No relation between learning and examination

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist
Photo credit: CNS:
Some of my teacher friends are quite concerned with the fact that I don’t conduct any examination in the courses that I teach and almost all students in my class get ‘A’ grade. I believe there is no relationship between learning and examination. If the purpose of teaching is to make students understand a subject the job of a teacher is not complete until the students have learned the subject. Any failure of student to learn should be considered a failure of the teacher to make his/her students understand the subject.

I feel sorry that so much precious time is wasted in setting questions papers, conducting examinations, correcting answer sheets and giving grades. Some teachers seem to take the whole process of conducting examination more seriously than teaching the course itself. For some it is a very pious exercise which they see as integral part of teaching. They cannot imagine the process of teaching sans examination. But performance in examination is not a true reflection of student’s learning. Students may pass examination, and often with good marks, without understanding the subject by adopting legitimate as well as unfair means. This exercise of examination is akin to a struggle between the teacher and the taught. After an insipid semester of instructions the teacher tries to put the students to unnecessary strain of memorizing the content and is usually very strict with grading. So much so that some teachers consider it a matter of pride that students are not able to get very high marks in their subjects. Students on the other hand try to beat the teachers and find ways to score good marks without putting in much effort.

In my system of evaluation I conduct one-to-one interaction with each student in my class. The interaction is held in my office or the hostel room of student. With a class size of slightly over hundred students I’m able to do it about three times during the semester at IIT, BHU. In this evaluation I test the understanding of the student. If the student has not learned the subject he/she is asked to go back, study and prepare for another round of interaction. The students have unlimited chances to learn the subject.

The process of evaluation is complete when the teacher and student are both satisfied with the learning achieved. In this process almost all students are able to achieve a certain basic level of understanding of the course. This is the reason that almost all students get the same grade in the class. Since everybody has understood the subject they get ‘A’. I don’t see why they should be given any lesser grade. Ideally I would be happy if no grades had to be given. I should just be required to declare whether the student has understood the subject or not.

Let me make it clear that I’m not saying the examinations have no role. I’m just saying they have no role in learning process. However, if some selection is to done, for example for a job, then the employer may use the method of examination to make appropriate selections. In our country there is a huge industry which just prepares people for various kinds of examinations. They are guilty of making the competition cut throat, draining any element of learning in the teaching process. The joy which is associated with the process of learning disappears as one is exposed to fierce competition. Moreover, it wastes the time and energy of so many youth who are ultimately not able to clear these examinations. The successful candidates are only a miniscule percentage of those who are not able to make it.

However, when we solve problems in real life we almost never do it under examination like conditions. In fact, instead of competing with our colleagues, we try to seek their cooperation in accomplishing a task. Hence the role of examination must not be exaggerated. It is an artificial meaningless wasteful exercise which puts tremendous strain on candidates.

The element of competition inbuilt in examination brings the worst out of us, distorting our personalities, making us more selfish and unnecessarily aggressive. People who are not subject to process of competition, for example all primary producers and illiterate service providers, are more humane in their interaction and produce better quality results in their work too. They have never scored high marks nor hold certificates and degrees from reputed institutions but the society trusts them to do its work. And they do their work honestly. If one thinks about it, it is amazing that we trust formally unqualified and untrained people to do such important tasks as cook our food, build our houses, handle our little children, etc., essentially because we believe in their integrity but still continue to accept the idea that competition produces quality. Most of  the above mentioned categories of people are not working in competitive set ups.

People who do not go through the process of competition have a better understanding of life. For example, they know the amount of resources needed to fulfill human needs. The educated people because of their selfish nature become greedy and lose a sense of remaining contented within limited resources. Hence they feel that their needs are unlimited. This is the reason they also engages in corruption. Corruption is a product of educated society. The uneducated are victims of corruption.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist
29 May 2015
(The author is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for the year 2002, and presently a visiting faculty in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Banares Hindu University (BHU). Follow him on Twitter @sandeep4justice)