The CBSE Class XII board examination schedules were recently announced and from now it is an endless autumn of tests for students in their final year of schooling. Apart from an array of engineering and medical entrance examinations and their boards, students take a series of preparatory exams and mock tests.

Many of these tests require completely different skill sets. While it is an open debate on what kind of skills should be rewarded or if all kinds of skills should be equally recognised, one thing is certain: for a Class XII student today the endless pursuit of decimals does not leave much time for introspection, innovation and learning.

This leads us to debates about the pattern, nature and objectives of one examination which is conducted every year to encourage such qualities of innovation and understanding among students.

IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) conducted in the second week of April every year is not just about entry into the most premier educational institution in the country. One of the objectives of the test is to reward natural talent and ability.

Over the past two decades, there has been a qualitative shift in the pattern of the paper. There has been a move from rigorous problem-solving to the need for a fairly good understanding of the concepts and the ability to comprehend and analyse.

One of the reasons is to make the exam less taxing and reduce the impact coaching centres have on the outcomes, says B. Pavan Kumar, faculty, FIITJEE.

He admits that exposure to the pattern helps a lot and “severe practice” through mock exams gives unfair advantage to some students over others. “The IITs have to come up with an innovative plan to make the paper more subjective instead of objective and also to better integrate the exam with the school system.”

Aswath Narayanan, a first-year Metallurgy student at IIT-Madras, says coaching centres excel in helping students to “mechanically learn problem-solving.”

IITs look for candidates who can think from a different perspective to find a solution under the pressure of time. Change has been rapid over the past decade because IITs want to take coaching class students by surprise. This year the JEE paper had multiple choice questions with nine options, says Aswath. “It will be difficult to quickly eliminate the wrong answers in this model and one has to learn the method to find the right answer.”

According to him, all that one learns from JEE is to get the answer by hook or crook. “Once I got into IIT, I found it very tough because all the semester exams are subjective and one has to ‘present' an answer using logical argument.”

The real issue behind making JEE ‘easier' is to find means to spot natural talent and limit the impact of ‘training' which is more to beat the examination rather than to encourage the pleasure of learning, says N. Ramakrishna, Professor, IIT-Bombay.

“Getting a degree from IIT is now about brand building. Many students who pass out have no interest in pursuing engineering. It has become a competition. Whenever anything becomes a brand; things like aptitude, understanding and learning get relegated,” says Dr. Ramakrishna.

Many of the students, who get through JEE because of rigorous coaching, later struggle to complete the programme as they have no aptitude for an engineering education. The debate around making IITs less taxing is hence also about helping students objectively test their aptitude and to provide them real choices in an extremely competitive arena.

According to Dr. Ramakrishna, since JEE only tests a candidate's ability in Math, Physics and Chemistry, many do not know what they are getting into. “IIT-Bombay has introduced a new concept from this year through which a student can get a major in one stream of engineering and a minor in another stream. This way, rigid barriers can be overlooked and students can follow their heart. An Electronics student can take some Mechanical courses if he chooses to.”