How Exams Should Be! — Quotidian — 368

(Transcript of video originally posted 08 Jan 2022)

Some of you must have received this Whatsapp forward titled “Why I hate mathematics”.

This is what the student opines:-

While in class, this is what they want me to do. Five plus Five is what. Okay, that can be done.

And then, they give me homework. They want me to evaluate this complex expression. This is doable too…

That is alright too.. While the classwork and the homework are like this, how fair is it to burden me with an exam like this..! “With two sheep flying, one yellow and the other headed right, how much does a kilo of cement cost, given that the cow is 10 years old?”

Whaaaat? What is the problem with our exams, and can they be structured in some other way? This is a topic that we may not be able to do justice to, even spanning ten full Quotidians, but I am going to just touch a little about it today.

(Intro Music)

Namaste! This game, is called Zaxxon. My first game. The first time I saw a computer, and went “Aha”, “Wow”, “A Game? Playable on a computer?”.. I lost badly too, pretty soon! No lives. Just an infinite scroller. Getting harder and harder. You just have to manoeuver your plane through all those obstacles. That’s all. One chance. All depends on how well you do.

Games evolved after that. Some of you will remember Dangerous Dave. This is Level One of Dangerous Dave. You just have to go along straight as an arrow, you climb, you lower yourself, and open the door, and exit! And, if you want, some diamonds to pick up along the way. No trouble. Easy Peesy. How is Level Two? How is Level Five? How is Level Ten?

A lot of monsters. A lot of timing. There is a gun involved. There is a jetpack that you will have to use judiciously. In a graded level of difficulty, the Tenth is harder than the First. Is it resembling school yet? Are you able to draw some connections between how education progresses exam after exam in school and how Dangerous Dave progresses level after level? The gameplay involved in this pastime, is there something that we can take, we can borrow, from this world. Do you see those three lives up above and to the right? Two of them… are gone. One life..! Can we give our students a second chance if they lose the first time?

Games evolved even more. Some of you will remember Wolfenstein 3D. That was probably the first pseudo-3D game. In that game, yes, there were levels. But, within a level, there were some spaces that were pretty hard to cross. Too many enemies that could pick you off too easily. So, at strategically placed hidden spots, (and I still don’t get why a prison should have medpacks hidden inside it!) you would get medical first aid kits. If you touched them, you would get healthier. How do we fashion suck medpacks in our school curriculum? Can we let people who have injured themselves get stronger without having to restart the level?

And, while on the topic of “restarting a level”, I am reminded of even more evolved games. Here is one more called “Dark Souls”. In this game, there would be a huge level. The hero would be exploring a huge cave. In a large castle, the hero would be defeating all enemies and proceeding fast. Here and there, there would be bonfires. If he goes to the bonfire and warms his hands there, it is called a Save Point. You don’t have to go through that whole exploration again, if you have reached that Save Point. The more Save Points there are, the easier it is for the players. For students, the more Save Points there can be, the easier will education be. Think about that.

Games evolved even more. There is a game called God of War. In this epic game called God of War, this hero is fighting the nearly undefeatable monster blocking his path. There is no Save Point there. There is no Med Pack. He will fight, and if he is injured, he adopts one important trick. It is called Life Regen. He will just run away from the enemy. From that battlefield area, he just has to move away from the action a bit, and just given the time, and space, our hero will regenerate his power. He fights. He gets injured. He runs away from the battlefield. To survive. To regen. To recoup. And comes back. What lesson can we take from here and incorporate into our education system, into our examination system?

This person’s name is Carleton Washburne. In 1919, he came up with something called the Winnetka Plan. An educationist. He was the Principal of a school. And, he came up with an idea. But, even a full hundred years afterwards, his principles, amazing principles, haven’t been implemented anywhere. There are facilities in place for it. The technology is readily available. People have even proved that it is a viable plan. But, somehow the Winnetka Plan never got implemented. What is this Winnetka Plan?

