Towards a Better Educational Experience

Introduction

I am a third year BTech student at the National Institute of Technology Calicut. I am one of many persons who has been disillusioned by bitter academic experiences at college. I couldn’t help noting down some (many, in fact) points which I think the faculty/administration should stop ignoring and start paying attention to, to make undergraduate education a gratifying experience, not just for the students, but for everyone involved.

There is definitely something rotten about academics at NITC. I think BTech in general has some problems, but I can write only from my experience. Of the thousands of brilliant minds who join this institute, how many care passionately about learning? Even if they do at the time of admission, how many people still care about learning a year into their course?

There has been a marked shift in the focus of students over the last few years. With the easy accessibility of plug-and-play technology, I guess most of us are content to be mere users of technology, even though we are students of technology. And with the brand name of NIT, students can afford to be complacent. It is a pathetic state for an institute like ours to be in. In fact, it defeats the purpose of its existence.

I do feel for the faculty, most of whom are sincere to their work and deserve better response from the students. I’m guilty as anyone in this regard. But the problem is deeper than mere lack of interest on the part of students, and we have to dig deep to search for a solution. When a conventional mode of operation fails to do a job in a changed scenario, you have to try and find new methods that are more appropriate.

There is tremendous potential in making academic life exciting, stimulating and enriching. But it requires an open-minded and sincere effort from everyone. And importantly, the right atmosphere for these efforts to bear fruit.

Educational Methods

When we decide upon educational methods, the first and foremost thing to be ensured is that the joy of learning is preserved and nurtured. Lectures tend to be dull and boring monologues that result in the wastage of time and energy of both the faculty and students. In fact, cognitive studies indicate that lectures are the most inefficient method of teaching.

Surely, we have enough imagination to think of better methods! The same is the case with examinations. First sessionals, second sessionals, tutorial tests, end semester exams- it’s senseless. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that students spend more time writing exams, than actually learning something.

The current system is very rigid and stagnant, and doesn’t provide students with the academic freedom that’s essential for proper learning to take place. Also the number of courses one has to take each semester is overwhelming.

I’d like to write about some of the things that need to be done urgently to infuse some vitality back into engineering education.

Mentors, not Teachers

We do not need teachers, we need mentors. Only mentors can help one discover the joy and excitement of learning. Teachers tend to be mere lecturers. I’m sure most of the faculty members feel wronged, because students don’t pay much attention in the lectures. But they have to wake up to the truth- lectures are ineffective, whoever takes them. Especially regarding technical topics. I fall asleep the moment I see theta and epsilon on the black board.

So what can we do about it? I don’t think we can get rid of lectures completely. What we can do is to make them few and far in between, and when there is one, make sure that it has a well defined purpose. And in the time thus saved, give the students some real work to do. Without involvement, there will be no learning.

Courses- Theory or Lab?

Why keep them separate? I believe that there shouldn’t be any course on offer, where students don’t do any experiments. Students can attend any number of lectures and write any number of exams, but they still won’t know anything until they actually do something themselves.

With the current number of courses per semester, it is extremely hard to make this a reality. So we need to decrease it. I would say four courses per semester. Each course should provide some opportunity for practical work. It would be great if there could be a pool of six courses from which the student can choose four. That would give a lot of flexibility and freedom.

Work and Evaluation

The present state of academics is pathetic. Students are forced, by means of mandatory attendance, to sit in lectures which they don’t want to attend. But no one can force them to stay awake! So what happens in the end is that, the teacher goes on explaining some equations while half the class sleeps and the remaining half pretends to listen. It’s a criminal waste of time and energy.

As for labs, there are some fixed experiments that are repeated year after year by students, without gaining any insight into the subject. It is sad to note that results are stressed upon and what matters is that you get the “correct” output at the end of the stipulated three hours. And of course, no lab is complete without a report! Each student has to turn in heaps of paper, when a common report(preferably “e-report”) would suffice. Talk about saving trees!

Making the Change

What is needed is an honest introspection. Do we really care about learning? Or is it enough to carry on this hypocritical caricature for four years and pass out with a degree? We should first accept the fact that the current system is a miserable failure. Whoever said that a student would learn everything if you explain something to him/her for three hours a week? Make them do actual work and evaluate them based on the work, rather than conducting meaningless exams which everyone mugs up for, anyway.

I can speak of a few courses where we can change today, if we want. For example, Computer Architecture. Why can’t we remove the sessionals and instead give the students a project to design a processor? It can be given a weightage like 30 or 40 marks out of 100. And if the teacher is particular about conducting a test, (s)he can take a quiz to test the student’s concepts, instead of giving those hypothetical numerical problems to solve. We can safely get rid of them, because while doing the project, the student would have gained much more knowledge than solving these problems for a lifetime would.

