Exams or No Exams?


  1. Since 16th March 2020, Universities and other educational institutions across the country have been closed as one of the measures to contain the covid19 outbreak. Educational institutions were closed down for social isolation or social distancing.
  2. In April 2020, the UGC had issued Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for Universities in View of Covid19 Pandemic and subsequent lockdown. In these guidelines it was proposed to hold the exam in July 2020. However, we are now in the end of July 2020 and those exams have not taken place in many universities.
  3. According to UGC Press Release of 18/7/2020, out of 945 universities, 194 have already conducted the exam, 366 plan to do so. And therefore what is the status of remaining universities? https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/9514949_English.pdf
  4. UGC has issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on 8 July 2020 for conduct of exams. The UGC operates under the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD). They are concerned with dealing with all aspects of Human Resources. https://www.ugc.ac.in/ugc_notices.aspx?id=Mjg3NQ==
  5. On July 6, 2020, UGC issued revised guidelines on examinations and academic calendar for the academic year 2020-21.
  6. As per these guidelines, all Universities have been asked to complete the Terminal Semester and Final year exams by “end of ” Sept 30, 2020.
  7. UGC says that all exams should be compulsorily conducted by Sept 30, 2020. That means exams can be conducted earlier also.
  8. The above circular also says at point 3, “Taking into consideration the academic interest of large number of students,… the MHA has agreed to the request of MHRD and granted exemption for opening of educational institutions for the purpose of holding examinations / evaluation work for final term exams”.
  9. As per the Office Memorandum of 6th July 2020, “a large no. of exams of Universities are scheduled to be held in the coming months. In order to ensure the safety of examinees, as also their academic interest, the following action may be taken:” Its good that UGC is thinking of the safety of examinees. But what about the safety of college and university staff that will be required to conduct these exams? Clerical staff, teachers, supervisors, centre conductors, all will be involved in the conduct of these exams. Centres where students appear for exams will have to be sanitized before each paper. Are these resources available? Whose responsibility will it be if these measures are not executed? Most staff who is involved in exams is relatively senior staff of age 40+ and often 50+ years of age. This is also the age group that is very vulnerable to covid19.
  10. You may wonder where does UGC come into this? So education is on the concurrent list and while the universities are autonomous and they have the responsibility of setting their syllabi, etc, the UGC looks after the quality standards.
  11. What happens when some universities conduct exams and others don’t? Will there be a uniformity in results? Will it be possible to compare the results? Will it create a new class – where some students whose universities could conduct exams are treated more favourably than those students whose university could not conduct the exam? Who will ensure that there is no discrimination when these students apply for jobs or higher education?
  12. UGC says that exams can be conducted in online, offline or blended mode. So let us see what these modes are and what are the difficulties in conducting exams in these modes.


