There is an implicit assumption widely shared by teachers in the Krishnamurti schools that preparing students to face examinations shifts focus away from learning a subject. However, before we identify exam preparation as the main cause for learning deficits, we need to carefully examine some other causative factors. To take an example from science and mathematics, student abilities vary significantly even at the level of classes eleven and twelve. This is because most students opt for sciences for reasons other than aptitude. Our teaching-learning process needs to take this into account and perhaps we need to lower our expectations in the case of students with less aptitude, without neglecting the needs of students who are enthused by the subject. This situation is even more acutely felt at the class nine and ten level, where students have little choice in the subjects they are expected to study.

Attending to the needs of different kinds of students in our classrooms is a somewhat challenging task requiring skill and careful thought. We must keep in mind that, however interesting and deep some of the ideas in the subject are, since the students are being exposed to them for the first time, they will not be able to understand them fully. Such fundamental ideas as Newton’s laws in physics (or Calculus in mathematics) cannot be grasped by students fully in the first instance. We need not get anxious about it, as they will be encountering the same ideas repeatedly at increasingly more fundamental levels over the ensuing years. Therefore, clarity in the area of expectations and goals is very essential before we begin teaching a subject. Quite often in subjects like physics, apart from helping the student acquire certain basic skills, the aim should be to provide a rich flavour of the subject and make it exciting and worth pursuing further.

In my opinion teachers sometimes confuse a poorly designed syllabus with exam requirements. Whereas exam requirements pose problems that are much easier to deal with, a poorly designed syllabus poses a different set of problems. In science subjects at the senior level, there has been a tendency to pack in a large number of topics, with a lot of detail that is unnecessary for a sound appreciation of basic concepts in the subject. And yet the topics themselves are fairly standard and correspond to science curricula meant for preparing students for a higher-level study of the subjects anywhere. The issues may be more vexed when it comes to syllabi for subjects like history and economics — due to the contested nature of the choices made and theperspectives presented — but this is beyond the scope of this article.

This article proposes a set of guidelines for preparing students of mixed ability for taking examinations, without compromising on the quality of teaching. In fact, exam preparation ought not to come in the way of learning the subject effectively, and if appropriately guided, may actually enhance the overall learning of different kinds of students. Though I shall take all my examples from the subject of physics, some of these observations and suggestions are naturally more general in nature, and hence are applicable to other subjects as well. Most of the suggestions are not specifically tied to exams; they are the generally desirable intellectual or academic skills that we ought to cultivate anyhow.

Addressing diverse academic needs

For convenience we shall divide students into two groups: those who are capable of grasping the subject fairly quickly and becoming conversant with the subject content, and those who have problems in comprehending the subject. Obviously the division is not a hard and fast one; nonetheless it is helpful from the point of view of a teacher planning an approach to teaching a mixed-ability class, and especially if aiding exam preparation is also one of his explicit goals.

I will not dwell here on the manner of teaching in the classroom, for this may take several forms depending on the experience and predilection of the teacher. For instance, at class eleven and twelve levels this might involve asking students to independently read the text first and then discussing the topic in detail, or else developing an overview of the topic and then asking students to make sense of the text through a guided study. Wherever possible, practical work, with systematic recording of experimental observations andstep-by-step working, should be stressed. What I will focus on is the manner in which the teacher may diagnose typical weaknesses, give appropriatefeedback, set tasks for students and get them to work on their shortcomings. As we shall see, proper assessment is crucial to this process.

First, we shall address the reasons why the first group of students often fails to perform adequately in tests and exams. It is common among these students to develop a feeling of having generally understood the subject when they are able to link together the main ideas, as well as recognize and attempt different kinds of problems in the textbook. When it comes to writing tests, however, what tends to afflict them is a lack of attention to detail; this is what teachers often term carelessness. It is reflected in several areas, some of which are listed below.

  1. Various points in a given answer are carelessly arranged without due regard to logical flow.
  2. Some points are elaborated too much (perhaps because the student is better informed on them) and the remaining points are given short shrift. 3
  3. Questions that carry very few marks are answered elaborately (quite often much of it irrelevant) and those that require more elaborate answers are dealt with cursorily.
  4. Numerical answers don’t carry units.
  5. Graphs are drawn without appropriate labels for the axes or the shapes drawn are grossly inaccurate and don’t correspond to experimental observations.
  6. There are always students who don’t read questions properly and, in practical exams, don’t read instructions carefully.
  7. Solutions to problems (both numerical and non-numerical) are provided without appropriate steps. For example, in physics, students quite often do not write the formula that they have applied to compute a value — only the numbers are shown or, worse, only the final figure is shown.

Once the teacher is aware of these tendencies among even the better equipped students, he can consciously build into his approach various ways to remedy these problems. Some of these are listed below.

