5000 selected from a pool of 300,000?

    2. Will the 5000 selected through an “easier” JEE exam be any more deserving than the next 5000 who didn’t make the cut? The esteemed professors seem to have a consensus that those outside roughly the first 1000 ranks may not make the cut on another day. Implicit is the fact that there is a much larger pool of bright high school students than that can be accommodated by IITs, which in turn implies that whatever way you tweak the JEE, many good students will still be left out.

    3. Will the students who don’t make the cut be exposed to the same level of facilities and openings as an IITian? If they don’t get opportunities at par with those in IITs, wont there always be a rat race in JEEs no matter whatever way you tweak it? And doesn’t such a rat race always translate into a high-pressure situation for school kids? In other words, would the IIT JEE (easy or tough) still look so menacing if you had 27 IITs instead of 7?

    4. Will making the JEE easier help identify students who are really interested in taking up engineering as a career?

    5. Related to the above question is the following: is the curriculum in the institutes themselves in sync with the requirements of the students. Its worth noting that the few students who are hell bent on taking up a career in academics / research / hard core companies, still take their education seriously. Those who don’t take the courses seriously (and are labeled as crap and sub-standard by the professors) often excel in CAT and IAS. If they are so damned rotten, how come they excel in these exams? If coaching is such a big issue, does it mean that students from other colleges cant afford the same level of coaching for CAT as the IITians? I don’t buy that since the IITs themselves surely don’t train people for CAT etc.

    6. Yes, there is a problem with JEE paper-setters in that they expect a lot from school kids. But who is to say there isn’t a mismatch between the JEE standards and the BTech standards. Challenges of a lesser kind in the BTech courses naturally fail to motivate the students. While the JEE becomes progressively tougher each year, the undergrad courses seem to get easier and dilute.

    7. A huge issue has been made out of the role of coaching institutes (and quite rightly too. I agree that they spoil the joy of learning). Is the easier JEE going to make them go away? The school exams are so much easier than JEE; yet coaching centers for school exams keep proliferating.

    One accepts that a highly tough JEE is perhaps not the best. But stopping the buck with JEE is to simply wish away the real problems at hand. The rot lies much deeper than a few psychotic paper-setters pushing school students beyond their endurance limit.

  4. confused said...

    How is IIT JEE biased against women?

    I don't disagree with your criticism of JEE, but I fail to understand the bias against women argument. Pliss to explain.

  5. Anant said...

    I object! Why do the IITS take the flak where there is atleast one other Institute that is second to none (!) which is also party to the exam?! Jokes apart, I think any system that is so brutal can only produce automatons as has been so aptly put by Prof. Banerjee.

  6. Madhat said...

    Even the best coaching does not attempt to clarify concepts. It does not inculcate the spirit of inquiry. It does not train persons in starting from first principles. Instead it relies on pattern recognition. Do enough problems so that when you see a problem in the exam, you can recall the special trick required to obtain the answer.... Most entrants into IITs have not read a single book in their last three years or so.

    I think this is an erroneous statement. Of course, I say this only from personal experience and the vast majority might just fit that description but quite frankly, I had the best physics teacher in my coaching centre. He was really amazing and really knew his stuff. The reason why I did well in JEE was because I scored very well in physics which may not have been possible but for his teaching which made me study the subject with great interest. Also, this observation somehow gives off the impression that the teachers in the IITs are not so. I have had a prof in my dept who would come to class unprepared, open some random slide and spend several minutes trying to figure out what it was that was written on it. Of course, there have been lot better and more committed profs in the IITs (and the percentage of committed profs is better too) but what I am trying to say is that all this nonsense about robotic students seems to be a myth. In my opinion, a student can be inspired by a subject and a professor in under a year and IITs have four.
    They have experimented a lot with the JEE and they have not been successful in thwarting the coaching centres mainly because of the insipid and indifferent education students get in schools. Also, it is not that these coaching centre products are unintelligent. The IITs have to accept their students as they are and need to tailor their programmes according to their students. That is the price they have to pay for aggresively pushing the IIT brand name.

  7. Vivek Kumar said...

    Name any exam in the world, and you would find some sort of coaching around it.

    SAT, GMAT, GRE, TOEFL.. whatever. There is coaching available for each of these exams. And not just in India. Don't students cram for these exams? Don't students practice hundreds and hundreds of questions in order to get a high score? How is that scenario any different from the current state of affairs for IIT-JEE or CAT etc?

    Having completely failed to inspire the younger generations of IIT students, some Profs put the blame on JEE (and yes, internet). I can't think of an easier escape route.

    Is there any objective measure that says that the current crop of IIT students is worse than students of the glorious past? And I don't mean "sparkling eyes and scintillating engagements".

    I am not saying that all is well with JEE. But with the kind of demand-supply gap we have, it is futile to tinker with JEE and expect things to change.

