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Semester Review: Spring 2021

June 29, 2021

The Spring Semester of 2021 brought along many uncertainties in almost every aspect related to the institute. It started late in February, was compressed to merely three months, came with six-day working weeks, and saw the end term exams cancelled just weeks before the end of the semester. A revamped academic calendar, a different mode of instruction, and frequent changes in grading policies each led to the rise of a new set of concerns. With the shrinking academic calendar, most lab components a bygone dream, aggravated by the inevitable technical and mental hiccups, the academic experiences seem strange and scary, different from anything we could have imagined.

As we gear up for another year of academic burnout, Watch Out! aims to inspect various aspects of yet another forgone spring semester, ranging from concerns regarding the academic load, integrity in exams, practicals, and the grading policies; raise the issues to the relevant authorities and bring forward the uncertainties faced by the student community as a whole.

Jumping through academic hoops:

As per the new Spring Semester Completion Plan(SCP), the admin approved the proposal to scrape the ETEs (MTEs for UG I year, as applicable), the evaluation of the same would be compensated by MTEs (ETEs, as applicable) and course-specific CWS and PRS. But, due to sudden amendment in the evaluation scheme, several courses witnessed professors resorting to complete syllabus quizzes and viva-voce. This made the very purpose of cancellation bootless, as it was unfair for those students who were in arduous situations, compelling them to study the whole syllabus for a short duration quiz or viva.

Assignments are a routine exercise that several professors employ to achieve a CWS metric. However, the last semester witnessed a lack of transparency as far as grading the assignments, and grievance redressal was concerned. It was seldom the case that students received the assignment marks and could get them rectified in case of any discrepancy. Instead, assignments were sent to professors via mail or other platforms in many courses without any acknowledgement. The grading was not done on an assignment-to-assignment basis but was instead carried out hurriedly at the end of the semester. This meant that students had no clarity on how well they performed in the CWS and had to rely on the final result to know how much they actually scored, directly affecting their verdict to drop courses or take S grades, and ultimately their final CGPAs.

A major problem arose once the ETEs were cancelled. The existence of multiple courses without any CWS or PRS assessment meant that the professors had to take urgent steps to evaluate their courses. Citing reasons such as academic dishonesty and indulgence of malpractices, the already issued assignments were replaced with many new ones. The issues of transparency percolated to these assessments as well. The continuous evaluation paradigm in certain courses was replaced by several quizzes held at once to cover up for earlier weeks. It all led to increased stress among students, as they had to attempt multiple assignments and quizzes, with no method to question their transparency or weightage, which was left to the professor’s discretion. Not only that, grading for quizzes remained highly unreliable due to lax proctoring and the use of dishonest means, which meant that anyone who did not indulge in such practices was at loss. In many cases, professors’ evaluation policies were not in agreement with institute guidelines for the online semesters. It is to be noted that these policies were not implemented in every course and that there were better policies implemented by many professors, just that these acts were widespread enough to warrant concern.

While a better mutual understanding between the professors and the students could help deal with such matters, the administration should have laid out better and more comprehensive guidelines regarding this as such issues were bound to happen.

Lack of transparency in MTE evaluation:

With the End Term exams cancelled, MTEs, assignments, and quizzes were important in determining students’ grades. The scores for the midterms, although communicated to the students, were still not transparent as such. In many courses, answer scripts were not shared with the students, neither were they told the evaluation criteria. In some cases, the doubts that arose regarding fewer marks received/ unfair evaluation were collectively conveyed by the CRs, upon which the professors put up doubt sessions, and some asked TAs to resolve such issues. A considerable number of these sessions turned out to be chaotic if they were ever conducted. With too many students eager to get some relaxation in marking speaking together, devoid of one-to-one discussions that used to take place in offline paper checking. All of this resulted in students not satisfied with their scores but also no place to talk about their grievances. Many who asked such grievances were shut down and were asked to opt-in of S grade instead.

