Sure, M.S. Kamath grading was draconian. Seems like Kamath had his reasons. He was quoted as saying, "I used to tell my students, 'IIT is a center of excellence. I don't want you to be third-rate products.'"
M.S. Kamath was a professor of electrical engineering at IIT Bombay. Victor J. Menezes of Citigroup recalled Kamath as "the most dreaded professor" on IIT Bombay campus. However, in my opinion, Kamath was the second most dreaded professor with the honor of the most dreaded professor going to his colleague in the electrical engineering department, Professor Banerjee. Banerjee had the reputation of failing most of his students.
Contrast this with grading at universities in the States. I took many mathematics and statistics courses at a local university in the USA and the professors there mostly gave out As and Bs with hardly any Cs or below, just like in most other similar universities. This university is the University of California at Berkeley, known as simply Berkeley or UCB or Cal, and its mathematics and statistics departments are consistently rated about number one in the USA.
In mid-seventies, JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) was taken by about 60,000 applicants to IIT. It was a select group to begin with since most who were not among the top science students in high schools or colleges, didn't even try. There were five "regions" - one corresponding to each IIT (Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras) and most of the successful applicants who appeared for JEE in a given region, tended to attend the IIT corresponding to that. (There were a small number of seats available for other IITs, though.)
About one-third of the successful candidates used to be from the Bombay region, and out of those, most opted for electrical engineering. In my batch, the median JEE rank of my fellow electrical engineering student group, was about 60, or the top one-tenth of one percent of the candidates. Moreover, I recall that almost all of the top ten in JEE opted for electrical engineering.
Since the first two years (and part of third year first semester) were spent taking courses with all other department students, and then only we, in the electrical department, were subjected to M.S. Kamath or Mukherjee's courses, it gave us enough time to figure out whether those top-notch JEE ranks were one-time fluke or really measured some sort of excellence. Quite surprisingly, there was a very high correlation between the JEE ranks and the GPA during the first two years.
At the end of two years, about 20 in our batch of about 180 had "distinction" level GPAs (8.5 or above out of 10 or 4.25 on a 0-5 scale) and electrical engineering students accounted for about 15 of those. Seems like they were really the best and the brightest.
It was no surprise that Narendra Karmarkar got an A on Kamath's course. Karmarker had missed out on a few As during the first year but after that, except for a few humanities courses, consistently received As in almost all his courses, finally receiving the President's Gold medal for graduating with the highest GPA of our batch.
The problem was that he was the only person who got an A in that course. A couple of others, including me, too had done well in that course, and any other instructor (besides Mukherjee) would have probably given me an A too. But, I got a B.
Normally, I had stopped caring about grades by that time, and hardly went to the professors to ask about grades, but this course was different. I had worked for this course and thought I deserved an A. I went to see M.S. Kamath.
He told me that in his opinion there could not be more than one genius in one class and therefore, only one could get an A. I asked him, what if Einstein and Newton were in the same class? He didn't answer me.
Many years after we had graduated, when I have asked my fellow classmates about the rigorous grading at IIT, they either didn't have any opinion, or thought that such grading helped them in life by making them tough. On the other hand, some of us have open disdain for the grade inflation at places like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley.
What is the purpose of grading? Once I asked a professor at IIT Bombay about why he didn't give out better grades and he replied something like this: "A grade of A from me should mean something. It is a matter of my reputation abroad."
Should grading be a tool for satisfying the "reputation" of professors, or to differentiate between number one and number two students, or to make us tough? In my opinion, the primary role of grading system should be to motivate us to learn more by providing useful feedback.
After I came to the USA to go my graduate studies, thanks to more supportive academic atmosphere and lack of stress from rigorous grading, I was able to concentrate on my studies and learn much more than what I learnt in a supposedly top-notch institution like IIT. Moreover, while teaching at a university, I tried to do the same by being a lenient grader to motivate my students and not turn them off from learning as the system in IITs seem to do to many.
Haha, as if they are going to listen to me but anyway, I will suggest the following:
1. De-emphasize grades. For example, instead of awarding the president's Gold medal to the person with the highest GPA, award it to the student who besides earning a reasonably high GPA, has also shown signs of growing up into somebody who will be involved in social work and helping out others.
2. Ask professors to set the average or median grades to be reasonably high, say around B+. Give out a few A+ grades too.
3. Homework should account for most of the grades. Have some weights assigned to a few tests, say about 30%. Any discrepancy between test scores and homework scores should be carefully analyzed.
4. Give more importance to how much a student learnt in the course and not how much he/she scored in the tests, especially the initial ones.
5. Ask the professors to remind the students that IIT is for learning and not for obsession with grades.
"Kamath's grading system was a punch in the nose for students who fancied themselves as the best and brightest in India. Often, only one student per test got an A - the top scorer. The second-best score got a B. Everyone else got Cs, Ds, or Fs." (Business Week (December 7, 1998 - page 116))
(Last Updated: May 25, 2004.)