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From kindergarten to CSS: The 'cram to pass' model abounds

October 28, 2014

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Our entire education system stands on a rotten infrastructure of poor curriculum and even worse examining techniques. — APP file photo
Our entire education system stands on a rotten infrastructure of poor curriculum and even worse examining techniques. — APP file photo

Miss! Important sawalon par tick lagwa dein!

(Teacher, please tell us which of the questions are important ones).

If you were raised in Pakistan and studied in a Pakistani school – whether private or public – you will be more than familiar with the above statement.

Just before exams, it is customary for students to ask teachers which questions are likely to be in the exam, and the teachers narrow down a few topics from a pool, declaring them as the ‘important’ ones.

This 'saves' the students from the time and effort otherwise required to plough through every topic in order to salvage a passing grade.

Read on: Report sounds alarm bells over education crisis, calls for reform

I was raised in Pakistan and studied in both public and private schools. Just like other children, I wished the teachers would select easy topics for the exam. The teachers were not uncomfortable in laying out a list of 'important for exam' topics either. Hardly was there a teacher who would refuse to do this out of principle.

The trend continued in my board exams (I completed my SSC and HSC from Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education). Throughout high school (grades IX, X, XI, and XII), we used past papers to guess the possible questions in the exams. These past papers contained the 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year old exams of all the subjects.

It seems as if BISE too has its own pool of important topics, from which it selects a few topics and prints the examination paper. You can tally this by going through just a few of the most recent past papers together. The same questions get repeated over and over, and there is a fair chance that you are guaranteed to guess at least a few questions correctly, if you have prepared keeping the past papers in mind.

We passed the exams and secured A grades. So, what, you might ask, is the problem here?

Take a look: Textbook tinkering

Well, the problem becomes apparent when one realises that all the scraping and scrambling for important questions, and the rummaging through 'guess papers' and past papers; came at the expense of what is the entire point of getting an education – the growth of one's intellectual, critical-thinking and problem-solving faculties.

All of primary and secondary education in Pakistan, save the Cambridge system, encourages a cramming of the syllabus.

Students know beforehand that the exams will ask for a lengthy excerpt from a certain book or the definition of a certain term; and there is simply no need to ponder the topic or understand even the basics, let alone move into the nuances of the matter at hand. All that is asked of your brain is to copy and paste.

The problem is not limited to secondary education. The same case is prevalent in most universities. Barring a few, all our higher education institutions promote the ‘cram to pass’ model.

I have seen the exam papers of several public sector universities of Sindh; the exam pattern is almost the same as that used by the BISE. Vague phrases like 'define in detail' and 'explain in detail' encourage students to memorise more and more material rather than writing an answer based on reason and rationale, even if shorter in length.

Explore: The 'halal' curriculum

But let me rephrase my statement. The problem is not limited to secondary education, and not even to the university level.

The highest exam of Pakistan – the CSS exam – endorses the same ratta-culture, and seems committed to the practice of repeating questions.

I retrieved a few past papers from the official source of CSS exams, the website of the Federal Public Service Commission of Pakistan, and here are a few examples.

The question on ijtehad in Islamiat appeared in 2009 in the following words:

Source: http://www.fpsc.gov.pk/icms/user/page.php?page_id=753

And then again in 2011:

Source: http://www.fpsc.gov.pk/icms/user/page.php?page_id=833

Let’s move on to another subject. This question appeared in General Knowledge-I (Everyday Science) 2010 in the following words:

Source: http://www.fpsc.gov.pk/icms/user/page.php?page_id=813

And then again in 2013:

Source: http://www.fpsc.gov.pk/icms/user/page.php?page_id=953

Same is the case with other subjects of the CSS. This is just a sample of three years, 2009, 2011, and 2013, collected from the official website of FPSC. Websites other than the FPSC have compiled huge lists of questions which repeat over and over again, leaving the students with a pool of questions to study and prepare from.

So much for the highest examination of Pakistan, which appoints the successful candidates at key positions of the country.

Read about: Plagiarism detected in CSS paper

Another characteristic feature of our rotten exam system is the long range of marks for each question and the arbitrary manners in which the examiner awards marks. Again, this is prevalent as much in FPSC as in board exams.

Ideally, the student must have at least a rough idea beforehand of what will get him 15.5 marks instead of 15. No such framework is made available. Instead, examiners mark according to whim and often according to how beautiful your handwriting is!

By extension, your fate lies with the varying perceptions that different examiners hold; what may be a substantial and pretty response to a question for one examiner may be a lacklustre and ugly response for another.

Obviously this can, will, and does affect the positions which students secure.

All of these factors snowball into a big cluster bomb that is dropped, year after year, on the worthy cause of critical thought and the just, objective and transparent system which helps to sustain it.

Examination systems need a major overhaul, to say the least. Instead of asking the candidate to 'define in detail', the exam should ask him/her for detailing the reasons behind his/her response.

Until that happens, we cannot blame our school and college students for reproducing the complex equations of Physics and Math, while being clueless about the logic or reasoning behind them, or unable to give a single real life example of what they are saying.