The fiction of learning in coaching classes

The depressing reality is that an undergraduate degree does not hold much attraction for a student, at least in Mumbai. It has a social and formal value as an official degree from a recognised university, but it has little academic value

VrijendraUpdated: Tuesday, November 22, 2022, 09:40 AM IST
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In the previous column (Nov 2), I talked about the dismal reality of a classroom in many colleges in Mumbai. But then, one wonders: if not in regular classes, where are students learning, what are they learning, and are they learning much?

A very large number of students go to coaching classes to learn, especially for so-called theory subjects (where teachers talk and/or dictate and circulate notes and students pretend to listen) and practical subjects like accounts. In many science subjects, even as laboratory practical sessions are held in colleges — setting up a lab is expensive — for theory, once again, coaching classes are the preferred option. Only in the faculty of Arts is there a glaring absence of coaching classes, for the simple reason that the number of students is not large enough in any one subject for it to be profitable for a coaching class. Besides, with a few exceptions, in colleges in Mumbai, Arts subjects are like fillers; they are attractive to very different kinds of students.

The important thing is that even as these coaching classes are run like a business, they are not necessarily out of reach for many students. There are different types of coaching classes, much like colleges, with differential pricing based on reputation, type of students, teachers, and so on. Some specialised ones, in fact, offer rigorous training for professional exams like CA, IIT and medical entrance (at a much higher cost), but many simply offer coaching for popular undergraduate subjects offered by colleges. And yet, students would rather go to these coaching classes than attend the regular lectures. Why?

These classes are popular in Mumbai — and, increasingly, elsewhere in the country — because they do not ‘waste’ time in explaining concepts too much. They do not expect students to go to the library and read more. Indeed, they have no idea of referencing other books and academic journals. They provide students with largely self-contained notes, tuned to the university and college exams. These notes are actually not so much about learning as about passing the exams, because, in any case, in Mumbai there is an enduring myth about the irrelevance of theory in life and therefore in academic learning. On the other hand, practical training is much prized by all: students, their parents, prospective employees at lower levels and, sadly, by many teachers who have also been trained under the same myths and perceptions. Further, these classes are available almost at all hours: from early morning to late evening. Since many students in Mumbai are not full-time college students and are either pursuing some other professional degree or working part-time somewhere, this flexibility in time and a compact schedule adds to the appeal of these classes.

The depressing reality is that an undergraduate degree does not hold much attraction for a student, at least in Mumbai. It has a social and formal value as an official degree from a recognised university, but it has little academic value. The central paradox is that in most cases, students’ pre-conceived ideas of what a college should be teaching them are very different from what governments, universities and policymakers think students should be learning in regular undergraduate colleges. Many students, their parents, and even quite a few teachers are convinced that the official syllabi do not reflect the needs of students, of the economy, and of prospective employers. In such a situation, even as the need for the college degree remains high, the learning that should go with it holds little value. Thus, all that a student needs to learn is the practicality of a few subjects like accounts and for the rest of the theory in any subject, mug up enough through notes to clear the exam and get the official degree.

This is further made possible by the way exams and assessment are conducted in Mumbai University and colleges. I can’t think of any exam in a regular course which actually tests students’ learning in any meaningful way. Question papers are set in a defined, routine, repetitive manner and the assessment is even more liberally done with the focus on passing the students instead of testing what they have learned. There are many administrative aspects to this manner of examination and assessment, but the net result is a dilution of learning. In such a scenario, serious learning is at a discount at every level. Coaching classes — many of them run by college teachers themselves! — know this well and organise their teaching accordingly.

There is another important factor that makes this rote-learning for examination popular for all: governments, universities, colleges, teachers and students. The normal size of a class in theory subjects in a regular college is up to 120 students. Often, this number goes up for various reasons. There is no way any teacher can seriously, meaningfully and engagingly speak to a class of 120 students at a time and expect them to learn. It is simply not possible. Not surprisingly, it places a premium on rote-learning.

This, then, is the second serious symptom of the crisis in education: the wide, almost unbridgeable gulf between what a student is expected to learn, what is actually possible in given conditions, and what the student thinks she needs to learn, primarily to earn a living and, therefore, where she decides to learn (mostly in a coaching class) as opposed to where she should be learning (the college).

Vrijendra taught in a Mumbai college for more than 30 years, and has been associated with democratic rights groups in the city

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