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A call to return to the basics?

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SAVOURING SUCCESS: Graduates of the IIT system come from varied backgrounds. The goal is to admit students who have a grasp of all quantitative concepts.
SAVOURING SUCCESS: Graduates of the IIT system come from varied backgrounds. The goal is to admit students who have a grasp of all quantitative concepts.

PRISCILLA JEBARAJ

Will the proposal to raise the cut-off marks for IIT-JEE pave the way for a learning process where students get a solid grounding in the fundamentals?

Should IIT-JEE applicants be required to score 85 per cent in their school board examinations? Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal’s statement earlier this week suggesting that the school examination criteria be hiked from 60 to 80 or 85 per cent has raked up the issue again, and with it a whole plethora of concerns about schooling in India, the JEE and coaching centres.

Mr. Sibal calmed the storm by clarifying that it was up to the IIT Council to take a decision on the issue, and saying that the government would not interfere. However, it is a fact that the IITs themselves have been considering this proposal, and even more radical ones, for over a year now. A committee to explore JEE reforms was set up last year, and its chairman V.G. Idichandy, who is also IIT-Madras deputy director, has given it as his personal opinion that the JEE should just be scrapped and only school marks taken into account. Other senior IIT officials have suggested that only the top one or two per cent of students in the board examinations should be allowed to attempt JEE.

Interestingly, it is not only the elite IITs which are considering such ideas. On the next rung in technical education, the National Institutes of Technology determine entrance through the All India Engineering Entrance Examination. The NITs are now reportedly considering a proposal to raise the eligibility criteria in terms of school marks as well.

Apart from reducing the number of candidates who attempt these examinations to a more manageable and realistic level, those who promote such proposals want to reduce the stranglehold that the coaching centre system has on the country. “In many places, coaching centres are defacto replacing the school education system,” warns Sujatha Ramdorai, a member of the National Knowledge Commission.

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.

Apart from such obvious knowledge gaps, IIT professors also point to learning style differences that make it hard to cope for students who have placed more importance on JEE coaching than school exams. “A sizable number find it difficult because they are used to a tutoring style with a drill of questions and answers,” says an IIT Chemistry professor. “At IIT, we teach a lot of concepts, and give a few representative problems. Assignments are meant for self-study, not marks. We expect students to be self-driven, but the coaching centres apply external pressure.”

L. Celestine Preetham, a first-year Electrical Engineering student at IIT-Madras, agrees. “Those who come from Kota or other coaching centres are used to studying 14 hours a day. In IIT, you get two hours to study after sitting in classes all day, just like in school. It’s a totally different kind of time management that is needed,” he says. While he bagged an all-India Rank of 45 in JEE, he was also a top student at school level, scoring 98 per cent in the board examination.

Most Chennai students who attempt JEE are like him, according to the coaching centres here. “All our IIT candidates score above 90 per cent in school anyway,” says Gita Prabhu, director AIMS Education, which trains students for JEE and AIEEE. She feels that Tamil Nadu’s strong school education system, which demands the physical presence of students in class, will ensure that none of the State’s students will lose out if the IITs raise the eligibility criteria.

She added that reputed coaching centres should actually welcome the moves, since it would mean that students would come to them with a stronger grounding in the basics.

“We have already seen that since TNPCEE [the State entrance examination] was abolished. Earlier, many schools would skip Class 11 portions, since students would spend Class 12 preparing for the entrance. Then it becomes difficult to train them in the concepts.”

At the end of the day, students should be gaining knowledge, not just studying with JEE, AIEEE or even their school examinations in mind. Until such ideal attitudes are adopted, however, the move to raise the eligibility criteria could return some much-needed focus to the basic concepts taught at the school level.


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