Seventeen first year students this year were asked to discontinue classes because of underperformance at IIT Roorkee. Though they were readmitted to the first year after intervention by human resources ministry, it was evident that the youngsters were unable to cope with language barriers.
Realising that many of their students are facing similar problems, a number of IITs are starting special programmes and classes to help their students. IIT Roorkee, where most of the expelled (later reinstated) students were from the reserved category, started extra classes in Hindi from last year to ensure students grasp all subjects better. First year students are also offered courses in English.
At IIT Madras, which has also started English classes, first-year students are required to take a proficiency test after they join to see if the courses will help them. The institute also teams up students weak in English with senior students who can help them one-on-one. IIT Kharagpur, too, from next year onwards, plans to introduce English for communication in the first year. The institute will conduct a preliminary screening test to segregate students based on their proficiency level in English. Those who are good will be given lessons on presentations, while the ones who need better guidance will be coached by English language trainers before they join the presentation classes.
“After 71 students were struck off the roles last year, we realised that the medium of instruction was a concern. Since science and technology lessons are in English, we are addressing this issue by giving extra classes to students wherein the conversation is in Hindi even if the medium is English. Giving individual attention to students is not possible given the huge size of IIT classrooms. Treating students individually is easier in smaller classrooms,” says Professor Pradipta Banerji, director, IIT Roorkee.
Many professors, however, do not think that language is the only barrier. “We have not found this to be a major reason. Yes, for students from different parts of India and different backgrounds suddenly thrown together in a new environment and expected to hit the ground running, the first year is a challenge. But look at the vast majority who overcome it successfully, and are better for it. The few who do struggle just need specific solutions to their problems,” says Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IIT Madras.
A closer look at the number of students who need case-by-case handling in this manner reveal that it is a small fraction of the 10,000-odd students admitted every year to IITs. In any large system, one should expect underperformers. While medium of instruction is a key reason, it is not the only reason. As Ramamurthi says, “the reasons for such cases are many – health, personal, inability to make transition from a school-mode to a lecture-hall mode of learning, inability to adjust to hostel or culture, language of communication, burnout etc. Each of these requires a different course of action.”
At IIT Kharagpur, too, where six first-year students have been expelled this year, professors don’t blame language barriers. “English is the only reason for students’ underperformance. I don’t agree to that theory. If you see, all these students are toppers in their respective schools and colleges; they have definitely worked very hard to come here,” says, Professor Rajendra Singh, former dean undergraduate studies, IIT Kharagpur. The moment they come here they are totally relieved of parental pressure and start enjoying the freedom. With 24-hour internet and parents often getting them laptops, smartphones and Wi-Fi, they cannot concentrate well enough. It’s not that they are not capable, says Singh, who finished his term as dean on August 15, 2016.
With most IITs are considering special classes to improve students’ proficiency in English, is it a good idea to ensure that these students have a basic understanding of the language? Experts say it’s not. Demographics today have changed in India and equity is important. “We strongly believe in equity at all IITs. Education in IITs should not depend on your ability to pay the fees or on your background. You need to have a strong foundation in physics, chemistry and mathematics. It is unfair to impose a physical barrier such as an English comprehension test while you allow the student to give the full exam in Hindi,” says Professor Pradipta Banerji, director, IIT Roorkee.