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Same old rote learning

Students coming out from Osmania University hostel after the government announced temporary closure of all educational institutions as COVID-19 cases are increasing daily, in Hyderabad. File   | Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna

Last year, as the pandemic disrupted our lives, bureaucrats and administrators associated with educational institutions released a flood of notifications and circulars. Supposedly designed to enable academic activity, these orders disregarded the distress experienced by the academic community. The unrealistic ‘one order fits all’ approach established the distress as a new feature of educational institutions. The biggest failure of the administrative response was that instead of helping institutions, faculty and students overcome the uncertainties, the focus was on unnecessary bureaucratic centralisation.

The second wave, occurring at a time when students in schools and higher educational institutions transition from one level to another, has exposed the administrative inadequacies of the past year. It was obvious that the pandemic would disrupt the academic schedule for more than two years. As we return to ask the same questions from 2020 in 2021, such as those about the end and commencement of academic terms, we need to accept that the past criticisms of these administrative actions were justified.

A lost opportunity

The pandemic offered an opportunity to initiate sustainable reforms in the structure of the academic term and the nature of continuous assessment. It provided an opportunity to work with teachers to address their concerns, encourage better student-teacher interactions, and develop a better framework to determine the qualificatory grade for students to move to the next stage of study. But instead, the administrator’s rigid insistence on rote learning, refusal to recognise the fact that marks obtained in exams are not the only markers of a student’s capabilities, and reluctance to engage with fellow academicians and teachers to nurture academic engagement became a source of public distress.

The exam system, which has been crying out for significant overhaul, could have been reformed. We needed to reduce the pressure on our students and discourage them from memorising to prepare for set and repetitive exam questions. Attention should have been given to continuous assessment and evaluation of students. A system geared to assess the students’ understanding rather than ability to memorise and reproduce should have been in place.

The revised academic calendars introduced in 2020 not only undermined proper and constructive academic interaction between teachers and students but also exposed everyone to new levels of distress. While teachers conducted online classes daily, administrators were obsessed with monitoring them and showed scant interest in enquiring about the health and difficulties of their colleagues and staff. They failed to consider initiatives to assess the mental health of teachers, non-teaching staff and students. At times it seemed as if they did not fully understand the qualitative and operational differences between online and offline classes. The government and its academic bureaucracy forced upon us archaic academic visions that exposed their outdated understanding of technology and their lack of understanding of the contemporary challenges of classroom interactions.

The way forward

There is a pressing need for bureaucratic administrators to consult academic stakeholders and find a way forward. It is time for institutions to reconsider their approach towards exams and grading. We need to introspect on the objectives of stressful final exams, consider alternative forms of assessment for promoting students, and explore innovative ways for evaluating the teaching and learning process. School boards and universities need to alter the pattern of question papers. We need to make academic evaluation more rigorous and sustainable, reduce the number of questions to be attempted, and encourage students to write imaginatively. The idea of open book examinations needs to be developed.

The next few weeks will be a testing time for decision-makers in educational institutions. They will need to display administrative acumen and show willingness to learn from mistakes. The bureaucracy must recognise that universities and schools have their own academic considerations and that the standardisation of academic requirements, calendars, and teaching and learning processes are not feasible. Administrators of educational institutions should seize the initiative from the government, avoid short-sighted decisions, and decentralise decision-making. The decisions we take should not be knee-jerk responses such as cancelling and/or postponing exams and remaining fixated with the completion of the academic term; they should help secure the academic future for students, teachers and institutions.

Mahesh Gopalan is Assistant Professor, Department of History, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 10:48:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/same-old-rote-learning/article34369620.ece

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