Academic stress is often seen to be high in elite institutions like IITs. In the third part of this four-part Interview with the Director, Prof. Bhaskar answers questions regarding the extent of this stress and how the recent curriculum changes are designed to reduce stress.
Whenever a suicide happens, does the administration do further analysis of the incident after police inquiry and investigation? What are the kind of problems that students usually face?
Yes yes, we look into it very closely for every case — in fact, more so than the police. The police look at it from the angle of establishing the nature of the incident. We look through the academic record, attendance records. We ask the professional counsellors if this person has been coming for sessions. We check with the hospital records. There have been many cases where the situation has been very serious and the student has been given necessary help. This kind of analysis definitely has to be done. In fact, one person who has a good picture of the range of problems students face is the MITR advisor. Sometimes people go to the hospital and then they opt out — they stop taking their medicines and visiting the doctor. Then we try to use the student counsellors to encourage them to continue. When some of them refuse and stop their medication, there is nothing we can do but keep a close watch on them. Another dilemma is deciding when to inform the parents. Some of these students might have problems at home, so we cannot simply call their parents; this might actually worsen the situation. In case of all other issues such as substance abuse or poor academic performance we can go to the parents and tell them, “Look, your child isn’t doing so well here, you could come over and help him/her out maybe?” But in these cases, where there might be problems at home, we cannot simply approach the parents. Ultimately, the Dean (Students) and Dean (Academic Courses) end up spending hours to figure this out, and it has helped before.
On a more personal point of view, where do you think the problem lies?
There are a variety of reasons — what we see in certain small fractions is that it is biological, genetic, clinical. The feedback from MITR is that clinical cases are easier to handle — when we know it is clinical, medication can be given and it works. Academic pressure also is not a very difficult issue to handle. There are one or two cases we have where they are simply not interested — they don’t want to do engineering and are forced to study here. These are relatively easy to handle but takes up a lot of time — in each case the Dean(Academic Courses) has to spend hours.
The ones that are difficult are the ones where personal problems exist, related to family, relationships or just the student growing into adulthood. These are where the counsellors have a lot of work; these are the ones that often withdraw. At this point, observing the student becomes important. If the family situation is not good then it is very difficult; we can’t rely on the family thereafter. Or if the student is very unstable because of a relationship or has recently lost a friend, you have to talk to the student, reach out to his friends, talk to the student counsellor — these are the cases where a lot of time is spent. This is emotional stress caused by personal matters. Going back to my own time as a student, when, unfortunately, there was a suicide, it was because of a personal matter. Academics appears to be the deciding factor though. When you are in a terrible situation, you can’t study; it will manifest as a nagging sensation. The person will find difficult even the subjects that he/she found easy in the past. The despondence becomes very bad, though the problem is not there with academics and lies elsewhere.
Since we are implementing the new curriculum task force recommendations, is there anything in it that will help reduce stress among students?
In the new curriculum design, we have the guideline that unless the department can make a strong case, we would like to limit the number of courses in any semester to five. We used to have six and seven earlier, but now, only a few departments have been allowed to offer 6 courses any semester, and they have had to fight for it in the Senate. That means 15-20 hours of instruction per week, and the new credit system does not allow more than 60 credits per semester, so students cannot be expected to work over 60 hours a week. The new method of counting credits accounts for the time spent studying outside the class too, and not just class hours. This means that students have about 7 hours a day for purposes other than studying, given that they sleep 8 hours a day, and don’t have to handle chores like cooking. This is also beneficial to students who need more time to study. Time management was the first thing the Task Force took up — some professors assume that the students do only their course and nothing else, so we decided that the number must tell what you expect from a student. Now, most lectures will be in the morning — in the afternoon, there will be, at most, two labs, and otherwise, they will be free.The increase in the proportion and number of electives that are free also means that students can do learn what they like.
Do you think the new system will work to reduce the academic stress on students?
The other source of stress in academics is exams, and this comes up in the Senate very frequently. There are recurring debates on whether quizzes or mid-semester exams are preferable, whether quizzes should be made two hours long, and so on. This is an ongoing process, and we are always open to ideas from the students. I think we are duty bound to do some evaluation and prepare a CGPA and a transcript, and it is only fair that we do it, but we are open to trying new ways of doing this, within reason. One bit of student feedback we got this time from the condolence meeting held in the EE department was that CGPA-related stress is very high, because now everybody is aware that CGPA determines one’s career and other things. I’m not sure what can be done about this…see, we don’t really do relative grading in the high end – if everybody does well we are quite happy to give everybody As and Bs. It is only in the low end that we set the cut-offs and determine a pass percentage. So I don’t see how relative grading is a factor. But obviously, some students are not able to do well and that is affecting them. It is fair enough that every student wants a decent CGPA to get a good job, but I don’t know an easy way out of this. These are things that we have to worry about.
One thing I want to add is that the Dean (Courses) also plays a big role in the academic stress. In the institute, we rarely terminate a student’s registration. This Dean’s office discusses with the FacAd and the HoD and puts struggling students on a reduced course load track. So, we have very few students who have that kind of trouble — usually, with a combination of reduced load and assistance, they are all managing, even if some take 6 years.
There is the opinion that the Comprehensive Exams for the PhD students are a huge source of stress, and it is solely based on the student’s guide. What do you have to say about this?
Every department has its set norms with regard to the Comprehensive Exam. Also, comprehensive exams are usually given in a bunch — the student can take up a few papers, write the tests and attend the viva. If one has done the exams well, then the viva may be easy — it’s just about asking them about their research and how they plan to go about it. If he/she’s on the borderline in the written examination, we give another chance for the candidates through the viva-voce. There will be some questioning, but this might help bring out the confidence via oral examination in case the candidate didn’t do well in the written exam. In all departments there are slight variations to this. I don’t think any Comprehensive Exam is determined by the guide. Comprehensive Exams are stressful — all of us went through it. There is no stress-free path; after that, one has to worry about publishing papers, and so on.
A Townhall with the Director, Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, is being organized by MiTr, SAC and T5E for students to voice their concerns on, and provide suggestions to improve, the condition of mental wellness within the Institute.Date: Thursday, 12/11/15Time: 6 to 8 PMVenue: Central Lecture Theater
Don’t miss it!