JEE coaching and high school learning

One reason I’m not as good at machine learning as I can possibly be is because I suck at linear algebra. I totally completely suck at it. Seven years of usage of R has meant that at least I no longer get spooked out by the very sight of vectors or matrices, and I understand the concept of matrix multiplication (an operator rotating a vector), but I just don’t get linear algebra.

For example, when I see terms such as “singular value decomposition” I almost faint. Multiple repeated attempts at learning the concept have utterly failed. Don’t even get me started on the more complicated stuff – and machine learning is full of them.

My inability to understand linear algebra runs deep, and it’s mainly due to a complete inability to imagine vectors and matrices and matrix operations. As far back as I remember, I have hated matrices and have tried to run away from it.

For a long time, I had placed the blame for this on IIT Madras, whose mathematics department in its infinite wisdom had decided to get its brilliant Graph Theory expert to teach us matrices. Thinking back, though, I remember going in to MA102 (Vectors, Matrices and Differential Equations) already spooked. The rot had set in even earlier – in school.

The problem with class 11 in my school (a fairly high-profile school which was full of studmax characters) was that most people harboured ambitions of going to IIT, and had consequently enrolled themselves in formal coaching “factories”. As a result, these worthies always came to maths, physics and chemistry classes “ahead” of people like me who didn’t go for such classes (I’d decided to chill for a year after a rather hectic class 10 when I’d been under immense pressure to get my school a “centum”).

Because a large majority of the class already knew what was to be taught, teachers had an incentive to slack. Also the fact that most students were studmax had meant that people preferred to mug on their own rather than display their ignorance in class. And so jai happened.

I remember the class when vectors and matrices were introduced (it was in class 11). While I don’t remember too many details, I do remember that a vocal majority already knew about “dot product” and “cross product”. It was similar a few days later when the vocal majority knew matrix multiplication.

And so these concepts were glossed over, and lacking a grounding in fundamentals, I somehow never “got” the concept.

In my year (2000), CBSE decided to change format for its maths examination – everyone had to attempt “Part A” (worth 70 marks) and then had a choice between “Part B” (vectors, matrices, etc.) and “Part C” (introductory statistics). Most science students were expected to opt for Part B (Part C had been introduced for the benefit of commerce students studying maths since they had little to gain from reading about vectors). For me and one other guy from my class, though, it was a rather obvious choice to do Part C.

I remember the invigilator (who was from another school) being positively surprised during my board exam when I mentioned that I was going to attempt Part C instead of Part B. He muttered something to the extent of “isn’t that for commerce students?” but to his credit permitted us to do the paper in whatever way we wanted (I fail to remember why I had to mention to him I was doing Part C – maybe I needed log tables to do that).

Seventeen odd years down the line, I continue to suck at linear algebra and be stud at statistics. And it is all down to the way the two subjects were introduced to me in school (JEE statistics wasn’t up to the same standard as Part C so the school teachers did a great job of teaching that).

Teaching and research

My mind goes back to a debate organised by the Civil Engineering department at IIT Madras back in the early 2000s. A bunch of students argued that IIT Madras was “not a world class institution”. A bunch of professors argued otherwise.

I don’t remember too much of the debate but I remember one line that one of the students said. “How does one become a professor at IIT Madras? By writing a hundred papers. Whether one can teach is immaterial”.

The issue of an academic’s responsibilities has been a long-standing one. One accusation against the IITs (ironical in the context of the bit of debate I’ve quoted above) is that they’re too focussed on undergraduate teaching and not enough on research – despite only hiring PhDs as faculty. From time to time the Indian government issues diktats on minimum hours that a professor must teach, and each time it is met with disapproval from the professors.

The reason this debate on an academic’s ability to teach came to my mind is because I’ve been trying to read some books and papers recently (such as this one), and they’re mostly unreadable.

They start with some basic introductory statements and before you know it you are caught up in a slew of jargon and symbols and greeks. Basically for anyone who’s not an insider in the field, this represents a near-insurmountable barrier to learning.

And this is where undergraduate teaching comes in. By definition, undergrads are non-specialists and not insiders in any particular specialisation. Even if they were to partly specialise (such as in a branch of engineering), the degree of specialisation is far less than that of a professor.

Thus, in order to communicate effectively with the undergrad, the professor needs to change the way he communicates. Get rid of the jargon and the sudden introduction of greeks and introduce subjects in a more gentle manner. Of course plenty of professors simply fail to do that, but if the university has a good feedback mechanism in place this won’t last.

And once the professor is used to communicating to undergrads, communicating with the wider world becomes a breeze, since the same formula works. And that vastly improves the impact of their work, since so many more people can now follow it.

Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!