EXAMS IN OFFLINE MODE:
1. This is the traditional way of conducting exams where students will be allotted exam centres and they must be present at those centres for the exam.
2. UGC wants a self-declaration about health status from staff – what if a staff member is not well or someone in the family is not well and they are unable to report for duty? Is this an unlikely situation in the current scenario? What if a student is unable to appear for the exam because he/she is unwell or someone in the family is unwell? Will that student be treated as failed in the final semester because they could not appear for the final semester exam?
3. UGC says that facemasks, gloves thermo guns, sanitisers, etc should be used for every paper. Where will these resources come from? Has anybody done the cost evaluation of purchasing all these disposable and non-disposable items? How many gloves, how many thermoguns, how much sanitiser – have any calculations been done? OK, each university / college will have a different requirement but at least a ballfigure figure like “per hundred students” can be calculated as a guideline. What will it cost and who will bear this expenditure? Should students have to pay extra fees for all these? Will the state governments have these type of funds? Are the private companies allowed to fund this safety activity as part of their CSR? Who has the answers to these questions?
4. UGC also says that “..if any examination functionary fails to meet the self-declaration criteria he/she will be asked to leave the examination centre immediately” That’s fair. But who will do the job of that person now? Will there be sufficient stand-by staff?
5. Social distancing is essential as per the above UGC guideline. That means a distance of atleast 2 metres. UGC has also supplied a sample seating plan. Most classrooms, in normal circumstances can seat atmost 50-60 students for an exam with 2 students per bench. Now to maintain social distancing, after every seat, the next bench will have to be left empty, and the adjoining seat also left empty. That will reduce the number of students who can sit in a class for the exam. This in turn means more classrooms required, more supervisors/invigilators required, more support staff required for sanitisation, cleaning. How will colleges get this manpower in these difficult times? What if some staff cannot come due to genuine reasons? What can be done ? What should staff prioritize at this stage – salary or their and their family’s health?
6. Guideline no 16 also states that adequate arrangements be made for thermal scanners, sanitizers, ace masks, hand gloves, at entry and exit points. Who will do this? “Wherever possible, students should be given fresh face masks by the invigilators in the examination room itself”. UGC should note that the invigilators are the teachers of that particular college where the final semester exams are to be conducted. These teachers are themselves aged – many in 50+ age bracket. Is this what UGC expects teachers to do now? Take the additional risk of getting infected at that age?
7. “Senior staff should monitor the entry and exit” . Is this not the point where maximum risk is likely? Students at entry point have yet to get the face mask/glove/sanitizers, etc and are therefore themselves vulnerable and also become a risk factor for other students and the senior staff.
8. What if during thermal screening a student is found to have a high temperature? Is a high temperature a sign of covid19? If the college staff turns away a student with high temperature and that temperature is not related with covid19, the student will protest and insist that he/she is allowed to give the exam. What protocol will be followed in such a case? Are the teachers professionally trained to judge the cause of high fever? Is “cough, cold and fever” caused only by covid19? People get “cough, cold and fever” quite often and before March 2020 no one gave importance to it as it was cured in 7 days. So here, the UGC says that “the student should either be made to sit in a separate room or given a chance to appear on another day”. Is this feasible? Another room means another supervisor. How many staff should be asked to report on duty? And if the student opts for “another day” it means setting another question paper, conducting exam again, paper evaluation will be delayed, result declaration will be delayed. And what happens if a student / staff takes ill during the exam? Should a doctor be available in the college?
9. UGC guidelines also ask for use of pedal-push covered bins for disposal of gloves, face masks, etc. Where will the funds come from for these?
10. The virus could spread by handling of papers from one person to another. How will this issue be sorted out. Have you tried sitting in a room in one place for 2-3 hours with a face mask on? Can you do it? Is it even safe to wear a mask continuously for 2-3 hours?
11. Will the examining bodies – colleges/universities take responsibility for the safety of students ? No. As per a press item in Indian Express on July 18, 2020, medical colleges have started collecting undertakings from students that the colleges will not be liable if students get infected by covid-19 while giving the exams.
12. So the very reason for closing down colleges was to stop the spread of covid19 virus but by again opening up our institutions, we are bypassing the requirements of social distancing and thereby increasing the risk of the virus spreading.

COMPARISON WITH INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITIES:
In the guidelines for conduct of exams, UGC has made a very important remark: In the 3rd para, it states :

  1. Its nice to know that UGC wants our universities to be treated on par with the above international universities. But here is something: These international universities have autonomy. Their professors have autonomy as to what to teach, how to reach, and how to assess. They have the infrastructure to conduct online exams and students have the resources to give online exams. Is the internet penetrability in India as much and of the same quality as in the above countries? How will the sanctity of exams be taken care of? What if a student ‘A’ doesnot appear for the online exam and makes another person ‘B’ a proxy appear instead? How will these cases be checked? What if a student doesnot create a project / presentation / assignment and “gets them done”? How will these issues be taken care of? Is there any guideline for this?
  2. Foreign universities have a way of disseminating information to students. What do our universities do? Have a look at the websites of the very universities mentioned by UGC.