  1. The teacher should conduct frequent (short duration) tests or set aside classroom time to make such students write answers under test conditions. Typically, homework doesn’t seem to enable students to acquire the requisite skills.
  2. While going over the answer scripts the teacher should keep in mind all the above shortcomings and make appropriate comments on the margins. Also, if marks are being given, it is necessary to consistently deduct an appropriate number of marks for each mistake. It is important that there be a high level of accuracy and consistency in assessment. Impressionistic assessment should be avoided.
  3. Immediate feedback to students is very important; returning assessed papers after more than a week reduces the effectiveness of feedback, for the students would have by then forgotten the test as well as the topics covered in it.
  4. It should be impressed upon students that testing is meant to provide feedback both to the teacher and the student on each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses; tests are not an exercise in comparing students and identifying the best. Therefore, comparison among students should be firmly discouraged.

The second set of students (those who have difficulties in comprehending the subject) exhibit, in addition to the above-mentioned weaknesses, symptoms that reveal additional difficulties. Some of these are mentioned below.

  1. The most common refrain from them after a test is: I thought I knew everything but couldn’t answer the questions.
  2. They apply wrong formulas to solving problems. (A formula applicable to photons, for example, is applied to electrons.)
  3. They confuse similar looking symbols with one another. (For example, v, velocity with V, voltage in Modern Physics.)
  4. They confuse one graph with another. (For example, charge versus time and current versus time graphs of charge/discharge process of a capacitor.) There are several such difficulties experienced by this set of students.

It is important for the teacher to diagnose the nature of difficulties shown by these students and their possible causes. Individual cases may vary, but there are some general causative factors that can be mentioned.

  1. Most of these problems and confusions arise due to wrong study habits. The ‘common refrain’ mentioned above is due to the fact that most students tend to read rather than study the content. Rather than carefully examining each step in the deductive process that subjects like physics demand while going over the subject matter, these students merely try to memorize various steps through some mnemonic devices.
  2. While solving problems given as homework they hunt for the relevant formula in the textbook. Since solving most of these problems is straightforward, it is easy to find the right formula for solving the given problem. Though the student obtains solutions, there is no real learning that takes place in this approach.
  3. While solving more difficult problems they usually take the help of a more competent student to obtain the key step. Here again the student hasn’t grasped methods of solving these problems by himself.

It is possible to address most of these problems by consciously encouraging them to develop a range of study skills (many of these would benefit all students).

  1. One key study skill is that of making short notes while studying. Students should take time to read the text thoroughly, making notes all the while. One suggested method is simply to highlight important areas. Or else they could note down key terms, definitions and formulae. This process makes their reading more active and facilitates quicker revisions during subsequent attempts.
  2. Once they have read through the chapter, they should also practise drawing graphs and diagrams without the aid of the textbook. The likelihood of their making sense of the relationships and configurations, and of retaining these, is thereby increased.
  3. During the preparatory period for the Board Exams they should note down, in a separate notebook, all the important formulas to which a short note on each one’s application is attached. A similar approach may be used for graphs, units of quantities and definitions as well.
  4. Students should not attempt answering questions related to a chapter immediately after going over it. There must be a sufficient time gap between the study and answering questions. This time lag is intended to test the students’ retention ability.
  5. While preparing for the Board Exams they should study an entire section (consisting of several chapters) over a period of, say, a week before attempting questions related to that section. This tests whether the student confuses one topic with another. It is obvious that textbooks should not be consulted while attempting questions. This facilitates students’ understanding and identification of their specific weak areas.
  6. Mathematical derivations should be attempted first before reading from the textbook. These derivations would have already been gone over by the teacher in the class. This approach tests how much of the classwork the students have retained.
  7. Prior preparation for questions that require elaborate answers (essays) should include noting down all the relevant points in logical order. Apart from making the answers more precise and logical, this facilitates quick revisions before the exams.

For implementing the above suggestions, it is important that teachers have an accurate picture of each student’s academic profile — his weak areas, strengths and limitations in grasping concepts. This information, however, cannot easily be gathered merely through classroom interactions and assignments. There is a need for assessing a student’s grasp of the topics taught through carefully designed tests or equivalent mechanisms. If the test papers are poorly designed, the feedback both to the teacher and student will be limited. For example, if the test paper is too difficult, most students are bound to perform poorly, whereas if the test is too simple, everyone will perform fairly well, and individual student’s weaknesses get masked. Therefore, a test paper should contain a mix of questions of varying complexity so that the less competent student is able to answer at least some questions, and the more competent student is challenged. Questions should also test a variety of skills — memory recall (through definitions, for example), logical thinking (through short-answer logical questions), essay writing and drawing and related skills. Teachers should provide adequate time for tests so that students don’t come under time pressure. In this way their abilities or lack of them are accurately revealed.

In conclusion, one can say that when the teacher makes provision in his classroom teaching, as well as assessment and feedback process, for different kinds of students in his class, the overall learning of the subject may be enhanced for all, notwithstanding the fact of having to take an examination.