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Updated: November 28, 2012 01:40 IST

Only crammers need not apply

Ruchika Sharma
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The article “Only crammers need apply,” by T.K. Ngaihte (Editorial page, November 24, 2012), provides a highly distorted picture of the Civil Services examination.

Let’s begin by spelling out the meaning of “Cramming.” According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it means “to prepare hastily for an examination.” Even a cursory glance at the nature of the questions asked in this year’s compulsory General Studies (GS) papers belies the assertion that this examination is for “crammers” (given the large number of optional papers, I am only considering for the purposes of my argument the compulsory papers common to everyone).

Why it’s not for ‘crammers’

Sample these questions:

“Why have the resource rich African and South Asian countries remained poor for decades?”

“Domestic resource mobilisation, though central to the process of Indian economic growth, is characterized by several constraints. Explain.”

“Do you think that China’s emergence as one of the largest trading partners of India has adversely affected the settlement of the outstanding border problem?”

It is evident that none of these questions (and many more in the question paper) is concerned with any one particular event or theory.

To answer them, “knowledge” and depth of understanding are required; neither can be acquired overnight by “cramming.” Superficial knowledge will, expectedly, produce only substandard answers.

Beyond the books

Can a “crammer” be expected to have an “informed opinion” i.e. one that is formed after careful consideration of various aspects of an issue? Here’s how this exam was a crammer’s nemesis on this front.

Let’s take the question that demanded a critical examination of the issues involved in the Endosulfan ban and asked for the candidate’s view on what should be done in the matter. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the country has been debating the issue of Endosulfan ban for the past many years with the National Human Rights Commission, Central government, State governments, the Supreme Court, civil society, academia, and international bodies, all being a part of this debate (which is still ongoing, by the way). A quick online search on The Hindu’s website with the keyword “Endosulfan” between January 1, 2011 to November 24, 2012 threw up as many as 1,137 results!

Similarly, another question that asked candidates to comment on the need for the Planning Commission to revise the chapter on Health in the 12th Plan document was very straightforward because the debate was at the forefront of national discourse on health continuously for months prior to the exam. Innumerable articles appeared in various daily newspapers and elsewhere, including in this very newspaper (Op-Ed, “Setting up Universal Health Care Pvt. Ltd,” September 13, 2012).

Three changes

There were three marked changes in this year’s General Studies papers that Mr. Ngaihte completely missed writing about, and these need to be highlighted (and the Union Public Service Commission or UPSC needs to be applauded for them).

First, there were hardly any questions about specific Articles of the Constitution, or about specific events and names of personalities from history. These were a staple in previous years, and a candidate could score almost 30-50 marks purely on the basis of “cramming” such details. This change should be welcomed as it makes the exam “repeater-proof” (i.e. advantage that accrues by writing this exam year after year through becoming familiar with the pattern).

Second, there was also a clear shift this year in favour of a greater number of 25 marks and 15 marks questions (76.66% and 58.33% of questions in GS I and GS II respectively), which would make it difficult for any candidate to hide behind “superficial knowledge” and mere rote-learning, alongside giving ample scope to those who were well-prepared to display deeper understanding of the subject.

Third, a large number of questions specifically sought candidates’ own views on the issues, giving them an opportunity to make new arguments and display intellectual creativity. This also implies that there were no ready-made answers to these questions which could be “crammed” up right before the exam (least of all to be found on Wikipedia or in guidebooks that enrich the coffers of the coaching industry).

And here’s something more — it isn’t as if such questions were not to be expected in the examination, least of all by anyone who browsed through the syllabus released by UPSC nearly eight months before the exam. This is what a few lines from the “General Guidelines” under GS syllabus said: “The questions will be such as to test a candidate’s general awareness of a variety of subjects, [with relevance] for a career in [the] Civil Services. The questions are likely to test the candidate’s basic understanding of all relevant issues, and ability to analyze and take a view on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives and demands. The candidate must give relevant, meaningful and succinct answers.”

When the UPSC syllabus is so clear on what is expected from candidates, it is unfair to blame the questions for not being “easy” and demanding “nuanced and complex arguments.” Simply because learning how to answer such questions is precisely what the syllabus prescribes us to do before we attempt this exam.

An eye on the time

No examination can please all its takers. But criticising the examination for its time restriction is not on. It is also puzzling why Mr. Ngaihte chose to criticise the examination over the absolute scores of finally selected candidates when the selection itself is relative and there is no other cut-off that is prescribed by UPSC.

There is an insane amount of competition for a place in the Civil Services, reflected in the fact that out of 2,43,003 candidates who appeared in the preliminary examination in 2011, only 910 were finally recommended for appointment (roughly one out of 267 candidates!).Yes, to be one out of 267 does require perseverance, hard work, practice of writing answers, as rightly pointed out by the author among host of other factors. But here’s what the author missed out: it also requires time management (both during preparation and while writing the exam), an awareness of critical debates at the national and international level, an ability to form one’s own opinion and take a stand, and an ability to express one’s views lucidly. Will anyone disagree that these are qualities one naturally expects the future administrators of the country to possess?