He said, students can either be asked to finish something by some time. Whatever mastery you get, finish it by this time. What.. You have scored 60 percent in Maths? Okay, 40 is the cutoff. You’ve got 60. So, please go to the next level. NOT FAIR. Why? This person might have skipped probability or permutations and combinations or statistics, and the next year, statistics is going to be even more important. So, … basing it on a fixed time period, and telling the student to achieve whatever mastery they can in that allotted period and keep running to the next one, .. a sort of conveyor belt mechanism of education and examination is wrong — says Washburne. He says, instead, given them flexi-time, but freeze on the mastery. “You have to achieve hundred percent mastery on this subject. But, take as long as you want.” If he had proposed this in 1919, what a foresightful genius he should have been?

But today, this is possible. With the smartphone in your hand, with the ubiquitous internet, with most classrooms already online because of Covid, “take your time, achieve mastery!”

There is another twist to this thing. The teacher gets to study not just the subject, the teacher gets to study the student, and customise the program per student. To suit every student, in a way they will understand it right, the program can be customised. That was the Winnetka Plan. And that is my dream. I wish educational institutions adopt or probably at least adapt this model.

One of them has actually already done it. Some of you may already know him. We have seen him already. Sal Khan. Salman Khan. Not the Bollywood actor Salman Khan, but the founder of Khan Academy — Salman Khan. He says knowledge itself is like a tree. Everything connected to everything else. Each cascading to further, deeper, broader, more fundamental concepts. If you progress based on fixed time, you will not have enough fundamentals for you to build a proper structure, so give yourself as much time as you want. That was the beginning of the Flipped Classroom Approach. Give them videos. Give them lectures. Let them watch it as many times as they want. Let them watch it in 2X speed. Let them watch it again and again if they want. Let them come back and in the classroom the teacher is not a sage delivering lecture after lecture, the teacher is a facilitator. Students sit around, question, debate, expand, what else can we do with the subject, give the opportunity for such discussions. And, his tests, his examination methodology follows two interesting approaches.

One, some of you may already know, is the Adaptive Testing approach. If you do very well, the next level gets harder. Progressively harder. Until you hit a blockade, and the next level is lowered to suit you. Your current level of difficulty, for a problem you have been given, is dependent on the previous four or five questions that you have answered. Many international evaluations already use the Adaptive Mode.

He also introduced one more concept called Streaking. He said, “I am not going to say you did something very well because you got something right, or you did something very badly because you didn’t get one thing right. No. I am going to look for streaks. If you do ten problems, consecutively, ten graded adaptive problems, correctly, then, you have mastered (Winnetka), we can move to the next level”.

One of my favorites.. Perhaps even the all time favourite App is called Elevate. It is calling itself a Brain Trainer App. But, basically, it is a vocabulary-building and mathematics — simple maths, algebra, probably some number sense training App. In this App, they have a system called the EPQ. Elevate Proficiency Quotient. That EPQ is across all these aspects. And, at various levels. Whatever level you are in, to move to the next level is harder progressively. If you are in the Beginner Mode, Beginner to Intermediate may be an easy move. But, if you are in the Advanced Mode, to move from Advanced to Expert will be harder. If you make one mistake, they will forgive you. If you consecutively make two or three mistakes, they won’t punish you, they will help you, by lowering your level. Do some research on this. Really wonderful, beautiful, graded, .. it would almost seem as if there is some complex Machine Learning going on inside the App all the time.

What should we look for? If we are going to conduct an evaluation, .. should we expect them to remember everything we have taught them… that’s not what we should look for. Instead, can we look for these things.. Can we look for what they have learned? Can we look for whether they are able to think critically? See how their responses are? Can we see whether they can come up with new responses that they haven’t been trained for? That creating.. can we look for that? Is there an emotional quotient also involved that we can evaluate? Also, how well can they work with others? It is not about competition in the real world.. Can they work with others. And finally, can they lead others? Can they inspire?

How are we going to track all these things in an exam? If we can find methodologies that will evaluate these, only then probably, exams will become relevant. And… if we don’t evaluate for these, we will be stuck with situations like this one. Just a year ago, IIT Delhi came out with an advertisement like this. They are looking for a Dog Handler, and they want a B.Tech or equivalent undergraduate degree.. Seriously?! A B.Tech undergraduate degree for a dog handler? If things shouldn’t deteriorate to this, please, please, examine your exams! Thank you!

And, yes, we will meet tomorrow! Bye Bye!

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​Welcome to Quotidians — a humble attempt to bring a smile to your face… as I connect the commonplace everyday nuggets into meaningfully connected insights.

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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.

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