Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The “What” question

I work in a Deemed University, and being a university of whatever kind, it acts independently to a large extent. One of the things you can feel in which it acts independently is in the conduct of the semester examinations. Till about a couple of months ago we had a Dean of Examinations who did all the controlling of the end semester examinations. He was truly a well-meaning professional and people respected him.
Whether he was given the mandate or not, he was intent on making the examinations meaningful. That is, in his view, exams must not only test whether the student has learned the subject (and, consequently be “exam ready”) but also that the questions must enable differentiating students among themselves. Perhaps he never mentioned it explicitly but the undercurrent of all his beseeching was that questions must avoid rewarding memorized responses. His way of saying it was, avoid asking “What”, “Define”, “State” type of questions. As I said, he meant well. But, in my humble opinion, he did not understand where the problem lay.
The problem is not in the structure of the question, the “What” factor, shall we call it. It is in the structure of the expected answer and also in the mandated reward system. For a question that starts with, “What”, “Define”, "List" etc. it is drilled by the teachers into the minds of the students that the answer must be straight forward and say what the thing is. The thing is, of course, what the text book says the thing is (Justice John Marshall of the US Supreme Court comes to mind). Simply put, “The answer is what has been said in the class or written on the board, nothing more.”
The student senses that he is home free by merely memorizing the stuff. Then, how can the teacher evaluate the proficiency of the student in the subject or make an effort to differentiate among students – the students are all equally good in memorizing, after all, after being instructed to do so for 12 years. They are so good at it, one may even suspect they are autistic (remember Rainman!). Just joking.
I will give you just one contrarian example. “Define a conservative force.” The answer, as given in the text book, “The work done by a conservative force as it goes around a closed loop is zero.” This, of course, is a correct answer. Note the emphasis on “a”, to mean that there are other equally, indeed perhaps more fundamentally revealing and explanatory, correct definitions; like the work done by a conservative force is path independent; a conservative force can be derived from a potential; in terms of thermodynamics, a state function …  
It so happened that a student gave the “path independent” answer. Lucky for him/her I marked his/her answer sheet and he/she got the credit. Had I been allowed, I would have given more than the maximum because he/she went beyond what was taught in the class. That is the measure enabling differentiation. Alas, I could not, rule bound as I am. What happened subsequently is more interesting. Another teacher, when asked whether she would have given any credit for this answer, the response was in the negative. Get this – a student exposed the ignorance of a teacher through a “What” factor question! The power is in the response.
Now, it is evident that the problem lay not in the question but in the expected response. That particular student took the initiative but could not have been rewarded. Would you blame the student for deterring himself/herself from taking that extra effort the next time round? If I were in that position, I would not.
Now, I will tackle this ticklish question about the “What” factor from a different angle. It comes straight out of a small book, only 80+ pages, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The book is wonderful; such fun to read yet packed with deep insights brought to the surface.
Per the author, Carlo Rovelli, a physicist working in quantum gravity, the question that ended with the understanding of probabilistic nature of heat and temperature, that is to say, thermodynamics, was “What is heat”! The stunning “What” factor question! The magic is all in the answer, obtained by boldly going “where no man has gone before” – Ludwig Boltzman doing the trekking!
That was the beginning of the confluence of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Just a simple “What” question!
Again, per the author, there are at least a few more such “What” questions, answers to which are being sought. “What is hot gravitational field?” What is a vibrating time?” “What exactly is the flow [emphasis in the original] of time?”  “What is the ‘present’?”
I rest my case. The problem is not in the questions, even the ones that start off, “What …?”
Raghuram Ekambaram

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