Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gaming a Tough Entrance Exam

Let me start with Priscilla Jebaraj's story in The Hindu:

At large coaching centres such as those in Kota, students effectively drop out of the school system in order to prepare for JEE. They can then scrape through their board examinations to meet the 60 per cent minimum criteria, without having actually attended school for two years.

This can result in a skewed education, which shows up once the student gets to IIT. IIT-M director M.S. Ananth tells the story of a student who arrived at IIT without having mastered the concept of integration despite it being part of the higher secondary mathematics curriculum. He had failed to study it since he felt only three marks were allotted to the topic under JEE.

I couldn't believe it when I read that stuff about a student entering an IIT without knowing anything about integral calculus. Within a day, I got this view confirmed by another friend from an IIT who went on to complain about large holes in many students' background -- which were probably due to their strategy of selective preparation.

[BTW, this is not peculiar to JEE; recently, a colleague told us about a couple of students who didn't know any mathematics and still managed good ranks in GATE. And they are in a math-heavy engineering field! ]

Frankly, I hadn't thought about this angle before; after thinking about it a bit, it actually makes sense. By any objective yardstick, JEE is a brutally tough exam -- so tough, in fact, that you could get 30 to 40 percent and still find yourself among the rank-holders (especially if you really do well in one of the subjects).

For some students, then, it is certainly rational to cut down on preparing for stuff that's difficult -- and focus more on things for which they have a flair. It's also possible that coaching schools encourage them to put this strategy into practice.

A Board exam -- conducted, for example, by CBSE -- this would be an absolutely disastrous strategy if you want to be among the among the top-rankers. This is because top-rankers in these exams typically have over 90 percent -- and you can't get 90+ percent by ignoring even 20 or 30 percent of the syllabus.

Put this down as yet another 'unintended consequence' of the design choice by the IITs to go with a 'tough' version of JEE. It's this very 'tough-ness' that allows this particular method of gaming the exam to work.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Too early specializations are bad!

    Students preparing for JEE have adapted themselves to beat the toughest exam. However, IIT professors seem to be lagging behind in developing a proper JEE strategy.

  2. Anonymous said...

    level of integration required to solve physics problems of jee is tougher than what is taught in school board....may be the student didnt prepare for jee maths integration but if he did prepare for physics (calculation of electric field due to extended objects) then s/he should have gained more understanding of integration than what ncert textbook can provide

    i find it hard to believe the case of iitm student..the word 'mastered' can lead to different interpretation.

    On a different note, whenever i read something about jee/coaching, it is always kota. Coaching classes for jee are running for much longer time in mumbai, delhi,chennai, hyd, kanpur, patna to name few. these were attended by people who were able to pay the fees and also able to afford the living expenses there or were local. ppl going to kota are those who can afford the fees as living cost is much less than aforementioned cities. so yes coaching is not good thing but this kota thing, in my opinion is a correction over previous coaching classes.

  3. L said...

    This kind of strategising continues in the Btech too. One of my profs in an IIT Chem Dept told me that one UG student had never attended chem lab. Asked why, he calculated and showed him how he can get a B in Chem without attending any lab...just do the quizzes and end sem well enough. So he will have done his required number of Chem credits without ever having held a test tube...and this is in the 1970s when such strategies were rare. And speaking of labs, the coaching here is so intense that the students never do any lab in their intermediate I and II. The inter college pays off the examiner and get all the students to pass the prac exam.

  4. Anonymous said...

    It is a fact that after the new pattern of JEE has been introduced ie., in the last three years, the number of fail grades in the first year maths course have gone up to nearly 30% of the class. That comes to about 150 students with a failing grade.
    -A faculty from IITM

  5. Anonymous said...

    students mange to qualify in JEE without knowing integral calculus ! I am not sure how this is indictment of coaching classes in Kota. To me it looks like IIT JEE has lost its focus and have no idea what they want to test :-)

  6. Anonymous said...

    Is it only the JEE or have the IITs lost focus altogether ?

    Over the last few years, I have had the
    occasion to interview several recent IIT M-Techs for teaching jobs. On each occasion, the committee was singularly
    unable to select any of them. The level was pathetic. Candidates from the
    much-maligned regional institutions did

    At an anecdotal level, a couple of years ago, an IIT (one of the established ones) graduate with a decent--not outstanding---score (8 point something) had expressed a
    desire to do a Ph.D. with me. On a whim, I asked him to plot
    f(x) = x^2 + x^3
    as a function of x (x being a
    real number). He had more than two hours to do the job. The result I
    leave to the reader's imagination.

  7. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    This is not a problem of the student or of coaching. This is an example of a poor JEE pattern. Why can't the JEE math paper contain questions that require the student to leverage multiple techniques to solve them? This kind of compartmentalization of knowledge -- of "integration" being applicable only to "problems of integration" -- defeats the very purpose of education and of learning the wonderfully interconnected and self-consistent discipline of mathematics.


  8. Anonymous said...

    If IIT have decided that Integral calculus is not worth testing (3 marks in 100 tells it all), what are they complaining about? If a student has not been tested on calculus before entering IIT, I do not see how people are testing their math basics. May be it is time to reform JEE exam rather than selection criteria.

  9. kiteinthewind said...

    Sir, from my experience with coaching centres, yes, it is so. In a country where the whole purpose of education is to score marks in exam, this should be no wonder. How can we blame the students at all? Ethically, he has not done anything wrong. He has given preference to an IIT seat over his math fundas. If he knows all his math and still fail to clear JEE, he loses his chance to make it big, right? So he decided to defeat the system.

    What you have suggested in a previous article makes sense to me. A screening test that test the fundamentals is required for JEE.