I don’t expect everyone who reads this to agree unanimously with me. But my conversations with many people involved with education gives me confidence that most of us are fed up with the pointlessness of the current system. I want to do something to change it for the better. At least I keep telling as many people as I can, as often as I can, that all is not well under this veil of reputation, in the hope that when enough people are convinced about its truth, they will act.

Update: Deepak sir’s opinion about the current situation and plan for change.

28 thoughts on “Towards a Better Educational Experience

  1. Well, I agree to _everything_ that you have mentioned. The only topic on which I have a little difference of opinion is the “atmosphere” factor you have talked about – while there is no disagreement that a great environment produces great results, one should be *extremely* lucky regardless of which institution or which nation or which profession, to find a ready-made atmosphere like that. Often we have to generate the atmopshere from within rather than without – thats hard to accept, but thats sadly the fact.

    And so whats my answer to your “disillusionment” 🙂 – my answer is that our education system in India sadly puts a TRUCK LOAD of emphasis on bachelors degree that we tend to think that we achieve something in our bachelors degree or we will never achieve anything further! Thats soooo very wrong. I think bachelors is just a good time to have some fun and get a lot of time to explore and think, there is a looooot of time left ahead after bachelors to still do and achieve whatever you want to! Well, geniuses are certainly exceptions where they come out of bachelors with some ground breaking discoveries and achievements – and sadly again we hear stories of only such geniuses who achieved everything by the time they grow a moustache and find that we already have a moustache :-). But the fact is that there is still a LOT of things out there waiting to be discovered and tackled by the not-geniuses, so dont worry, there is still lots of goals to be scored out there 🙂

    Love,
    Gopu.

    1. I think bachelors is just a good time to have some fun and get a lot of time to explore and think, there is a looooot of time left ahead after bachelors to still do and achieve whatever you want to!

      I agree. My grievance is that the system doesn’t allow for any fun in learning. Plodding on in this way for four years leaves the student fed up with learning, and all they want in the end is to find some company willing to buy their time for a handsome sum.

  2. Ok… this is where procrastination has taken me… I was wanting to write blog entry about this for really a long time… Now I am shamelessly going to put my thoughts here…..

    I too had to undergo the suffering of boring (with few exceptions) classes and not really learning. Now almost finishing my MS, I really can differentiate what it lacks.. because the courses are so much structured, and it exists to be learned, rather than to be swallowed and then to be excreted…

    You have hit the nail on the head….

    Things that need to change.
    1) Academic freedom has to increase, the faculty has to be in charge. Only then there can meaningful courses.
    2) Evaluation has to be continuous, it has to be more oriented to understanding than mugging. After taking around 10 courses, I just had two (one hour) long tests. All courses had 3-6 programming assignments(some very interesting..) + quizzes + Project… The amount you learn when you actually program, is much much more compared when you just read.
    3) Again profs here are more of mentors, they will give you direction and then ask to to travel it all by yourself.
    4) Academic honesty : Copying assignments is a norm in India, but here it is a very severe offense. And faculty takes it pretty serious, they use tools to check code similarity etc… I just knew one teacher in my whole of undergrad, who would check all students assignments to see who all copied.
    5) Four courses is ideal, but again students should have the flexibility to choose courses.

    Regd project.. for my comp architecture course, we had to do the same thing you mentioned as project. Simulate a superscalar processor, that was our project.

    @Gopu : I agree there is an option to get back whatever is lost, but what is the point in not changing the system that is crippled. Forget learning, but ppl shud at least know “how to learn” by the end of bachelors…

  3. This is a good article at a very good time. The UG curriculum revision discussions (for 2010 curriculum) have begun at NITC. This time lot of people are seriously into the discussions.

    Coming to comment on the article. You have worded really well the general feelings of an enthusiastic teenager who comes into NITC. Most of it it true at other B.Tech colleges too (as you had noted).

    But, at this point in time we need to take a step further. From these feelings and analysis we have to come up with something that we will call a “change plan”. Because when it comes to implementing it is very difficult to implement a spirit or a thought. We need concrete action plans – 1, 2, 3 …

    I know I’m being too “engineering” about it. But you have given a start. Points like “4 courses per sem”, “Labs along with courses” etc are the kinds that i want in that action list. Not things like “lectures are ineffective, but …”

    A few of us (faculty) in the ECE department are holding discussions about the same between us and with the students. We hope to come up with a “change plan” in a few days time.

    Mean while some of the good resources IITB and IITM websites who have done a curriculum update recently.

    IITB – http://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sb/committee/index.html

    1. In fact, I had the curriculum revision in mind when I put up this post in a hurry. 🙂

      You are absolutely right about the action plan. Along with “4 courses per sem” and “Labs along with courses”, I would immediately add “replace sessional exams of 20 marks each with sessional quizzes of 5 marks each and a course project/assignments of 40 marks”.