Varamahalakshmi and Organic Chemistry

Today is Varamahalakshmi Vrata, a minor festival for South Indian Hindus. It is major enough, however, for a sufficiently large/influential proportion of the population, that schools declare a holiday on this day. It is not major enough, however, for the day to be declared a public holiday.

Mine is one of those families where this festival is not major enough to be celebrated. “It’s not an important festival for people of our caste”, my mother told me, though this now confounds me since this is a rather major festival in my wife’s family, and she belongs to the same caste as me.

The fact that this festival has been rather minor has meant that I don’t have much memories of past occurrences of this festival. There is one exception, though, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Varamahalakshmi Vrata of 1999 played an important part in shaping my performance in the IIT-JEE ten months hence.

In 1999, I was in class 12, and had spent the holidays between classes 11 and 12 attending the International Maths Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in Mumbai. While I didn’t ultimately get selected to represent India, I had an overall great time at the camp, and learnt a lot of maths.

By the time I returned to Bangalore, though, class 12 had already started in school, and classes were also underway at my JEE factory, which I had joined just prior to my travel to Mumbai.

With the school teachers intending to finish the entire academic year’s portions by November, classes had been scheduled for Saturdays as well. This, combined with my JEE factory having classes on Friday and Saturday evenings and all day on Sunday, this left me little time to do pretty much anything.

It wasn’t that I wanted to do too many things – my focus that academic year had been to simply focus on the IIT-JEE and (to a much lesser extent) my class 12 board exams. Yet the near non-stop schedule at both school and factory had meant that I was constantly “running” to catch up, with little time for independent study outside of school, factory and their assignments. I desperately needed a holiday to slow down, grab my breath and catch up.

It is a quirk of the Indian festival calendar that there are few holidays between May Day and Independence Day (August 15). If one of the Muslim festivals (which move around the year) doesn’t occur in this time period, it is possible to not have any holidays at all. 1999 was one such year. And this is where Varamahalakshmi Vrata came to the rescue.

I don’t remember the exact date it occurred on in 1999, but it was a Friday (it always is). I had been especially struggling with organic chemistry in the past month, totally unable to grasp the concepts.

Now, the thing with class 12 organic chemistry is that there are lots of patterns, which you need to learn to recognise. Simply mugging is an option, of course (and I suppose a lot of people take that path), but the syllabus is so voluminous that you rather take a more scalable approach. Learning to recognise patterns, however, means that you be able to spend a sufficient amount of time on the concept without distractions. It takes a special kind of focus to be able to do that.

And so I sat down on the morning of Varamahalakshmi Vrata 1999 with “Tata McGraw Hill guide to IIT JEE Chemistry” (forget precise name), and started doing problems. I didn’t intend to discover patterns that day – simply to solve lots of problems so that I’d somehow get a hang. The fact that the festival wasn’t celebrated in my family meant there was no disturbance (of bells and prayers).

So it happened sometime around noon, or a bit later. I had started the morning mostly struggling with the problems, and having to put major fight to be able to solve them. Over time I had gotten better steadily, but slowly. Now, suddenly I found myself being able to solve most problems rather easily. I had to only look at a problem before I could recognise the pattern and apply the appropriate framework. Organic chemistry would be a breeze for the rest of that academic year.

It’s funny how learning happens sometimes. There is usually a moment, which usually comes after you’ve spent sufficient time on the problem, when there is a flash of inspiration and it all falls into place. It has happened to me several times hence. So much so that I fundamentally believe this is how all learning happens!

Or at least so I believed back in 2004 when I had to give a lecture on “Quality takes time” (this was part of a communications course at IIMB). Watch the video:

“Be obediency like Sravana Kumar” and morals of stories

A few days back, the wife and I came across this absolutely hilarious video on Facebook where this guy was imitating his teacher from school, and narrating the story of Shravan Kumar from the Ramayana.

So he relates the story like how the teacher supposedly told him in school, and finally ends it with “the moral of the story is: be obediency like Sravana Kumar”.

It’s an awesome imitation, and you can find it on Facebook (problem with closed platforms like Facebook is that I can’t embed that video in this post, thus diminishing this post. Fie on Facebook for this). You can have a good laugh. (Edit: I’ve found the link to the video, but somehow it won’t embed here).

The point, however, is that “be obediently like Sravana Kumar” is hardly the moral of that story. There are so many other greater morals that the story teaches you, for all that Shravan Kumar’s obedience brought him was an untimely death. For example – “don’t make noise like a wild animal while collecting water from a river”, or more importantly (the wife came up with this one), “after you’ve killed someone, just run, and don’t get sraapu“.

So this has led us to invent this new game, which is called “what is the moral of the story?”. It’s a two-player non-competitive game. The first person tells a story, and the other person is supposed to come up with a moral of the story. It being the first time this time, we stuck to basic childhood stories.