UGC’s RATIONALE:

  1. UGC has a “rationale” for conducting the final year exams even in this pandemic. Here is their “rationale”:

Consider the second last sentence “The performance in examinations brings in scholarships and awards and translates into better job placement”. Do these scholarships and awards come based only on the 6th semester result? Aren’t these awards based on the entire course or atleast the full academic year? Since when have awards been given only on the basis of last semester? And if that is indeed the case, it is very unfair. Because a student might have excelled in studies for 5 semesters and due to circumstances beyond his/her control could not do as well in the 6 semester. Are you going to judge him based only on the basis of 6th semester? So, there could be another student who was getting just average marks in all semesters but did exceptionally well only in 6th semester. Will that second student be awarded and rewarded for academic performance in one last semester? What rationale is this? And “lifelong credibility” will be there if life is there. Why take a chance with life? “Confidence and satisfaction and merit and lifelong credibility” that is mentioned in the last sentence here – those don’t come in the last semester, those are built up over a period of time.

What has to be understood is that in the current 3 year-6 semester degree structure that we follow, every semester is independent. Every semester carries equal weight in the overall degree. So if we take the overall syllabus weight as 100 then each semester contributes 100/6 = 16.7% of the total. Out of this only the 16.7% of the final semester needs to be evaluated. Here too, many courses may have completed their internal exams, assignments, project work of the last semester and so all that remains is the theory exam which will then have a weightage of even less that 16.7% of the overall total.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION ABOUT UNIVERSITY PREPAREDNESS?
1. In Maharashtra alone, in 14 universities, more than 7 lakh 30 thousand students are in various courses in the final year in non-professional courses. In professional courses, there are about 2 lakh 80 thousand students.
2. What does conducting an exam mean? Its not just students appearing for an exam. Here are the various activities associated with conducting an exam:
1. Preparing list of students and examining their eligibility for the exam
2. Prepare question papers sets
3. Make seating arrangement for the exams. Seating arrangements have to follow social distancing norms so the number of classroom required for same number of students will be more. That will increase the number of supervisors/invigilators needed for the exams.
4. Managing the movement of students in the exam centres
5. Paper assessment
6. Preparing marklists.
7. Declaring results
8. provide for gracing schemes for these special circumstances.
9. Making arrangements for police force at various centres. Police department is already overstretched since last 4 months and many of the brave police staff have lost their lives in the course of their duty.
10. Once results are declared, there may be cases where students apply for reevaluation/rechecking etc and that will further delay the process for such students.

WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT? EXAM OF A SEMESTER OR STARTING A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR?
1. It is more important to start the new academic year. Students have done 5 or more semesters and so they have almost 2 1/2 years solid education behind them. Should we hold them back, for no fault of theirs, for the one exam, which constitutes just 16% of their entire curriculum? Doesn’t appear to be fair.
2. Let youngsters move on in life. Some will leave academics after the degree exam and enter the employment market. Some may start their own businesses. Some may be trying to go abroad and study. Some may want to do a post-graduation here. So if the academic committee feels that there is a topic of semester 6 which was so very essential that a student cannot pursue PG studies without that topic, let them put some of those topics in the PG level course as a non-evaluated bridge course.

ONLINE EXAMS and BLENDED LEARNING:
There is a lot of discussion about online and blended-learning exams. But here is the main point that is being missed out. Online exams is not just about availability of smartphones and connectivity. About 400 million internet users in India use a mobile phone (not a desktop or laptop computer) to access the Internet. Now here are the main issues in using a mobile phone for giving an online exam:
1) Only MCQ questions: Your online exam paper must contain only MCQ type or true/false type questions so that student can just click the correct option. Can you imagine a student typing out a long or even a short answer of say 5-7 lines on a mobile phone and repeating this for 5-7 questions in the question paper? How is it possible. And if only objective questions are set, what do such questions examine or evaluate at the degree level? Nothing.