Some courses run parallelly along with the freshers in a few branches, which means they, along with those who had dropped a course in the past, will have their end terms in July. This, in turn, will cause a further delay in the release of their transcripts. As the students will have their intern/placement season lurking around, whether to appear for re-exams or not is also something they might struggle with. It is also unclear how the S-grade will work for these courses, considering it is past the deadline for everyone but the first year.

Practicals? No, we don’t do that here.

The Coronavirus pandemic has already forced us to rethink our notion of ‘engineering’. With an absence of alternative teaching methods for the practical courses, institutes had to revamp their teaching model. Most of the practical courses of the Autumn semester last year were shifted to the Spring one with the hope that the campus would reopen during the second half of the academic session. However, with the issue of the revised semester completion plan, many professors rushed the practicals. Instead of a well-planned practical session using virtual labs and simulations, professors resorted to videos available on Youtube and other platforms. The evaluation was reduced to quizzes and viva-voce that were characterized by the same issues mentioned above. Not only did this destroy the purpose of offering courses with a practical component, but this also made the results of said practical courses too dependent on quizzes, which could easily be manipulated, or vivas, which are short and do not provide ample evaluation. Grading was thus unjustifiable and marked with negligible practical learning. The fact that many of the past courses were included this semester too meant that the burden of these practicals increased two-fold, with students forced to prepare for the evaluation of practicals from both semesters.

Underrepresentation of DAPC representatives:

Another point worth highlighting is the audacity of some administrative authorities to disparage the elected DAPC representatives. These representatives were elected to put forth the students’ problems to the departmental personnel. Throughout the process of ETE cancellation, they were the only link that existed between the professors and the students. Multiple reports of the DAPC representatives being asked to leave the pre-IAPC departmental meets clearly expresses the callous attitude of the authorities. This move undermined the transparency that such committees have. As long as professors keep student representatives out of official discussions, it keeps all students out of the loop in the decision-making process, and it remains doubtful whether their viewpoint is even being discussed among the DAPC. In a decision as big as the conduction of ETEs, it creates a big source of anxiety added to everything else.

Persistent plight of Re-exams:

The re-examinations are scheduled from 5th August to 7th August. Given the problems that were faced due to the excessive delay of re-exams last semester, it was imperative that they be held on time this semester. Any delay in the same this semester would have also caused a clash of the re-exams with the starting of the internship/placement season. Students tend to be unaware of the dates for these re-exams for their courses until very close to the exams themselves, and in case of internship/placement seasons being started already, this adds to the students’ burden.

Internship and Placement Dilemma:

Sitting for internship tests is an incredibly stressful time in a student’s life, and the added uncertainty due to the pandemic does not help the situation either. Online mode of communication made this process fairly new to students, and the lack of familiarity added to the anxiety. From practice tests to final recruitment tests, everything was held online.

Students stuck with a poor Internet connection were at a great disadvantage. They had difficulties accessing even the basic stuff for placements, let alone the preparation for it. Academic grading has already been erratic through the past couple of semesters due to unprecedented methods of evaluation and cheating. Due to this reason, CGPAs failed to show a candidate’s true academic potential. Both these made it difficult for companies to assess their candidates over measures that they had done before.
Even with strict proctoring schemes for placement tests, cheating could not be thwarted. This led to an unpredictable list of shortlisted candidates. Companies shortlisted fewer applicants this year, and most lists had the same set of students. The Placement and Internship Office maintained slack and telegram groups where they circulated relevant information. Department Placement Representatives from each branch acted as a conduit between the Placement Office and the students. Any miscommunication on their part put the students at risk of missing out on the placements. The Placement Team bears the responsibility of convincing HR teams of different companies to ease restrictions on qualifications needed to apply to their company. On a happy note, many companies lowered their restrictions on CGPA criteria and branch requirements to accommodate the unforeseen circumstances caused due to the pandemic.

When will the grades arrive?

