Kamal Sinha> IIT> Grading

IIT Grading - ???

IIT grading is notorious. I have found IITians taking pride in this fact. Sometimes we attribute our "success" to that by claiming that it made us tough. Compared to IIT grading, most US universities are fairly lenient. I have taken courses at UC Berkeley and its motto seems to be, as one of my professors, Phil Spector, mentioned in one of his classes: "You start out in this course with an A. Depending upon whether you turn in your assignments or not, it will go down."

IIT Grading - My Experience

I studied at Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay and yes, I took one course under Professor M.S. Kamath. Business Week quoted Victor Menezes, Senior Vice Chair of Citigroup, as recalling Kamath as "the most dreaded professor" on campus. Contrary to what you might be thinking now, I SURVIVED Kamath's course. In fact I got a B. Narendra Karmarkar, our gold-medalist, got the only A.

IIT EE Student Caliber

My JEE rank was around 250 out of about 60000 who took that test. I was perhaps the lowest JEE ranked student in my EE class of about 45. The year I got in, top 10 on JEE were all from the Bombay region, and most of them if not all, joined the EE department. My estimate of median JEE rank of my class is about 60 to 80, that is about top 0.1% of the applicants to IIT. In terms of GPAs (called CPI at IIT) quite similar advantage was being held by the EE students. Out of about 180 in my bach, about 20 had 'distinction' (meaning GPA of 8.5/10 or better, or 3.25/4.0) at the end of two years and about 15 of them were my fellow EE classmates. However, only one of us got an A in Kamath's course!

Kamath and Me

Kamath was one of the few professors at IIT Bombay, whose lectures I enjoyed. He started out gently to build our foundation, and gradually tackled more and more difficult topics. His tests were fun too. Some questions were easy but a few required thinking unlike normal rote memorization so common in IIT and it seemed to help me. Before the final exam Karmarkar, I and a couple others were virtually neck to neck, with Karmarkar ahead by a couple of points or so. I did very well in the finals too, but knowing Karmarkar, had realized that it was almost impossible to beat him.

Well, when I got the grade I was somewhat disappointed since I had an almost perfect score on his tests. I went to see him. I asked him since my score was indistinguishable from Karmarkar's score why couldn't I get an A too. I still remember the core of the conversation I had with him that day.

Kamath told me that he believed that there could be only one genius in his class, and therefore, he could give out only one A. I asked him what would happen if hypothetically Einstein and Newton were in the same class. He didn't answer my question.

Mukherjee and IIT Bombay Electrical Engineering Department

I had heard of Mukherjee. We were supposed to take Electromagnetic Theory course under him. I think it was Shabbir Merchant who told me that in his previous course he had given one A, one B, a few Cs, and about 35 Fs. That meant an almost C or below for me! However, he developed some sort of heart problems, and he couldn't teach that course to us.

Other departments and IITs

Some departments like the Civil or Aeronautics were more reasonable than the EE department. Other IITs seemed to be better than the Bombay IIT when it came to grading. Still, it remains a fact that IIT grading were among the toughest.

US University Grading

I came to Southern Illionis University at Carbondale to do my MBA and then MS in computer science. Needless to say, grading was much easier. What was surprising that because of peace of mind, studies were much more fun and as a result during the 3 years there I learnt much more than I had learnt at IIT Bombay during 5 years I spent there. Was the easier grading peculiar to the fact that SIUC is a lessor of a "center of excellence" compared to IIT? I don't think so.

Later, I had the chance to take many courses in mathematics and statistics at the University of California at Berkeley. It is considered to be among the best research institutions in the world and its mathematics and statistics departments are consistently ranked at or near top. World-renowned professors like David Brillinger and David Freedman taught me courses and learning was the main objective. Grades came second and almost anyone who did all the work reasonably well was assured of a good grade. I remember a statement made by a professor at IIT Bombay, whose name I cannot recall now. He said that he was renowned abroad and an A from him meant something to schools reviewing applicants from IITs. Right!

It does not mean all is good in American grading system. Grade inflation has become a problem and schools like Stanford University and Harvard Business School seem to be involved in such activities because they have to admit rich kids and their parents are not going to like these schools if their offsprings get bad grades. This will be covered under the USA link.

University Grader

I spent 5 years teaching at University of Tennessee at Martin. I realized there that grades are means to an end. The objective is to motivate the students to do the best they are capable of. Instead of relying of time-measured tests, I relied more on assignments and gave extra credit for doing more. I think that this allowed them to learn more.

IIT Grading Improvement Suggestion

I hope the IIT adminstrators and the faculty take a hard look at their grading policies and instead of glamorizing brutal grading schemes should encourage learning and make grades on par with that of the US universities. Mostly A's and B's with a few A+'s thrown in might help students to remain motivated and learn the maximum they are capable of