2) Let us take a subject like English. What sort of answers are expected in an English literature question paper at final year degree level? Certainly not short answer, fill in the blanks, match the column and MCQ type questions!

3) What about other languages like Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, etc? Is it easy to type in these languages on a mobile phone or even a desktop/laptop computer?

4) Take subjects like Physics, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, computer science. How will students submit their answers for such subjects that involve formulae, calculations, diagrams, explanation? How can this be done on a mobile? How can this be done on a laptop? How many teachers and students have been trained to use Latex for this purpose?

5) Take subjects like botany, zoology, biotechnology, microbiology, and other life sciences. How will student illustrate her answers with diagrams, on a mobile phone?

6) How will Divyang (PWD) students cope up with these online exams?

7) Now you may say that these difficulties can be overcome by asking the student to write the answers on a paper and scan and send it to the examiner. Who will ensure that a student has not used unfair means or has not copied? Who will ensure this and how? Has the SOP been worked out for that? What about technical glitches?

8) If students are asked to give an online at-home exam, many factors need to be in place. Students must have access to a desktop, laptop, or tablet that is compatible with the exam delivery software. Student must have a stable and secure internet connection. The format and content of the test should be suitable to online delivery. To get an objective result from this exam, the online examination should be designed so that students are tested on the content of what is being assessed, rather than on their familiarity with using a mobile or a specific software.

9) Remote supervision is essential to monitor students. Are those protocols in place? Students will need to be informed about what is the code of conduct for online exams and what are unacceptable practices. If an exam is conducted where there is no control over the means used to answer the questions, that exam loses its credibility.

Since a comparison has been made with international universities, let me state that in USA universities have a laptop loan scheme where a student can simply take a laptop on loan from the university library and return it in few days, much like borrowing a book. How many universities/ colleges in India have a similar loan scheme for laptop or tablets? There should be public hot-spots where students can take the exam if the situation at home is not suitable. What happens in case of connection breakdown or software malfunctioning? If a student’s camera is being monitored, what steps will be taken to ensure that student’s privacy is not affected by someone taking a screenshot of the student taking the exam?

You cannot simply take questions put in traditional paper format question papers and transfer them to the online exams. Questions and answers will have to be evaluated and adjusted accordingly to meet the content and psychometric standards. For example, the change in the delivery format could make some questions easier, or more difficult than in paper format. The strange thing is that while teachers in schools and junior colleges have to undergo a rigorous teachers’ training course (B.Ed) which prepares them for a teaching career and teaches teaching and learning philosophies, question paper creation methodology, paper assessment techniques, student psychology, etc, no such training is required for a degree college teacher. So if you have a postgraduate degree and a PhD you are good to go and teach and are expected to know everything that is otherwise essential to know for teaching profession but is not taught.

Conducting online exams is extremely challenging and we do not as yet know what other issues will come up. Has research has been done in India on conducting online exams and blended learning exams? What is happening is that we are giving what we assume is a vaccine, without adequate tests. We are hoping that this online, blended offline scheme will work.

PRACTICAL EXAMS

Practical exams have not been conducted for many courses in sciences. How will colleges conduct practical exams? What sort of oral questions can be asked on a physics / chemistry / botany practical if a has not seen the apparatus? What happens with science subjects like physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, etc where a practical exam has to be conducted? How can this be conducted online ? Are the universities ready with virtual laboratories that can be used to conduct practical exams or even practical training? Are students and teachers trained for that? Obviously not.

OPEN BOOK EXAMS
1. Open book exams has been suggested as the other option. To conduct an open book exam requires a very detailed study of the subject by the paper setter first. Obviously in an open book exam you cannot ask questions like “write short note on”, “define”, “describe”, “draw a diagram, “derive the equation”. Open book exams require a different level of paper setting.