The cancellation of the ETEs came with multiple problems, as discussed before: assignments and quizzes piled up, PRS was suddenly important, and most of the grading was to be done immediately. Or at the very least that was supposed to be the case. Every branch in some form or the other experienced a delay in the grades for some courses. Grades which are usually announced in a week or two from the ETEs took a month or more this semester. People had to wait a long time to see their MTE answer keys, which were submitted a month ago. Assignments were not graded, and rapid grading was carried out in the last few days to get the grades out. This process in itself induced a lot of anxiety in students, them being unaware of when their grades will come out, and what grades they will receive, considering the grading of many of these courses was not transparent. Thus they had to get their grades, without any knowledge of how they might perform and had to take a decision on the Re-exams and the S-grade on the basis of that in a very short span of time. While the deadlines to opt-in for the S Grade and Re-exams were extended, many courses still delayed grades further. In such a paradigm that students were expected to give their assignments in a week or even 2 days time as it was supposed to be ‘enough,’ it was ironic that the assessment of said assignments delayed the grading by weeks, a double standard that nobody claims accountability for.

A Ray of Hope

While we say many students were victims of strict policies implemented by their professors, many of the professors did not use any such policies. They supported their students throughout the semester, with proper grading practices and an awareness of how students could be helped. Many of them regularly consulted their students on the problems that they faced and implemented relevant solutions to help. Good professor-student dynamics might have not been a very common sight, but they did exist and their existence helped students feel slightly less stressed.
The existence of such professors, however, should not discredit the glaring problems that the administration created. With every decision taken at the last moment, when the problem was at its worst, they left it to these professors to mend the holes in the bucket. While these professors did help the students in many ways, these are just some instances among a vast majority of cases where professors and students have a large gap in their idea of how the semester should go, a divide that could not be crossed by many. It needed an intervention from the administration, whose delayed policies and liberal implementations not only meant that such nice professors had to make immediate relief steps, but also that these problems will continue to stay for much longer.

The way forward:

The Spring Semester of 2021 brought along many uncertainties in almost every aspect related to the Institute. Ever since the beginning of the semester, neither students nor professors had any clarity on the conduction of practicals or how grading was to be carried out. This uncertainty carried on for most parts of the semester, with a sudden mention of last semester’s practical courses and the cancellation of ETEs. Over this time, students and professors alike have had to work out solutions to problems that were mostly caused by heavy delays or general oversight. Practicals could have been conducted over the semester, rather than delaying them to the never approaching future where we join the campus. Set plans for grading and re-exams could have been released once the cancellation of the ETEs was announced. However, it was probably procrastination or the blind optimism for reopening the campus that led to the plethora of problems that people faced during the semester.

With the completion of the previous semester, it is imperative that we learn from the semester’s misproceedings. With almost a month to the next semester, the admin must make concrete plans for it, ensuring that professors have avenues to grade students and that they’re exploited regularly as was done in an offline semester. The brazen ‘Soon you will be called’ attitude must be dumped for a more liberal approach to decision making, where there are multiple plans for multiple scenarios and the cancellation of an exam or any other emergency does not have such adverse effects.

The online classes may be the best approach (for now) to allow the Institute to function in these times. However, it is also necessary that strategies employed to conduct said classes be discussed with the professors as well as the students, something that ceases to exist in the current scenario. Currently, the online semester is essentially all that incorporates an offline semester but over video conferencing. While it works in theory, several aspects that exist in an offline class are very different online. It only increases the stress on the students and instructors, and the Institute’s operation benefits no side.

Watch Out! has already approached the Dean of Academic Affairs(DoAA) with a thorough compilation of the student grievances amassed through our last survey. With this, we would like to clarify that we’re still awaiting a reply from the DoAA. A prolonged delay of over two weeks from the dean’s end has resulted in our late semester review.

Having conducted multiple experiments over the last two semesters, it’s time the admin lays down concrete plans to conduct future semesters with fewer loopholes. It is the need of the hour to have some discourse on this issue rather than an imposition of policies that are never discussed further.

Picture Credits:
Shreya and Mehul Shakya