Right from when one is a child, one is familiarised with the phrase “Exam fear”. It is almost an accepted medical condition, something parents take for granted, and something students learn to take for granted.
While it is an almost amusing phenomenon when one is a child, as one begins to write the more important examinations—to qualify for admission into top engineering and medical colleges—it combines with “Exam pressure” to become something far more sinister, almost a portent of failure in life. There are those who believe their lives are not worth living unless they pass these examinations.
Just as the country was being wowed by the virtual convocations organised by the IITs, these institutions that claim to nurture the sharpest brains in the country, something surfaced which showed not only how desperate people are to get into the IITs, or get their children in, but also that an industry has grown around cheating to get in.
Assam Joint Entrance Examination topper Neel Nakshatra Das and his father have been arrested for allegedly using a proxy. Officials at the testing agency are believed to have been involved in the plot, and media reports suggest that Das did not even appear for the examinations himself.
A blog entry dated from 2013 details how a student managed to cheat in the exam—not with a proxy, or leaked papers, or even the involvement of others—but by using the brains that would be “nurtured” in the IITs in a twisted fashion, so that he was able to copy another student’s answers. This is not a verified story, and is on the blog of a coaching centre. But it does give prospective students ideas, and if it is fictional, suggests that they need feel no remorse. It does require some intelligence to cheat, it seems to say.
This attitude of one-upmanship and the notion that the end justifies the means is unfortunately encouraged at several top institutions across the world. Using proxies for competitive exams is quite a regular practice internationally. Once students do get in, they find themselves in an atmosphere of fierce competition, rarely healthy, with the system of relative grading ensuring that a classmate’s poor performance is advantageous to one.
In the meanwhile, Tamil Nadu – which has been the hotbed of protests against a joint entrance examination for medical colleges, the NEET – has found a workaround, reserving seats in colleges for students from government schools. The move has won points for the state government, and could easily set off a trend where incumbent governments use such measures for popularity ahead of election year.
Back when I was in school, there was generally an exodus of intelligent students from CBSE to the state board system, to ensure that they did well enough in the final examinations to qualify for medical schools. It was a sad phenomenon, because the state board system does encourage learning by rote. There was another phenomenon too—that of IIT aspirants neglecting their schoolwork, and even their board examination preparations because they had to ensure their focus was on the JEE. Teachers were fairly understanding of this, because the school took pride in having a large percentage of its students get into the IITs.
In all this time, it seems to have never occurred to us how disastrous it can be for students to learn to rely on one big day. The big prizes in the sciences, and even the arts, are not awarded for performance in examinations, but for years of research—for a body of work, or at least for one work that will stand the test of time.
And yet, our entire system of education is geared towards the opposite—years of work could go up in smoke over someone falling ill on one crucial day.
Our syllabus is geared towards examinations, and so is the teaching. Crucial lessons are routinely left out, because there is not “enough time” before the exams to finish them. And when one leaves school, or even college, all one has to show for one’s education are examination scores.
This year, with the pandemic having interrupted the academic schedule, schools and governments are divided on whether to pass all students or postpone examinations. Can’t we think, even now, of an alternative method of grading?
Surely, at a time when we can scan biometric details of a person to ensure there is no faking of identities, we ought to be able to find a way to see that students are doing their own assignments? It could be as simple as regular video interaction sessions with supervisors. The sciences could be so much more interesting, and taught so much better, if students didn’t have to learn by rote, but could actually prepare their own projects and research assignments, which would be graded. This would be geared towards the system of study one eventually segues into, once one chooses one’s specialisation, rather than the exam one must write to start that journey.
If the pandemic has presented any opportunity at all it is this—the opportunity to rethink our systems of grading.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com