2. According to a World Bank blog of April 2020 [ https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/high-stakes-school-exams-during-covid-19-coronavirus-what-best-approach ] , “In the United Kingdom, sixth-year medical school students have just taken their exams online for the first time. Students had three hours to answer 150 questions, so although the exam was in “open book” format, it was impossible to do well by searching for information online without having sufficient knowledge of the subject matter”. Students got only 72 seconds to answer a question – not sufficient time to google search an answer and present it to the examiner.

3. Students must have access to the books – libraries have closed and everyone doesnot buy course books, relying instead on the library. Look at the costs involved in buying books: The TYBSC Sem 6 Physics syllabus of Mumbai university has suggested 4 main references and 9 additional references for just one paper of “Mathematical, Thermal and Statistical Physics”. For another paper of solid state physics there are 9 references. Which books should student keep with her for the open book exam? How many books? How does one get access to these books when libraries are closed? How many copies will a library be able to stock? These are practical difficulties and questions to which we must know the answers before we set a question paper for our students. Let us treat our students with utmost respect and dignity. They are the ones who will run our world.

4. Remember, some students may not have a quiet environment at home to give these exams. There may be some students who have ailing parents or siblings who need their support. With over 8 lakh reported cases of covid19, these situations are quite possible. Should the student be attending her exam or be beside the ailing relative?

Universities must have the freedom to be flexible in their approach and even then be required to maintain high standards. Rather than education administrators who have no classroom teaching experience or no experience of conducting exams or even supervising, let these matters rest with teachers. They know best what matters and how to do their job.

What are open book exams? How are these exams administered? Has the UGC issued guidelines to students as to what is an open book exam? How are these open book exams conducted? What material can a student keep with him for these exams. The UGC has itself identified following limitation with open book exams:
(1) Not everyone might have access to same quality book(s); UGC itself suggests that “One of the class tests or some class assignments (say 30%) could be of this type”. Were any such tests conducted or even encouraged by colleges? What type of questions can you set? “Questions be based not simply on retrieval of information but creative” Do colleges have a a question bank that satisfy this criteria? Have college teachers ever been trained formally in setting such question papers? “…Students be trained in reference reading; Consultation of several text books be encouraged during teaching; Library should have good stock of books; Book Banks can be maintained.” Is this done? Are students trained in this activity? Do college libraries conduct such a training?

Let me quote from the University of Oxford “Open Books Exam Guide for Students”. This document from Oxford University gives complete guidelines to students on how an open book exam is conducted, what arrangements student can make, how a student can practise taking an open book exam, what materials he/she can keep during the exam, etc,. Oxford University also invited students to complete a self-assessment about their home arrangements. Was any feedback collected from students, were any such arrangements made by the universities and colleges? Oxford University also suggested to students that they practise taking an open book exam, “To ensure you are ready for open-book exams, it is vital that you become familiar with the technology and process involved. Please take the time to navigate the practice exam site in Weblearn and rehearse downloading and submitting a response to a past paper”. How will students scan their responses? All answers cannot be typed on a mobile or laptop. Have guidelines been created for students as to how to scan their answers, in what format to save them, how to upload, etc? Why are the authorities assuming that everything is known before hand? And if they do assume that students know everything, why dont they have faith in student’s abilities to do well in their lives based on whatever exams have been conducted so far? Oxford University also states that if the original duration of an exam was e.g., 3 h 15 min, in the open book format the duration will be increased by 1 hour to 4 h 15 min. This additional time is provided for working in the new format and using technology. Will the universities here provide this additional time? Since students need access to textbooks and reference books, how will they access these if they don’t have access to the libraries? Are these standard books available online, free-to-use? How can students access these resources?

Question bank – not available for most courses for the revised syllabi. Even past exam question papers are not available.

UGC Report on Evaluation Reforms in Higher Education https://www.ugc.ac.in/e-book/EVALUATION%20ENGLISH.pdf

CURRENT STATUS

The number of active cases in India is almost 5 lakh. Maharashtra is the worst-affected state and it has crossed the three-lakh mark on 18/7/2020. Mumbai alone has reported over 1 lakh corona virus cases so far. 

