For a successful career, students have to move from examination-oriented learning to becoming conceptually strong in subject fundamentals.

Many of you would have watched DreamWorks 2010 animation movie How to train Your Dragon . The film is about how a hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons, becomes the unlikely friend of a young dragon himself. He then learns there may be more to the creatures than he assumed.

Perhaps you liked the movie. But, in hindsight, it may have some valuable lessons for the first and second-year undergraduate engineering students in Tamil Nadu. Especially now when recent media reports talk of a very low pass percentage among students who took the third semester examinations of Anna University of Technology, Chennai.

Those media reports quote academics, who say, the trend is a fallout of a skewed school education system that gives weightage to only rote learning and marks. Even admission to engineering is based only on marks and little else. The academics also say higher education is an altogether different ball game — where learning is about practical application of scientific theory.

Any engineering professor would vouch that the entire discipline of engineering is about helping students learn to find practical, scientifically verifiable, feasible answers to everyday problems faced by society or individuals.

But then very few students understand the transition required for moving from a completely memory-based, examination-oriented, and marks-only-valued system to a practical and application-oriented, career-making engineering education.

A university vice-chancellor went on record that the question paper in Engineering Math I was more application-oriented and perhaps that was the reason a large number of students found that exam difficult.

So, if you feel as hapless as the young Viking in the movie — an aspiration to slay the academic dragon and become a hero — don't lose heart. Learn from it. You can actually turn the rigour of academics as your ally. Then you can see there's more to academic rigour than mere rote-learning.

This brings us to the crucial question: how can good academic practices and a successful career be correlated?

And how does a student move from examination-oriented learning to becoming conceptually strong in subject fundamentals?

Yes. Undeniably, academic brilliance requires a good balance between understanding the basic concepts and exam-oriented preparation.

A student can typically fare well in Engineering subjects only if he/she understands the concept and then prepares for the examination as per the question paper pattern. This can also help find tactics to save time in solving problems during the examination and complete answering the question paper with the stipulated time.

Today's industry professionals agree that classroom-based learning is a must for undergraduate level of study, as this is where the student is introduced to the core concepts of the engineering world. Good lectures/study materials prepared and offered to students by experienced faculty helps the student grasp the concept rightly and also helps one to identify his/her own area of interest and develop a passion towards engineering subjects/profession.

However, at PG level, a student would have already had the insight of various concepts and engineering study. Hence more of application-oriented learning is preferred and encouraged, thereby increasing the R&D capabilities of the engineer.

Those who joined the industry in the past 3 - 4 years say with hindsight: while they had to “study” through solving problems and performing experiments in labs to understand various theoretical concepts taught in classroom, they also had to “learn” certain concepts that a student needs to remember and apply throughout his/her career while facing engineering challenges.

Thus the final question: How does a student bring in rigour into academic learning and convert it into learning for a career?

Today's IT-based world has a lot of avenues for students to bring in more rigour into academic learning. Joining various engineering communities in the web and posting technical doubts and conducting debates expands one's avenues to learn and makes learning more interesting.

One can enrich practical knowledge from the World Wide Web (Watch the free video-based lectures at academic-earth.org; Khan Academy; the Youtube Channels of large universities such as Berkeley, CA). Social networking is certainly a great way to connect with peers and academicians.

Learning through social platforms adds to your ability to contribute to others' learning too.

Students should not hesitate to participate in symposia conducted by various colleges, take part in industry-academia interaction programmes, go on educational tours, or participate in university exchange programmes. Each adds to interesting campus/academic life.

Finally, the learnings from these forums step up students' confidence to solve practical engineering problems. Ultimately, in campus placement/job interviews, communication and confidence levels are the real tests which employers rely on to take people on-board their companies. And one's thorough understanding of basics, with ability to apply them to solving problems certainly boosts both communication and confidence.

The authors are professionals in the IT industry. K. Ramachandran can be reached at krckrc2010@gmail.com and Magesh Srinivasan at mageshsiyer@gmail.com.