  8. Kumar Appaiah said...

    But I do not see how the JEE produces automatons, and how a different JEE can produce brighter students.

    Another thing is that the Outlook article seems very loose. Mr. Muthuraman's arguments haven't been laid out convincingly enough to believe that that batch of IIT Madras students had so little knowledge about their field.

  9. Anonymous said...

    The learned professors lamenting on the deteriorating quality of input to IITs! This may very well be the case, but let me ask this question without mincing words. How about the calibre of the faculty themselves? I graduated from IIT Bombay and can confidently say that an overwhelming majority of them do not measure up, the break up being roughly this - almost 70% are just plain mediocre, 20-25% are absolutely useless, the rest EXCEPTIONAL. Most of them are very poor teachers and do no research either (there may be umpteen reasons for the latter, but that's a different issue). It would be worthwhile for these people to do some introspection on their part to see why students fly away from their classes!

  10. Anonymous said...

    The learned professors lamenting on the deteriorating quality of input to IITs! This may very well be the case, but let me ask this question without mincing words. How about the calibre of the faculty themselves? I graduated from IIT Bombay and can confidently say that an overwhelming majority of them do not measure up, the break up being roughly this - almost 70% are just plain mediocre, 20-25% are absolutely useless, the rest EXCEPTIONAL. Most of them are very poor teachers and do no research either (there may be umpteen reasons for the latter, but that's a different issue). It would be worthwhile for these people to do some introspection on their part to see why students fly away from their classes!

  11. Anonymous said...

    so typical of your blog dude..all you can focus off is another way to put spotlight on IITs. give yourself a break and talk about things that really count.

  12. Anonymous said...

    One of the anonymice said that this issue doesn't count. I think I does count. If our best educational institutes produce uncreative products (and students who are not interested in their fields) then this is a serious issue indeed.

    Things were not very different 20 years ago as Namit's account at
    Shunya's Notes suggests. Some serious thought is needed on how to attract the best students (who are also interested in engineering and innovative) to our premier institutions. Clearly just a difficult entrance examination is not sufficient.

    Biswajit

  13. Anonymous said...

    I agree that the number of women joining the IITs is dismal. Let me add first of all add that it is worse than the over all statistics show, because a large percentage of those women come from the DASA route where the percentage is 50-50 (if that door is still open). In my batch of 550, we had 23 women, of which 8-9 odd were DASA, and not JEE candidates.
    But I do not understand why blame the JEE pattern for that! My points below:
    1. A few students do get through the IITs only because of coaching. Because of the male bias in the society, I guess women would form a very small portion of such candidates.
    2. The oft touted figure is that girls have better pass percentages than boys in class 12 and 10, and therefore there must be a bias in JEE. Have these couch intellectuals bothered to look at the total number of girls to total number of boys studying in class 12, especially science. I believe that the figures are further skewed because:
    a) Girls may be forced to stay at home in many parts of the country irrespective of performance, but more so in case of poor performance.
    b) Boys, on the other hand, may be forced to attend school despite lack of interest / performance in studies.
    3. Class 11-12 onwards many boys start feeling the pressure that they have to work and earn money to be counted. Girls in most cases do not face that kind of pressure. So, possibly fewer girls prepare as seriously.

    Fewer girls do get through JEE because the ratio of class 12 girls preparing for JEE is much less than the sex ratio. Blame the society for it, not the exam.

    Regarding the quality of students, I agree with a previous comment that the students reaction is because of the demand suply mismatch. JEE selects the best minds in the country; t cannot claim to select the souls most committed to engineering, because frankly, at that age one is not in a position to know one's calling in life. So, professors cannot say that the quality of students is bad just because the IIT system forces him to study a field selected during counselling at the age of 17 years, which he later did not find interest in. If the system is made more flexible, and cater to th needs of the market, the students would show more interest. At my time, everyone studied programming seriously because the best jobs, and most jobs, were in software. And in India, a student cannot ignore the market because there is still a scarcity of jobs.

    I agree with the comment on the quality of faculty at IITs. The goverment should get out of higher education and let IITs and other colleges function independently. It should only come in with scholarships to help the needy. It better focus on primary education, else we are all set to have a ridiculous situation (esp. if creamy layer is excluded from reservation) that X% seats are reserved for community A because they constitute X% of the population, but the seats cannot be filled because too few of them have cleared school.
    And the IITs should start offering more math related courses like financial engineering and economics, and allow some flexibility for the students to change courses. That may not solve the problem though, and we do need more engineering colleges (why do they necessarily have to be named IIT, I dont understand) offering similar facilities. If their is some difference between the grants and powers with different colleges, that must be done away with - basically coming down to the earlier point that the government should stop running or micromanaging education beyond school.

