by Arjun KG and Saba Firdaus
The reputation for academic excellence that IITM enjoys has inspired many bright students to brave tough competition to pursue an education here. Over the years, however, several incidents have taken place in the campus which have raised concerns about the emotional well-being of its students, particularly the undergraduates. Undergraduates enter the institute at a vulnerable age, often after having spent long years preparing for a highly competitive entrance test — a strenuous process which can deprive them of chances to pursue activities that develop social and interpersonal skills. To help young undergraduates cope better with student life at IIT, and in keeping with the latest anti-ragging recommendations, a course by the name of ‘Life Skills’ was developed and launched for freshmen in the academic year 2013-2014.
How it was structured
The objective of the semester-long two-credit Pass/Fail course was to assist in the holistic development of the students parallel to their regular academic pursuits. Professor Sivakumar Srinivasan , the then Chief Advisor of Mitr (now Dean of Students), was the coordinator for this course. This article aims at examining the various aspects of the course and evaluating its relevance.
The course started with a brief introductory session by the administration at the Students’ Activity Centre (SAC). Students showed little enthusiasm as they attended their first session in the Sports Complex, where the rest of the classes over the semester were held as well. The course was compulsory for every first-year student and it was mandatory to attend every single lecture, failing which one would fail the course. Missing one class meant attending a special class to make up, which sometimes went late into evenings.
The course modules spanned topics as varied as communication, time management, creativity, emotional health and personal hygiene. The students were split into several batches, each consisting of around 40 students, and the courses were taught by a team of professionals who took turns to teach each batch. At the beginning of each class, the students were each given an ID tag and a writing board. The purpose behind having the ID was to ensure that the students learnt each others’ names, and hence got involved in socializing.
The course coordinators tried to keep the classroom as interactive as possible. Powerpoint slides were used to put forward the contents of each module, and every module consisted of at least one activity to try and prevent the monotony of a normal classroom by involving every person in the room. Regular online assignments related to that week’s module were also handed out, such as one where students were asked to record their nutritional intake for a week. All this contributed to whether you would pass or fail the course. An outdoor programme, designed to prepare students for survival in the wild and to help imbibe the essence of teamwork, was also a key aspect of the course. Apart from these, there were various class activities designed to involve the students and enhance their experience and skill in various areas of need. Examples of these include craft activities and presenting or acting out subtopics under the modules.
The course ended with a group project, which was intended to teach students how a project should be done in a professional manner. The batch was divided into teams of six, with each team having a specific duty in the project. Some examples are Creative Solutions, where people had to come up with suitable, innovative solutions for the given problem and Precise Issue Management, where people were responsible for identifying clearly as to what the problem and its repercussions were. Each team had a leader, to whom the team reported, and the whole batch was headed by a ‘Project Manager’, both of which were chosen from amongst the students. Most of the topics focussed on global and national issues like corruption, poverty and disaster management.
How it was received
The course received mixed responses from the students. Most of them looked forward to something that wasn’t yet another technical subject, but weren’t happy with the idea of having each module for three hours, which they felt was too long a period. Students like their breathing space, no matter how good the course, and hence the idea of 100% attendance was also received negatively.
The course modules aptly dealt with common problems of the youth, but whether or not the youth in question benefited from it is a debatable issue. Students who were initially very enthusiastic about the course soon found their attention ebbing away as the structured Powerpoint lectures were sometimes too theoretical. The main problem, however, was that the groups the course intended to target did not benefit from the course.
Take, for example, the module on effective communication. Whenever an interactive activity was taking place, the ones who volunteered for the session were often those who were already good communicators. Those wary of speaking in front of a crowd would take a backseat and hence not get over their apprehension in the session. Thus, in most classes, there evolved participative and unparticipative subgroups, which resulted in skewed individual growth processes.
Certain day-to-day activities meant to boost one’s morale or improve one’s personality were also taught. For instance, greeting every person you met with a wide and happy smile, and saying “I love myself” when feeling down, were encouraged. These lessons, though helpful, were not implemented as most students found them unhelpful and the one or two people who wished to implement them were put off by the fear that they would look foolish and be mocked if they did so.
There was also a group — especially the Humanities students, who have quite a different academic culture and face different issues — which felt that some of the skills taught, like communication, were redundant in their cases.
It cannot be denied, however, that there were students who benefited from the course. Of the ones that needed the course, some managed to get past their apprehensions and come forward. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of such students.
The course instructors were of varying distinctions and their constant shuffling led to a lack of sense of familiarity amongst the groups. More often than not, the assignments were subjective and relied on personal opinions. Hence, compulsory submissions and the grading of assignments seemed rather unwarranted. The final project also did not achieve the purpose for which it was intended. What was supposed to be a coordinated team effort turned out to be three or four team members desperately finishing off the project moments before the deadline, with the only inspiration being last minute panic.
On the whole, some of the course requirements seemed rather stringent: if several students “fail” the course, does that deem them unfit for social interaction? The course does deal with valid concerns regarding the ability of individuals to cope with the real world, but the means taken, including enforcement of full attendance and the nature of the assignments, were not received too well.
The fundamental problem seems to lie in the design of the course and not in the concept. A more student-friendly implementation of the course for the coming semesters will receive lesser quibbles in comparison, for the current popular opinion regarding the course isn’t the most ideal.
When these complaints were brought to the notice of Prof. Srinivasan, course coordinator, he acknowledged the fact that many students felt that the sessions were too long and tedious, and that the assignments weren’t as effective as desired. According to him, efforts were made to collect feedback, which would be taken into consideration for choosing trainers for the next batch. Moreover, there are plans to allow students to choose the modules they would like to take, based on an overview of each. He concluded saying that the course is a work in progress, and would be made as student-friendly as possible in the coming year.
This article uses inputs collected from undergraduate freshers, 2013-14, both verbally and through a survey.