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No opportunity is wasted in reminding us of the utmost significance of evaluation in our lives. The supreme powers of the day have issued a proclamation stating that final year/ semester exams for university students cannot be done away with, no matter what the circumstances, because doing away with these examinations would be akin to playing with the careers of the students.

The careers that are being referred to here, mean the ‘employment opportunities’. Just to recollect, even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the unemployment rate in our country was at an all-time high in the last 45 years. I am referring to this here just to put things into perspective. In normal course, it is very common in our society to assume that a degree will open the doors for all kinds of opportunities that are only waiting to be picked up by us. However, this is a very simplistic position to take. Whatever is termed as ‘career’, and the opportunities that an individual gets in her lifetime for earning her livelihood depend on many different factors. However, it is a topic for an entirely separate discussion and hence I will not dwell on it any further here.

What I want to discuss here though is the concept of ‘evaluation’ that exists in our society. It is understood as a ‘given’ that ‘evaluation’ means the term-end/year-end assessment of a student, based on a set of written examinations. The student shall be administered a test paper which shall be based on a prescribed ‘syllabus’. The syllabus shall have been covered during the course of the year/semester through the prescribed set of textbooks that the student shall have to read. The test-paper that shall be administered in order to evaluate the student shall consist of a set of questions to be answered in a given time. The questions shall be from the prescribed ‘syllabus’ and ‘textbooks’ and shall mostly consist of memory based questions. The student shall be marked on what she has been able to reproduce in the examination and shall be awarded a degree based on that.

The first question that arises in this whole process is – What is it that is being evaluated here? From what I have understood from this entire process, what is being tested is the ability of a student to rote/memorize and her skills at reproduction of the memorized material in the time given to her. 

I am not even venturing to term this whole process here as ‘education’ or ‘knowledge creation’. But again, going into what ‘education’ is and should be is a whole separate debate and not the focus of the discussion here. 

In the above mentioned process, however, even if we assume that a degree is a prerequisite for a ‘career’ and evaluation a prerequisite for a degree, is it not possible for us to do a better job at defining ‘evaluation’ more sensibly in the first place? What kind of careers are going to be built on the backs of degrees that are procured by committing to memory certain things and then spitting them out on sheets of paper in the time period allotted? In a work environment, does rote memorization have any significance whatsoever? Let us try and understand this with an example.

Let us assume that I am studying LLB because I want to become a lawyer tomorrow. I need to keep on clearing my semester/year end exams in order to move to the forthcoming semester/year, and in this manner, after I clear my last semester/year, I will get my LLB degree. Now there shall be certain subjects/topics that I shall have to read in every semester/year. At the end of the semester/year I shall have to appear for an exam for each of these subjects/topics. The test that I shall have to appear for, shall consist of some questions required to be answered by me, within some prescribed duration.

Suppose I have to appear for an exam on Criminal Law. The test paper shall typically consist of questions on the various Sections of the Indian Penal Code (which I shall be expected to memorize), their various provisions, case laws etc. Let us say that I am able to memorize all this effectively and in future, I start practicing as a criminal lawyer. Now, as a criminal lawyer, when I shall have to prepare for my cases, will not the Indian Penal Code be available to me to refer to? Not only the bare Act, all the case laws, umpteen number of commentaries of experts, and any information that I may need on any section of the Indian Penal Code shall be accessible to me at my beck and call. What is it that will help me then while I prepare my case? It will only be my ability to apply what I have read and understood, my ability to establish linkages, my ability to critically think and be able to devise arguments – none of which, paradoxically, shall be tested in my semester/year end examinations. This is a very specific example from a specific area of study, but I believe it can definitely be extrapolated to other areas. 

The grave and uncertain times of this pandemic have also given us an opportunity to reconsider, revisit and revise our mind-sets and the working of our systems. This is not the time to dig in our heels and stick to the inherited views and ways of working and thinking. Progress, growth, development and evolution cannot happen if we remain stuck in our ways and refuse to move ahead. And the overhaul of our ‘evaluation’ systems is one such area which requires urgent attention and action and which anyway has been long overdue. We shall be doing ourselves a much needed favour if we grab this opportunity that has come our way unintentionally and bring about a complete restructuring of our evaluation systems.

Before I end, I would like to share a concrete example of the kinds of possibilities that do exist – not somewhere far away, but in our own Universities and our own systems, In fact, I am myself a product of these possibilities. My interest in the area of education was longstanding, but I didn’t have any knowledge in the area. Even the minimal knowledge that I may possess about it today has been gained during the course on elementary Education (an MA degree) that I took from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Since we are discussing evaluation here, the only aspect of the course that I would like to mention is the evaluation system that the course follows. In order to complete the 2 year course and get my ‘degree’, I didn’t have to appear or sit for even a single term-end examination. This does not, however, mean that there was no evaluation. On the other hand, my understanding of the topics/ areas of study was thoroughly and comprehensively evaluated. What was required of me was to continuously engage with the readings and the works that formed a part of the course, to continuously discuss the same with my peers through an online platform, and to write assignments based on my understanding and the discussions held with the faculty and peers (both through online and physical modes). I was required to read, discuss, think, analyse, talk and write – but not to rote memorize anything. And the two years that I spent doing all this were by far the most gratifying and educative years of my life. The end of these two years was only the beginning for me – on a path that has made my life much more meaningful and fulfilling. So much so that if I have been given an opportunity to share my thoughts with all of you today, through the medium of my writings in this magazine, it is only due to those two years of engagement with my readings, my teachers and my peers – which motivated me enough to continue on this journey.

It is, thus, not very far that we will need to go in order to understand what ‘evaluation’ should and can be all about. It is only that we will need to accept that there is a problem in our traditional understanding of the concept, and then be open and receptive to ideas in order to address the problem. I really hope that it happens, because if not now, then when?

Nivedita Dwivedi is an Independent Writer. She is working in the field of education and—based in Mumbai.

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