  14. Anonymous said...

    I forgot to add this point in the previous comment. I have heard this from many of my professors, and friends from other colleges have also heard from their professors, that the quality of students is falling these days. Is it because it is actually falling, or is it simple nostalgia about the old times and ways, or it is that they see the achievements of some of their ex-students and not see their qualities in most of the current batches??
    Wonder??

  15. Abi said...

    Wow! Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

    Before I get to individual comments, I want to make something clear: Due to the IITs' stature (and the small number of seats in them!), getting admitted to one of them is a BIG prize. Thus, the competition will always be intense, and therefore, someone who can get 'coached' will always have an edge. The question is whether this edge is small or large. Under the current JEE format, someone who doesn't get coached has virtually no chance -- however bright he/she may be. From this point of view, it is worth demanding a different design for JEE, that could (in principle) allow a bright student to get through even without coaching.

    The mania for coaching does inflict some real damage. Some of you seem to feel that the damage on those who do make it to the IITs is not all that great. I don't believe it, though I am willing to take your word for it. But imagine the number of students who subject themselves to punishing schedules for so many years. Their sheer number should make us demand a better, more reasonable exam that tests students on what they are supposed to be doing anyways (as a part of their high school curriculum).

    Oh, one more thing: I am not going to respond to comments about the IIT professors. Bashing them (in return for their bashing of the students) is not going to do any good, if our conversation is going to be about the corrosive effects off the JEE.

    AS: If, as you said, the curriculum at the IITs is in a terrible shape, not even an omnipotent entity can save us! The other, lesser places look upto the IITs for curriculum design!

    Pratik: Wow! As you suggested, the 'prize' nature of a few thousand seats at the IITs is the main problem, and that will keep coaching centres alive and happy. But it does not mean that the current JEE format is the best and we should just sit back and accept it.

    Confused: Girls are known to do better than boys in board exams -- yes, even at the highest levels! It would be a huge stretch for anyone to claim that these top students are somehow not good enough to study in the IITs.

    Anant: I don't agree with Prof. Banerjee on the 'automaton' part; I do agree with his views on the JEE though.

    MadHat: I too recall the great teachers at my coaching centre (the Big B of Chennai!). Especially Prof. Karuppannan who taught us math.

    Vivek: I'm not sure preparing for 'SAT' (or any such equivalent exam) can be called cramming.

    Kumar Appiah: Bhamy Shenoy's article has some more on what Muthuraman said.

    Biswajit: One other criticism about the JEE is about the question you raised: does it really select people who are 'engineering' oriented? In fact, I know quite a few people who did engineering at the IITs (and in other places too), to go back to physics or math (which was their first love) for their Ph.D. and beyond.

    But, people want to get into IIT not because they are itnerested in engineering, but because it is a ticket to a bright future (guaranteed!). Thus, whatever the format, people will flock to the IITs.

    Anon (in the two comments immediately above this one): I too believe that there is an element of nostalgia when older professors say that the students 'these days' are not as good as those of the 'old days'. But I'm also sure that their complaint has some validity.

    However, I believe their complaint is being misconstrued. They are probably implying that the students are damaged -- or burnt out -- by the horribly tough schedules and monomaniacal lifestyles they endured during several years of coaching classes. I think this is a fair criticism.

  16. Kumar Appaiah said...

    Sorry Abi. I am still not convinced with the tone of the article, and I feel they could have been more particular about the things. many profs here take advanced courses without referring to a single book, but many books and papers, especially the graduate courses. And, I object to the mere bashing of profs in that article without more substantiation.

    Just my view.

  17. confused said...

    Abi,

    Errr... coming from an academic, that is a hugely disappointing response. Just because girls do better in 12th and they don't do so well in JEE, you assume on that basis alone that JEE is biased? I know this is not a professional journal but surely that is too weak a connection.

    By your logic, are the board exams biased in favor of girls?

    I don't know much about SAT, but GRE does require cramming. Remember those 1000 word lists?

  18. barbarindian said...

    As soon as the OBC quotas are approved, IITs will become the dream institutes and the JEE most rational examination system.

  19. Pravesh said...

    Hi
    Girls are better than boys in average sense. Do we have any statistics to prove that the ratio of girls to boys in the top 10% of 12th standard Maths, Physics, Chemistry is more than girls/boys selection in JEE.?

    Pravesh

  20. Pravesh said...

    Hi
    Girls are better than boys in average sense. Do we have any statistics to prove that the ratio of girls to boys in the top 10% of 12th standard Maths, Physics, Chemistry is more than girls/boys selection in JEE.?

