## 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!

## Internal Conflict

When a bunch of friends and I described ourselves as a pantheon a few years back, I was War. Part of the reason was that in Hindu Mythology Karthik is the God of War, but more importantly, I was War because I was always at war with myself. With three others being conveniently called Disease, Hunger and Madness, and another being Death, we formed a formidable force indeed.

True to the name that these guys gave me all those years ago, for the last six months or so, I’ve been absolutely consumed by internal conflict. It mostly has to do with my professional career, which hasn’t particularly taken off the way I imagined it would when I graduated from IIMB some 5 years ago. For the first time ever, I’ve completed two years in a job, and things don’t particularly look rosy, especially if I evaluate myself based on where I could have been had I not made those big blunders.

A part of me wants to go easy upon myself, and not be too harsh. Everyone goes through tough phases, that part tells me, and that mine has been a wee bit longer than most people’s. This part tells me to not worry about peer pressure, and to concentrate on keeping myself peaceful and enjoying the good things in life. This part further asks me to not worry too much about the future and that things will get into a flow. And that despite my corporate career not exactly taking off, life isn’t all that bad.

The other part, on the other hand, holds me responsible for all my troubles. It tells me that it’s because of my mistakes in the past that I’m where I am, and that I need to work really hard to rectify them. This part takes me to LinkedIn, and shows me the wonderfully sculpted oh-so-successful careers some of my old associates seem to be having, just to prove the point that I’ve messed up. This part wants me to conform, and be a good employee, and climb the stairs in the same way others have, and follow the well-trodden path into successful corporate whoredom. And this path is also supported by those pesky relatives who ask you uncomfortable questions about your career every time you are unfortunate enough to bump into them.

The first part is quite worried about my health, both mental and physical, and believes that messing up one’s health is too high a price to pay for corporate success and the associate perks that it brings. The second says I need to learn to adapt, and somehow reduce the impact of my health, while still being a good corporate whore.

And like in that old Coffy Bite ad, the argument continues. Except that these two parts of myself have completely ravaged my head over the last few months. I’m reminded of the story of the Bherunda bird (the “state bird” of Karnataka) which has two heads and one body. The two heads get into a quarrel. One of them gets so upset that he drinks some poison, thus killing “both of them”. These two parts of me, by means of their continued conflict have ended up completely consuming me, and my head.

And here I am, trying to figure out once again what it means to chill.

## Wasting Youth

Nowadays everyone seems to be preparing for JEE. It is almost as if it is a logical progression to join some JEE coaching factory once you are done with 10th standard. Yeah, the numbers were quite large in my time (~10 yrs back) itself. But they are humongous now, and it is not funny.

Yeah, awareness about IIT and people feeling good about themselves and wanting to go study at India’s best undergraduate institutions is great. It is brilliant. Fantastic. What is not so great, brilliant and fantastic is that tens of thousands of youth are wasting two years of their prime youth trying to mug for an entrance exam in which they stand little chance of doing well.

I just hope I’m not sounding condescending here, but it intrigues me that so many people who have very little chances of making it through the JEE slog so much for it. I think it is due toe the unhealthy equilibrium that has been reached with respect to the exam, which makes everyone waste so much time. Let me explain.

So over the years the JEE has got the reputation of being a “tough” exam. And over the years, maybe due to the way papers are structured or the way factories train people, people have figured out that hard work and extra hours of preparation helps. I could get into studsandfighters mode here but in line with my promise let me try and explain without invoking the framework. And you need to remember that the JEE uses “relative grading” – how well you have done is dependent on how badly others have done.

So if everyone has put in that much extra hard work, you are likely to lose out by not putting in that extra work. And so you increase your effort. And so does everyone else. Yeah this is a single iteration game but still looking at the competition and peer pressure eveyone is forced to raise their effort. Everyone is forced to, to quote the Director of my JEE factory, “work up to human limit”.

Yeah, a few hundred people every year manage to “crack” the system and get through without putting in that much effort. But then their numbers are small compared to the number of people who get admitted, so people who get through based on sheer hard work do tend to get noticed more, and spur other aspirants to work even harder. And so forth.

Yes, there is a problem with a system. Something is not right when a large proportion of youth in the country is wasting away two years of prime youth in preparing for some entrance exam. It is easy to see the fundamental problem – shortage of “really good quality” engineering colleges (I argue that this mad fight for IIT seats shows the gap between IITs and the next level of engineering colleges – at least in terms of public perception). But considering that as given I wonder what we could change. I wonder what we could do in order to save our youth.

As an aside, one thing I’ve noticed about several JEE aspirants is that they don’t give up. I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing – to carry on with the mad fight even if you know that your chances of making it are remote. Yeah I’m sure there is peer pressure and status issues with respect to giving up. But then I suppose I would have a lot more respect for someone who would give up and enjoy life rather than continue the mad fight knowing fully well that his chances are remote.

Looking back, I do regret wasting those two years in mad JEE mugging. Ok I must admit I did have my share of fun back then but still looking back I would have definitely preferred to have not worked so hard back then. And of course I count myself lucky that I got through the JEE and my hard work in those two years wasn’t in vain.