‘NEVER LET A CRISIS GO WASTE’

In the 21st century India, students are not dependent only on a degree to do well in life. They know how to make their way. The next few decades will be run by these very students and they will know how to handle the situation. Let us have faith in their inherent abilities, their confidence, their skills, and their honesty. Let us not make a degree, based on the result of one semester of 4 months, be the crutch for the rest of their lives. Every time an exam result is declared in India, we hear people say, “dont worry about the result”, “results don’t matter”, “it is the knowledge that counts”, then why force an exam at a time like this on them if the result will not matter in their lives. If exams are so important, let us tell our children that yes, results matter and you must give exams, come what may. Dont create a confusion in the minds of young people. This is a one-time event in everybody’s life – hopefully, this will not repeat. Exceptional circumstances require exceptional decisions to be made for the good of the society at large.

Someone said, “Never let a crisis go to waste”.  Let the academic sector use this covid19 crisis to bring about fundamental changes in education. While it is good to see online lectures being conducted in these times, more needs to be done. Research needs to carried out in education technology, how to assess answer papers with long answers how to create virtual laboratories for physics, chemistry, etc, how these can be used by students to understand and perform the practicals from wherever they are. Research is needed to take teaching and learning to the mobile phones. Websites must be updated regularly to provide information that is of use to current and prospective students.

TO SUMMARISE:

  1. Evaluating students on the basis of 5 semesters would be a safer and better option under the circumstances.
  2. Students performance is judged based on all semesters, not just one semester.
  3. Some have even said that just by giving the last semester exam student’s overall grade can improve. Unfortunately, no statistical analysis is carried out after results are declared. So this argument of grades improving cannot be backed by an evidence.
  4. Conducting online exams is going to be impractical – rainy season, erratic power supply, disturbances at home and in the neighbourhood, lack of study material, the whole mode of taking an online exam can be very challenging for many students. A mobile phone may be good to watch YouTube videos to learn a subject, but a mobile phone is NOT the device through which you can appear for an exam.
  5. Parents have been out of work. The worry for most people is to take care of the day-to-day survival, feed their families because no one knows when the economic situation will improve. When parents are facing such financial hardships how is it expected that they will spend money on appropriate mobiles, laptops, desktops or data plans for their children? A very large number of students belong to such category. At times like this, even students are pitching in to help the family overcome the financial crises. Have we all not seen the plight of migrant workers just 2 months back. Things are not normal for these students. These students have already moved out of the places where they were studying. How will they cope with this situation?
  6. If exams are not held are exams devalued? That does not happen. Students are being still judged based on 5 semesters.
  7. It is not known what will be the situation in Sept. Till then we cannot keep our students in suspense. This will cause stress and prevent them from moving ahead in life.
  8. So may be the decision to conduct or not to conduct the exam can be left to the universities.
  9. There should not be any remark on the documents like marksheets or degree certificates of students that indicate anything about the changed mode of evaluation.
  10. This exam if conducted in open book or online mode will be discriminatory. Can the university and college servers handle the load of so many students logging in at the same time. Everybody does not have 4G connectivity. Infact, even in Mumbai, the govt organisation MTNL does not have 4G services.
  11. In a 3-year, 6-semester degree course, the final result is a CGPA. CGPA stands for Cumulative Grade Point Average. Cumulative involves the result of semester 1, 2, 3, 4,and 5 also, not just semester 6. So a degree is awarded based on the cumulative work of a student for 6 semesters, not just last semester. Students have been given benefit to move from one semester to next, till semester 5 because of their internal exams, so that means internal exams are important, so why ignore the internal projects etc done so far in semester 6?
  12. India’s students are among the brightest – they do exceptionally well if they are allowed to. Let us allow them to move forward.


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