    Pravesh

  21. Madhat said...

    If you make JEE "easy", ie, take the questions down to the level of the CET, would we still have such teachers teaching the basic fundamentals? In a education environment that is increasingly tending towards business-like tendencies of the US univs, would the best students or the top rankers be people who learnt the basic fundamentals or would they be people who crammed up all the formulae and learnt thousands of MCQs, just like the medical PG exams? I am not saying that the top rankers with a simplified JEE would be dumb but am saying that with a simplified JEE, there would be pressure on coaching centres to teach the basics and the top rankers, though maybe smart, would not have the same grounding in the
    fundamentals as with a tougher JEE.

    There is a method to the madness with the way they have meddled with the format of the JEE in the past few years, starting with my batch (I think) and I am not sure what the current status of all their experiments are. I wish they would disclose it but can see why they can't.

    PS. I agree with confused when he argues with you about the gender bias aspect of JEE. I think there are a lot of cultural factors that go into the reason why so few women take the JEE and hence why there are so few women in the IITs themselves. Of course, this does not mean that there is no gender bias but it is not so easily proved as you say.

  22. Anonymous said...

    >> What we need is one, single, standardized exam whose primary goal must be, well, standardization of curriculum and teaching in India's many school examination boards. Ideally, this exam should be organized multiple times a year (it should preferably be available on tap -- anytime, anywhere); and statistical weighting of questions -- standardization! -- should minimize the role of luck.

    If theres one single standardized exam like (say) SAT, where perhaps 10% of candidates will be able to get a perfect score, how will the IITs be able to make their selections ? There will be a lot of discretion involved, and factors like region, mother tongue, financial background, societal background, schooling etc will come into play. Is India ready for such discretion in admissions to IIT ? Also, how will people select the 'branches' or 'trades' ?

    The obvious solution is to make the exam more difficult, so as to give the distribution of exam results a narrower tail. But then if the exam is made more difficult, coaching institutions will crop up to make help students ! Theres no easy way out, as you seem to suggest.

    As for presence of women at IIT, the reasons are societal, not in the JEE. That IITs are not inherently biased against women is obvious from the fact that there is a far greater number of girls studying at a PG level than the UG level. If IITs were biased, then why would they take in more girls at one level than the other ?

    As far as things like fundamentals are concerned, recalling my coaching days, all we guys ever did was fundamentals. We were discouraged from mugging up formulas and rote ways of learning how to solve problems, because JEE always threw curve balls/googlies at you. Theres no way you can clear JEE just by mugging/rote learning.

    Sudeep

  23. Anonymous said...

    Its politically incorrect to mention this, but its a known fact that distribution of IQs has far heavier tails in guys than in girls, i.e. more guys are morons, and more are geniuses than girls, although if one takes an average, they are nearly equal.

    Ref.
    http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761570026_6/Intelligence.html

    Now that couldnt be a reason for fewer girls in IITs, right ? And no reason in social practices and norms either, right ?

    Abi, post karne se pahle socho to sahi.. at least think a bit before you make blog..

    Sudeep

  24. Madhat said...

    sudeep, you rely too much on these IQ tests.

  25. Artful Badger said...

    "Average standard falling?"
    Are there any hard facts or is this anecdotal evidence?
    I think its the classic case where older alumni seem smarter because they are more successful right now, because they are older.
    I think the JEE exam is fine.
    Its better than the CBSE bullshit where everyone scores 99.5% and the differentiation is not ability but luck on the test day.
    Most IIT graduates today are as or more successful than any of their predecesssors.
    If anything is causing dilution its the fact that 40% of students get in by the caste card and not by competing in an open field.

  26. Anonymous said...

    On a lighter note...if CIA is having problems with women can we expect IITs to be far behind
    http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070422/30cia.htm

  27. Maneel said...

    I am in Class 12th in a public school in Delhi. Every other student in my class is preparing for the JEE.

    You know what the real problem is ? IIT is not something that gives you education, it has become something that will give you a great job.

    You ask any of those guys at coaching institutes (the ones wearing those thick spectacles....) about why they want to crack the JEE. The answer commong you'll get cutting across age groups & gender is assurance of a good job. These guys are seriously not interested in what they'll be taught at the great great IITs, no passions involved.

    You think I am writing all this because I am too weak academically to get into these BS institues called the IITs, you're wrong.

    I applied to MIT & do you know what they asked for ? SAT 1, SAT 2 (Maths + anyone of Physics or Chemistry) ... CBSE scores, recommendations from teachers, asked me what I do in free time, what am I passionate about, asked me to write essays on random topics. The best thing was the inclusion of CO CURRICULAR activities that ensured that not just nerds get there.

    And we all know the difference between MIT & IIT right ? MIT is the big daddy of IIT. IIT does not even a shitty percentage of research papers that MIT does. Because IIT students are too busy working on projects to improve their BIO DATA. Why ? A cool job, duh!

  28. Anonymous said...

    one more thing here is that for subjects streams like computers they are testing phy and chemistry!!!!