Choice in Exam Hazardous for Students

We normally take it for granted that choices offered in a question paper are “student friendly”. We can convince ourselves that a student need study only 60% of the course to get even 80% marks. Here, we will try to justify the counter-intuitive notion that the choice given to students is excessive and harmful to them.

Many students find the paper long. One of the significant reasons is that the student has to read through and understand the options available. He needs to estimate the time required to answer a question and evaluate the risk of answering each question - how many marks can he definitely get and how many will he definitely lose. All this takes time. (Making decisions is not easy........see the story below.)

There are times when a student will start answering a question, reach some stage and give up, hoping that the alternate choice will be better. At times, students have not answered some questions because at initial glance the question appeared complex. I recall my son, not answering a question because he couldn't believe that it could be so simple for so many marks - there must be a catch, he was convinced.

Hence, a student may, at best, get an illusory feeling of comfort with the choices in the question paper; the reality is different. His (or her) interests would be far better served if the question paper is well defined and well designed.

Each engineering course in Goa is divided into four modules. We, as educators, expect that each student must understand some minimum concepts from each module. We can have, say 15 marks, for each module, with no choice but which covers only the fundamental concepts. Then we can have, say, three questions of 20 marks each, covering the more complex ideas of the entire semester, from which the student has to answer any two.

I see no conflict in letting the student be aware of the structure of the question paper. After all, we are supposed to test what he knows and not what he doesn't know.

Let me end with my favourite story which I had heard at TIFR in Bombay. A king once wanted to recruit a personal assistant. He was very impressed with the qualifications of one of the candidates. Nevertheless, the king asked him to go through the various tests he had set. The first test was to pick potatoes from a field. The candidate returned very soon, at lunchtime. The king asked him what the problem was. The candidate replied, “None, I have finished.” The next day's test, to sow seeds in the field, was also completed in record time. The king informed him that the job was virtually his. However, to be fair, he must ask him to go through the third test; separate the potatoes he had picked into good and bad potatoes. The candidate did not return by lunchtime. Dusk had fallen, so the king decided to visit the farm. He noticed a huge pile of potatoes and two small piles. The candidate was examining a potato carefully from all angles. The king asked him, “What's wrong?.” The candidate replied, “I have to take a decision.”