  1. The Fox and the crane
    I came up with “Carry your own plate/jug with you when someone invites you for dinner”. The wife said “don’t invite anyone for lunch/dinner”.
  2. The Cats and the Monkey

    “don’t let a monkey be a judge”
    “don’t strive for exactness. Be happy if two things are approximately equal”
  3. The Crow and the Fox
    This was my favourite one. Inspired by Sergio Leone, I came up with “when you have to eat, eat. Don’t talk”

    It will be a fun game to play after the kid comes out, learns to talk and is old enough for us to tell stories to her. It’ll be fun to see the kind of morals she’ll come up with in school!

The Peer Pressure of Finishing An Exam Early

Today is the final exam of my course at IIMB. It’s a two part exam – students have been given the problems today and they have to describe on paper how they are going to approach the problem. Tomorrow I’ll send them relevant data and then they need to build an Excel model and solve the problem.

The point of this blog post, however, is to do with the peer pressure of finishing an exam early. Today’s exam is taking place in two rooms, with the students having been divided equally between the rooms. I’m writing this two and a half hours into a four hour exam, and so far about a dozen students have handed in their papers. The interesting thing is that eleven of these are from one room, and one from the other.

This makes me wonder if there is some kind of “peer pressure” in terms of finishing an exam. When you hand in your paper early, you signal one of two things – either that you have really aced the exam or that you really have no clue. By looking at the people who have walked out so far and their academic reputations, it is possible for the remaining students to know whether the people who have left have aced the exam or given up.

So the question is if there is some kind of gamesmanship involved in finishing an exam early. Let’s say a stud walks out of a 4-hour exam in an hour. Does he walk out early in part to let his peers know that it was a bloody easy exam and that they should be doing better than they already are? And does this in part put pressure on the other studs to “preserve their reputations” in some manner by also finishing early? And does this imply that they might hurry up and not do a good enough job of the exam, leading to suboptimal performance and better grades (let’s assume a relative grading system) for the person who originally walked out?

Or do you think walkouts are independent? That two students walking out i close succession to each other were independent events that I’m reading into too much? I wish I had actually tabulated the timings at which papers had been handed in, and maybe perhaps correlated them with the actual performance in an exam (to analyse how early finishing affects performance). As it stands, though,I should work on the data available.

I’m writing this blog post siting in room 1 (posting later since Wi-Fi has been switched off here for purpose of the exam). After I started writing, one of the studs sitting in room 1 walked out. Almost in quick succession one other stud in this room followed him. This is the room where one guy had walked out really early, and he’s also one of the studs of the class.

This suggests that there is some kind of correlation. A sort of relationship. That one person walking out puts pressure on others to also walk out. And can result in some good “relative grading”!

I’ll end with an anecdote from my days as a student here, almost exactly 9 years back. It was an objective final exam, with multiple choice questions only. And in that series of exams it had been some sort of a competition as to who would walk out early.

So it was the last exam, and this one guy decided to “show off” by walking out within five minutes. Unfortunately one other guy had decided to turn up late for the exam. The institute rules state that nobody is allowed into an exam after at least one student has walked out. So the second guy was not allowed to take the exam.

As it turned out, he got a better grade than the guy who had walked out within five minutes!

More on NPS

Chitra Rao, principal of NPS HSR Layout has spoken to Bangalore Mirror regarding the case of the student who committed suicide recently after being suspended by the school. It’s a good interview and Rao makes some important points, but there are a couple of things about the report that I found funny.

The first thing might sound funny because only Rao’s responses have been published and not the questions she was asked. Nevertheless, in the interests of humour I’ll give the benefit of doubt to Bangalore Mirror and assume that the only question they asked were those that have been reported. So Rao says:

All I can say is I handled the issue with compassion. The tone was always gentle and never derogatory. I never intended to humiliate. I also want to state that NPS is not a pressure cooker and we have a host of activities for the holistic development of the child

The second sentence here is key. From the article it doesn’t appear that Bangalore Mirror asked her a question about the pressure at NPS, but she made it a point to mention that. That she has made it a point to mention that “NPS is not a pressure cooker” without any prompting is telling, in my opinion.

Then later on in the piece (it’s a fairly long one), the piece reports a letter that Bindu Hari, director of NPS, sent to parents of students. The piece says:

The letter also added that the school’s policy on discipline and pastoral care emphasises behaviour modification through guidance and counselling. It was a step-wise and sequenced process keeping intact student dignity.

I’m quite intrigued by the use of the word “pastoral” here. For when I see the word “pastoral”, the first thing I think about is sheep. And if the school’s official letter claims that they offer “pastoral care”, then it all starts making sense!