How do you set a Question Paper? – Musing on the Teachers Day

September 5 is known as the Teachers Day in India. Teacher’s Day is marked in honor of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was born on September 5, 1888.

Dr Radhakrishnan was India’s first vice president and second president. He was a great scholar, philosopher and recipient of the prestigious Bharat Ratna . Since 1962 – the year he became president – India has commemorated Dr Radhakrishnan’s birth anniversary by paying tribute to its teachers and gurus on this day.  On this day, all “students” pay respects to their teachers who have  guided and shaped their lives.

I went to see my Professor friend on the morning of September 5.

When he opened the door and let me in, I touched his feet seeking his blessings. “Oh, Dr Modak, why this?” He exclaimed. He was clearly embarrassed.

When I told him about the Teachers day, he said “Well, I never formally taught you in the class – but maybe I gave you some “insights” while having coffee – but essentially another point of view”. He smiled while lighting his cigar

“Well Professor, these conversations have indeed been quite some teaching to me” I said with all the gratitude.

We then spoke about our teaching experiences and shared anecdotes of some of the inspiring teachers and outstanding students.

“A Teacher should know not just what to teach, or how to teach but how to assess the students. Assessment is often the key”. Said the Professor

“You are absolutely right Professor” I responded. “Often assessments are not well designed and are conducted rather poorly.”

“Tell me Dr Modak, why do we conduct an assessment at all?” Professor asked me taking a deep puff.

I thought this was a rather too basic question to ask.

But I put forth several reasons as below.

  1. To know the understanding of the student
  2. To judge his/her ability to apply what is understood
  3. To allow comparison, instill competition and reward those who excel
  4. To help focus on students that are laggards and may need more help
  5. To get a feedback on how effective your teaching has been

Professor listened to me carefully and agreed to all the above. He then got up and patted on my back and said softly “You missed one more reason Dr Modak”

6. To give students a confidence

I was surprised. I had never thought of this 6th reason for the assessment. I remembered Professors in IIT Bombay where I studied.

We had some Professors who used to set real tough question papers to gain a kind of “reputation”. They were called – as “homos” – as most students used to get “screwed” during the assessment.

Some Professors used to set very lengthy questions where the speed of thinking as well as writing mattered. These professors used to smile when most of us used to beg for extra time. The answer books used to have 4 to 5 supplements!

Some Professors used to give us an Open Book examination where we could bring our books and “cog” sheets. The “solutions” to the questions in the paper were however never found in the books.

Some Professors used to go even one step ahead. They used to allow us to take the question paper to the hostel and take help from our seniors if we wished. A weekend used to be given to come back with the answer books. But, the questions asked were so difficult and different – perhaps coming from the “outer space” and so we used to urge the Professor to set a standard, conventional and time bound question paper.

Professor was amused when I narrated such stories. He said “Well Dr Modak, setting a good question paper is not a matter of acrobatics, it’s also not for displaying your superiority or satisfy your ego and establish an identity. The question paper must be balance of the six objectives we talked about”

So, Professor, what is the “science” of question paper setting? I could not hesitate but ask.

Professor lit the second cigar. “Here are the first principles of setting a question paper Dr Modak – all examples applicable to students studying environment”

  • If you group the students in three categories i.e. top notch, medium and below average, then reserve 100 marks as follows. Top notch 30, medium 30 and below average 40. The questions for each category must be designed differently
  • For the below average case, put 20 marks on the “objective” questions (like TRUE/FALSE but with WHY? ask for match making, correcting a flow chart or filling gaps in the flow chart can be another example– e.g. in industrial manufacturing flow sheet, wastewater treatment process etc.). Keep remaining 20 marks for questions that ask for half page to one page write up or explanation but asking for EXAMPLES. Give multiple options to choose the topic here.
  • For the medium lot, reserve 15 marks for some computational work oriented to problem solving. The problem should however require a need to make ASSUMPTIONS. So, don’t provide complete set of data. Keep the remaining 15 marks for a comprehension type of question where you give a page of text to read and ask questions where there are no easy answers e.g. what should be preferred choice of disinfecting wastewaters prior to discharge or is GMO the solution to address the problem of word’s food security?
  • And for the top-notch students, you need to be rather creative and little out of the box. These questions should ideally check deeper understanding of the student e.g. asking for a causal loop diagram of Food-Water-Land nexus with impact of climate change. Another example could be to state an issue and ask the student to develop a strategic approach with institutional and financial considerations. (Professor did not elaborate here. I could sense he did not want to reveal his “tool box” for assessing the top-notch students)

When Professor saw me taking notes, he paused. “Well Dr Modak, you don’t have to follow my “rules”. After all, remember setting a question paper is both science and art”.

I was thinking how many Professors think of this science and art of question paper setting? How much time and importance do Professor give to this important aspect of “teaching”?

I thought this was a new learning and realization for me on Teachers day.

While reaching me at the door, Professor whispered “Well, we just talked about structuring the question paper – Dr Modak but there is also a science in sequencing/ordering or mixing the questions – we never pose the questions in the hierarchy of below average, medium and top-notch students. The “finale” is a carefully designed “ladder” with well laid “traps” – giving a student an experience of an uneven ride! Only the bright ones do page reading of the question paper and decide the sequence in answering!

I felt rather lucky that I did not formally take a course with Professor and appear for his exam.

“Professor, could we take a project of compiling some of the best crafted question papers/assignments in the subject environmental management?  Teachers of today need to know” I said while walking down the staircase.

In 1984, I went through a 5-day rigorous training at IIT Kanpur in India on how to set question paper for the famous IIT’s Joint Entrance Examination. It was a memorable experience. To my knowledge, this kind of training did not happen later. Pity.

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