“Every student is a creation that I shape” – Prof. S. Bhargava, Head, IIT SJM SOM

Prof. S. Bhargava, Head, IIT SJM SOM, Powai talks to Shraddha Kamdar about the changing student and teacher attitudes

He comes out personally to receive us and apologises profusely for the two-minute delay (literally) in meeting with us, and we dive straight into the interview. He is insightful and frank, and talks from experience and research. When one meets such an educationist, one realises how humility is an essential ingredient to be popular with the students and the staff. Prof. S. Bhargava, Head, Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Powai was extremely prompt in replying to my email asking to schedule an interview and within a matter of minutes, we had a time slot! Excerpts:

How can teachers sustain the interest of students in class on a daily basis?

First, you have to treat every student as a creation that you are going to shape. Take the example of a ‘kumhar’ (potter) who thinks the same when he moves his wheel. In higher education, we often see that teachers lack in this vision that even at this stage they have the capacity an eth responsibility to shape and reshape the young minds. The IITs have an advantage due to the teacher-student ratio being manageable, but even then, it all depends on the teacher’s attitude. I would like to term it as the life philosophy of the teacher. Despite his education qualification and experience, he should think that he is at the institution for learning something new.

Apart from that, there are several methods that B-schools follow like case studies, role plays, cultural plays, caricatures, simulations and so on. Barring a few subjects based on technical information, there are many ways in which a teacher can enhance the pedagogy in class. Also, a course should be delivered and designed to keep up with whatever was promised to the students when they signed up. But this is a two-way process and depends greatly on the students as well.

 What is the general attitude of the students towards the classes?

Well, the students are here to learn something, and placement is the final destination. But along the way, they need to focus on building skills and learning. Often, they have an attitude that they know more than the teacher because they have read it all on the internet. But they should give some credit to the teachers in the way they handle the subject matter in class. Say, for instance, in any B-school, no two teachers will handle the same case study in a similar fashion. And the engagement in the classroom will depend highly on the difference in this handling. Students are always looking forward to hear more from teachers, and so teachers should not assume that students have understood everything. If you do not tackle the students’ needs and wants, they may lose interest in your class.

You mentioned that the design of the classroom also matters? Can you give us an example?

Yes in some ways it does. You see the students come to class for several reasons. Sometimes they are looking forward to some kind of interaction but if that does not happen, they can get distracted very easily. That’s the reason why they are stealing a few moments here and there with their smart phones. But if the class offers scenic and natural beauty outside the window, that aesthetic classroom might help the student to calm down and focus on the matter at hand. Fundamentally, if the teacher is prepared for the 90 or 120 minutes of the class, it is possible to engage a majority of the students.

Can a teacher be biased towards particular students, positively or negatively?

Bias is a very strong word. I would say that teachers have expectations, and these biases are not conscious. Expectation is part of natural human behaviour, and after all, teachers are also human beings who are not entirely unaffected by the ‘viruses’ in the surrounding environment. My own research says that 37% variance can be explained by how teachers form expectations with academic as well as non-academic standards. It also shows that 9% variance can be explained by social class.

In any case, teachers have to be unbiased and neutral, and they begin like that, but situations change them. Say for instance, a teacher asks a question to a class of 10, where three are excited about answering, five others are raising their hands. The remaining two are quiet. The teacher asks them, but they don’t say anything. They are perhaps aware of the answer but they are still quiet. If the teacher tries repeatedly to a similar response (or non-response) there will come a time when the teacher will just give up and let the student be. It would be unfair to term it as bias, since everybody has a threshold. If every teacher keeps in mind the fact that his actions are affecting the students constantly, a lot of these expectations can be eliminated.

Since we are on the topic behaviour, how important do you think soft skills are today?

The foremost factor is the expert knowledge of the subject of your specialization. Without technical and hard skills you will not be able to sustain yourself in your career. But softer skills enable you to articulate your thoughts and speak your mind. These are important as well; otherwise the knowledge will be limited only to you.

Cognitive and core skills can be learnt in college, as a student. These cannot be picked up on the job. Softer skills can be developed over a period of time through life, and colleges provide you a kick start with their workshops. These help during placements as well. These need to be improved but not at the cost of your hard skills. The student need to determine where and how to strike the balance.

How to students who are not so privileged enough with the kind of infrastructure or environment we have in the cities work to improve themselves?

The first and foremost step has to be to develop self-belief. There are several examples in Hindu mythology where aspirants were able to do well due to this factor. Take for instance of Dhruv, Prahlad, Karna, Ashoka and Eklavya. “I may not be in one of the better colleges, but I can still make the most of what my teachers have to offer.” A student should have that attitude. Additionally, there are numerous B-school competitions that students can participate in. So many stake holders come to such competitions as judges and guests and they might look at your talent and pull you up. Even otherwise, the exposure will provide great platform to learn things outside the campus.

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