Teaching Economics: Part Two

Madman Aadisht has extended my earlier post to talk about why Economics toppers from DU don’t necessarily need to clear in their concepts. He talks about the admission process and the internal examination process and the course content to arrive at this particular conclusion. So what could be done to fix it? There is no dearth of enthu for the study of economics in India. And I get the feeling that a lot of people are put off from it due to absence of quality colleges (apart from a couple of colleges in Delhi, and one in Bombay, nothing really stands out).

Directly taking off from Aadisht’s post, here is my crude mantra for what might be good for economics education in the country:

  • The undergrad course should be at least four years long – this enables people to directly apply to US grad schools, something that is not possible now with an Indian BA in Economics (which is 3 yrs)
  • The college should be autonomous – in the American/IIT model. The college should be free to set its own curriculum and hold examinations as and when it pleases. It encourages better design of courses and more continuous evaluation. It will also allow easier changes in syllabus, and hence it will be much more contemporary. Twenty courses on Indian economics was necessary in the era when students had to be given a socialist brainwash. The vestige still remains.
  • There should be an independent entrance exam – entrance shouldn’t be based on Board exam scores (given what happened to my class in English in class 12, I don’t trust board exam marks at all). It should a more conceptual exam, preferably MCQ – to eliminate inconsistency in correction. Something like the current pattern of JEE would be useful. In fact, the JEE itself could be used

It is not as if these changes will have a dramatic impact on Economics education in the country. In the best cases, it will be limited to those that can attend this new course. You might notice that given these three conditions, the colleges best placed to start the new courses are the IITs. Which is why I was so excited about the MA in Economics that was supposed to be introduced at IIT Madras (did it eventually get introduced?).

Changing subjects now, let us see what happens in engineering. I’ll talk about Computer Science at IITM, since that is the course I’m best acquainted with. Entrance is super-tough. In my time, you needed to be in the top 100 in the JEE, which, in those days at least, was highly conceptual. It was also an exam that was biased towards studs as against fighters (maybe the low proportion of people who landed up in CS after writing the JEE in the second attempt illustrates this).

Evaluation is continuous. There are lots of tests and more importantly assignments. However, what happens is that in most courses, the concepts are either extremely hard to test, or profs don’t take enough interest in setting good question papers. The evaluation, consequently, gets biased towards fighters! In effect, a computer science topper at IIT has to be good at both conceptual understanding (in order to get in) and in mugging up and remembering (in order to top).

I’m not sure if it’s the same case with other branches. Looking at some electrical question papers, I notice that they have more problems, and are more conceptual. Maybe the nature of the courses makes it easier to set good papers. In this context, I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing by picking CS. Maybe I would have done better (had a better CG) if I had taken electrical. Of course, I don’t have full info on this, and for a few other reasons, it felt damn good to be in CS, so on the whole I don’t regret my choice.

Anyways the whole point of all this rambling is that the CS course at IITM (rather, any undergrad course at IIT) follow the three conditions that I have laid down. And either by design, or by accident, the toppers end up being fairly well-rounded. So there is a ready example for the economics guys to see. And follow. Let’s see what comes out of it.

PS: I am a big fan of open book exams. That eliminates unnecessary mugging up, and also tests more of concepts and applications than pure knowledge, which I think can be obtained by referring a book. Also, in my defense, I remember only one course in IITM where we had open book exams (this is in CS; other branches, i believe, had more). And at IIM, I did significantly better in courses with open book exams than with those with closed book exams

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