(Ruchika Sharma, a civil services aspirant, appeared for the recently concluded UPSC Civil Services Mains Examination in October 2012, her first attempt. Email: ruchikasharma1388@gmail.com)

T.K. Ngaihte responds:

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More In: Comment | Opinion

UPSC exam is a dream of many and needs an ordered, prepared and careful approach. UPSC is truly moving towards more logical based questions that need explanation which one can give only when he is completely involved in whatever is coming before his/her eyes.
The major dissatisfaction most have is of time span it covers. For giving a single attempt properly an average person needs to go through rigorous study for 2 years, which leads many to quit their jobs.
On the other hand we have Service Selection Board Interviews for Defense services which consume only 5 - 15 days of a person's time for selection. A person preparing for defense can prepare for it on the move doing his daily job. It should be kept in mind that Officers selected through SSBs and through UPSC both are appointed by "The President of India" and hence are equivalent.
In my opinion UPSC can look for options like have few papers in mains and then quick interviews so that whole process gets completed within 6 months.

from:  Mayank Sehgal
Posted on: Nov 29, 2012 at 13:36 IST

Here is the reason why I call N's article unwittingly plays into the
claims brazenly made by the coaching industry. Since thinking in the
exam hall is ruled out (given the "severely restricted time"), one has no option but to cram and mug up the coaching notes. Since most candidates think that anyhow most examinees do this, one is not going to lose much. On reading N's article, they would be forgiven to think that coaching institutes definitely do not help us write intellectually-superior answers but we don't have a choice either. The solution? Coaching notes. Is this not what these money-minting institutes have been saying?

from:  Viswanath V
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 13:16 IST

author has analytically responded to the points raised by Mr. Ngaihte.
there is no doubt that cse need overhaul but i think upsc is moving
forward in a positive way and the type of questions asked in last two
years exam shows that the steps are being incorporated in the right
directions.

from:  sachin saini
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 13:05 IST

There is a reason for your enthusiasm because this was your first
attempt. People with aspiration for IAS finds good things in every act
of UPSC.
This exam takes complete 1 year. This is completely illogical. Passed
out students come to Delhi or other big cities to prepare for this
exam instead of doing some job. Many students waste their 3-4 years in
this process. Institute like JNU, Allahabad university have become hub
of civil service aspirants where people just take admission to get
hostel seat and prepare for this exam. Even a objective type test
Prelims result come after 3 months. What a waste of time.
Once they finish away with all their attempts then they realize what
the great mistake they have done. Now they are unsuitable for any job
and they can just become teacher in some coaching center.

from:  sandeep
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 11:57 IST

The article was waiting to be written by someone. I am glad that
Ruchica has written it succinctly, and let it be told at the outset
that it puts the record straight. If Mr. N's improperly headlined
article unwittingly played into the stupid claims of coaching centres
(albeit in a way they would not like it), R's rejoinder shows the way
forward to the aspirants (read the last part of the last para).
However, the most laughable part of N's article was not rebutted by R.
He implicitly held that all questions in any given paper are tricky
(read like the two questions from the Political Science paper which he
sampled). He also suggested that with the "severely limited time", an
aspirant could write nothing other than stock answers.
N's article might actually have confused many aspirants.
For someone who has done even ordinary cogitation during the
preparation stage, the possibility of taking opposite positions in the
examination and after it is over, should not happen.

from:  Viswanath V
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 11:45 IST

I agree with the author on it being a logically and cogently argued piece. Mr.Ngaihte's(presuming that the author is a male) article,to which this article is a response, however indulges in paradoxical reasoning.
The initial premise of his argument can be this statement-'No one doubts the objectiveness of the Civil Services examination' and the second premise can be this- 'As should be evident, these are not very easy questions. Good answers to these questions require nuance and complex arguments, which in turn require thinking and time, even for someone well-versed with the subject'. So a logical extension of this argument would be that candidates with shallow traits would be severely impeded and thus weeded out. But he draws a different conclusion from the premises which is 'As for the deep-going, analysing, intellectual types that the UPSC professes to want, they would be lost in the rush.' A paradox.

from:  Kumar
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 10:42 IST

Sir i am also preparing for civil services but i am not satisfied the above views about IAS exams is that it is only for crammers. I want to told him (Ngaihte) that what he express his views about civil services exams ,in my views such type of craming pattern are not present in civil services. If we deeply analyse the examination pattern of civil services then we will find that only cramming the facts we can,t qulify this exam, in my opinion fundamental apprihension are required for this exam and i m staunch critic of ngaithe,s opinionn

from:  NIYAM guleria
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 10:37 IST

As you said, qns definetely demand depth of understanding. To serve,
we should give a good fact base and a sound analysis on spot. But as
Ngaihte pointed, do u have the requisite time?, in which case, 2
choices come out- put down all factual info ready with you and try
attempt as many questions as possible? OR write excellent answers(in
one's own sense) and end up attempting less. And we cannot say either
the volume or the quality matters. We should see this with the
subjectivilty involved in the correction.
Qns being so broad are open to various interpretations. Given time
constraint, we may not be able to present all of the views. So the end
result is you may give only a few opinions,which most of the times are
the ones ready on finger tips. This end result tends to be the same
even for a person who lack the depth of understanding.
One would suggest, a capable person would think and then prune which
to present and which not. Surely, he will come out a third of paper
unattempted.

from:  ravi
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 09:30 IST

I did not bother to read more than the first paragraph. But I still support the other side of the debate. How can you "make informed decisions" and write them down on question after question in a matter of 3 hours? Highly impossible.

from:  Divya
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 08:27 IST

I fully agree that the test for getting through Civil services are only cramming and answering questions in a particular manner and not in a rational way showing deeper understanding on the subject.This is the reason that even science students prefer to take history,psychology and take coaching.This is the reason that these babus rarely display their gebious in latter life and nearly all of them work like glorified clerks!

from:  Atis
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 07:07 IST

Kudos to a well-meaning sincere author, for putting in view the
student's views on hard preparation. To what end? Vast majority of
citizens see the civil servants as corrupt, bankrupt of any scruples.
Perhaps exams to test character, honesty,professionalism may be added.
Most of the aspirants join the civil service to defraud the nation --
how can that be checked?

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 05:01 IST
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