      Sir, isn’t “50 marks for the end semester exams” the only guideline from the institute? Don’t the faculty have enough freedom to decide how they can allocate the remaining 50 marks for “continuous evaluation”?

  4. Hi, as a person who gone thru the btech course here is my wishlist

    4 courses per sem
    Doing few things properly is much better than doing a lot of things for namesake.

    more stress on math, espesially linear algebra and real analysis
    Currently these courses are taught in first year and most people forget the next sem, during which the engineering courses are done. Engineering courtlses are taught without a clear description of the mathematical model used. Most results in engineering makes sense if you know the math behind it. Kishore mentioned that he is bored by the epsilons and thetas. I can confidently say they will become very interesting objects once you understand whAt they stand for instead of considering they as meer symbols.

    note in general to undergrads
    There is a awfull lot of fuzz about being a 9 pointer. I frankly think people should start trying understand engineering on their own instead of worrying about marks. That only will help you in the future. Nowadays a lec videos and notes of MIT, Stanford are available on the web. They present great oppertunities.

  5. Kishore has aptly described the views of an enthusiastic engineering student disappointed in the present state of academics in the campus.

    I remember my first year in the campus, starting my college life with a lot of expectations-being in one of the “hottest” fields in engineering,where all the latest techie stuffs happen.Now i see clearly that all those hopes were just illusions.

    In fact i feel that the academic life,which was what i was looking forward to,had been nothing but a distraction to the actual learning process!
    So much of our effort is bing wasted to fill in a good grade that the actual excitement in learning something new has been lost!Obviously we need a grading system ,but it should come at the of the thrill of learning something new and see the principles that u learned drive the world around u.

    Lectures are just a waste of time.It is quite unrealistic to expect anybody to be attentive on a classroom environment for mare than half an hour(unless the lecturer is doing a very great job,which is usually not the case!).And we have 5 hrs in a row on some days!This is absurd.5 different subjects, by 5 different people each with a unique personality,having a particular teaching methodology and it is still expected of us to learn something in these classes!

    We, as students, can just complain and draw attention to the these flaws in the educational system.Ultimately the duty lies squarely with the sincere faculty to act upon our feedback and improve the degrading quality of academic standards in the campus.

    I hope that the UG curriculum revision, Deepak sir wrote about, will bring in a renaissance of learning.Its just sad that we will miss these changes and the good things that will accompany it.

  6. It is important to note that by time we are in college our ability to learn quickly would have reached a peak and will start to go down. Accompanied by other pleasures( pressures ?) like finding a girl(!), this increase in learning time (even for rote learning) completely discourages students to be committed learners.

    I believe SCHOOL is where we should start. Revolutionizing education cannot come merely through an upgrade of curriculum. Conducting a class interestingly keeping curiosity levels high requires an amount of versatility
    and knowledge which most of the current generation of teachers don’t have. And from my experience, motivating teachers are motivating because they lead an inspiring life themselves. So, trying to transform kids is a better bet than trying grown-ups.

    Exposing *kids* to the right way of learning will have an impact tomorrow, if not today.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to revolutionize education right from the school level. There’s too much that is rotten in the education system from top to bottom.

      BUT

      I think we shouldn’t take undergraduate education lightly. A college has the specialty that it is the place you enter as a boy and come out as a man.

      What ever the background of school education, when a person starts college life, one finally gets the FREEDOM that one needs to pursue one’s interests and evolve into an aware, sensitive individual. And it makes a hell of a difference whether the academic atmosphere is stifling or stimulating.

      I know, from my experience, the amount of potential that is getting wasted and the amount of frustration it is producing in these budding minds.

  7. @Deepak Sir,

    Concrete Plans..

    1. Abs freedom for the faculty to create manage the course..
    Here is a sample of a syllabus, It helps the faculty to really decide what is needed and how it has to be done.

    Click to access syllabus.pdf


    http://www.ces.clemson.edu/~stb/ece847

    2. No. of courses per semester should be a choice of the student, and again courses should be (to some extend) choice of students. This way a prof who doesn’t do well, won’t get chosen. It there fore makes sure of good quality and also makes it in some academic democracy.

    3. Evaluation should be continuous and with more importance for understanding and be more practical.

    4. Very strict rules w.r.t academics honesty.

    For example in the above course the grading scheme was
    6*10 (six 10 marks programming assignments) +6*3.33 (6 quizzes) + 20 (Project)…

    I do agree with Rajiv w.r.t math. In school I used to love math, from XI and XII, it somehow became more of by hearting methods for particular problems (esp some out-lier prob… that would need totally different approach)… Sadly, I lost interest… I found it interesting, when I understood the meaning of it… but otherwise it was boring… undergrad math, they covered some really nice topics, but was made boring since they did not care about application… Now once again, I am kind of finding my lost love… Math is once again the most important thing I need to know… I think math should be taught for the fun of learning than just a few methods.. For example having to by-heart calculus formulas is not really fun, while when you know that differentiation is more like gradient of an image and that has application in image processing et al… it becomes much more fun. Or again, Newton Raphson method can be used for gradient descent in optimization problems of machine learning… Including a pinch of salt of application makes Math a lot more fun and easier to understand….

  8. It is a pretty interesting topic. A lot can be changed. I don’t know how much autonomous NITC is. But, IIIT, Hyderabad takes a similar approach to students(except may be about the course load). Every Course have minimum one project associated. Assignments are usually evaluation problems, which is to be uploaded to a evaluation portal, which checks for any potential malpractice, moreover students are encouraged to explore their ideas, and class room lectures many times, turn to debate halls.

  9. I think you should try to direct the ones responsible, towards the educational systems followed in other institutes around the world(i hope the help of all alumnis will come in handy in this).

  10. A really good article..It reflects on the current mindset of many in the college including me…I would personally love to have a system that grades on practical expertise rather than on superficial theory.Although I do not completely subscribe to your ‘insignificance of lectures’viewpoint ,I totally agree that the importance of having a integrated theory +practical course cannot be understated…Keep updatind us on your posts in the future…:)..

  11. Hey,
    Nice post and some of the points were really useful.

    But I am little scared of this “learning” thing. I guess there is a time for everything and when people find it relevant to life people learn things, you cant force anyone to learn. In college we used to have all this labs, where we used to practically try to use motors, or see the circuit working on bread board, but most of us used to hate it. We were much more comfortable with theory because that was easier to deal with. I guess projects and all help, but I am sure there are hundred of projects that you could pick up with the academic institute really enforcing it. Most professors are looking for people who could assist them in their project.

    So all I am saying is that, people will eventually learn. I guess the most important thing that education system needs to impart is the spirit. The fighting spirit and spirit of competition and reality check that there are people better than you.

    When we used to hire people, we used to give huge consideration for this soft skills part, learning and technical skills are important but ok, attitude is more important.

    1. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by you are “scared of learning”. We hate doing stuff at college because we are forced to. That’s exactly what I’m against. The students should have the freedom to explore the subjects at their own will and pace.

      I agree that people will “learn” what they want when they find them relevant. But this post is NOT about that. It is about making undergraduate education meaningful and enriching.

      No offence intended, but from your comment, it sounds like you consider colleges as breeding grounds for employees to fill the back offices of corporates. I do not agree with this view.

      Regarding competition, I guess a healthy competition is fine, but there is too much of a RAT RACE in the world today. As far as I am concerned, what education should nurture is the spirit of honest enquiry, the ability to think clearly, the spirit of co-operation and compassion, and the courage to take risks. (List is by no means exhaustive)

  12. I completely agree with you. I am in Kerala University (TVM), and of-course, our BTech syllabus is a huge waste too..! Really hate to study all these.

    Also, exam sheets are evaluated based on some answer keys given to invigilators. In my 5th semester, I had a subject “Operating Systems”, and I learned each and every part of that subject, as I was much more interested in that area. I referred Wikipedia, Googled…. etc… Also I developed a simple prototype OS that had booted from a Floppy Disk and showing a simple command line.

    I wrote the OS exam, and I came out with a complete satisfaction that I enjoyed the exam very much. I thought that I would get 90 out of 100 marks.

    When the results came, I got 40 marks – the pass mark for Kerala University exams.

    And If you get exactly 40 in Kerala University, that means, your actual marks is 30 + some moderation.

    What the hell I can do….?

    That’s all our professional education.

    Btech is nothing more that a little bigger +2.

    “I born creative, but the education ruined me.”

  13. In the talent pool available in the industry now, what lacks is not the idea or technical strength, but the ability to present those in the right way at right time. Our students should get a lot more chances to present their skills among a pool of intellectuals. Either as a group discussion or seminar presentation. It will be a great system if we give opportunity to the students to present their answers among a group of faculties rather than writing them on papers merely by by heart or copy. It is the time to stop written examinations and communicate to the examiners through verbal and visual presentations by answering their queries.

  14. Thanks Kishore for giving me a broader outlook about the education system at our institute.

    Learning these views at the end of my first year is really going to help me remain focused to my goal and not just flow with the tide.

    At the end, it’s us who will have to ensure that the system remains right when we are provided with the provisions of the sort. Open discussion with faculty is one major way, in my opinion, which can keep the spirit of learning as such.

    1. Kartik,

      Glad to know that my post has been of help to you.

      You’re right. Ultimately it’s up to each one of us to work out a learning methodology that works for us. I’m sure you’ll do very well. 🙂

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