The End of the College Submission (Thank God)

This blog post is a riff on Seth’s post from the other day, titled “The End of the High School Essay“:

New York City schools are trying to ban GPT3 because it’s so good at writing superficial essays that it undermines the command structure of the essay as a sorting tool. An easy thing to assign (and a hard thing to grade) just became an easy task to hack.
High school essays had a huge range of problems, and banning the greatest essay device since Danny Dunn and his Homework Machine is not the answer. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to find a better way forward.
The first challenge of the essay was the asymmetrical difficulty in giving useful feedback. 30 essays, 5 minutes each, do the math. It doesn’t scale, and five minutes isn’t even close to enough time to honor the two hours you asked a student to put into the work.

Exams in almost all of the colleges and universities I have taught at don’t mean a thing. The students know this, the faculty knows this, the examination department knows this, but we all keep up the charade that Meaningful Work Is Being Done through the conduct of examinations.

Newsflash: there is no meaningful work being done. It is a complete farce.

Some universities choose to not pay faculty members for correcting papers at the end of the semester. Let’s assume a college is paying a visiting faculty member two thousand rupees per hour to teach a class. They might slip in a line towards the end: this also includes examination duties. In English, this means that if you teach a thirty hour course, you will be paid sixty thousand rupees for those thirty hours. So far, so good. But “also includes examination duties” means that for a batch of (say) a hundred and twenty students, you are also expected to design question papers (a set of two, usually) and correct a hundred and twenty answer sheets.

Even if you assume that one is able to correct paper after paper without taking a break, with five minutes being the time taken per paper, that still means that at least ten hours worth of work. Which means, of course, that you are not being paid two thousand rupees per hour, but rather fifteen hundred. Accounting is a subject that may well be taught at universities – that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practised at universities.

Some other universities offer to pay forty rupees per answer sheet corrected. Which is better than zero, admittedly, but we then run into the problem of incentives. If you’re paid two thousand rupees to teach, and forty rupees per paper to correct answer sheets, how many answer sheets should you correct in an hour to “make” the same wage? And if fifty answer sheets being corrected in an hour is clearly far too many, how do you expect this incentive to work? Or do we teach our students that incentives matter, but ignore this point ourselves?

Students know the farcical nature of examinations all too well. The pandemic took away that last remaining fig leaf of dignity that surrounds examinations, and the ostrich-in-the-sand approach that most universities have adopted post-pandemic is that of closed-book, no-internet-access examinations. Quite how this pen-and-paper examination is supposed to prepare students for what they will do in the real world is a question nobody wants to raise, let alone answer.

And so students quite reasonably ask for “the pattern of the paper”, or the “important questions” or the “important topics” before an examination. They are, in other words, seeking to minimize efforts in order to maximize marks scored in an examination. The tragedy lies in the fact that academia is supposed to be about maximizing learning. But on and on we go, in our mad headlong rush to maximize NAAC scores, difficult and uncomfortable questions about examinations be damned.

But all that these pen-and-paper examinations do is to train students to produce mediocre output that AI can already produce – and of a much better quality than these scribbled answers in answer sheets will ever produce. That’s not a knock against students; it is praise for how good AI has already gotten.

Think about it, for this is a point that bears repetition. Our examination system is geared towards training students to do a worse job than AI, by definition. And for this, we take money from students and their families, and we call it “an education”. Pah.

Now, I’m well aware of the fact that this is not applicable in all cases. There are some subjects/courses in the social sciences where these kind of examinations are entirely justified. And medical and engineering fields is a whole separate story. But I’m not arguing for an extreme solution – I’m saying that the pendulum has swung far too much over into Luddite territory when it comes to examinations and submissions. We need to wake up and smell the AI, and adjust accordingly.

But how? Well, the easy thing to do is to say that’s a difficult answer to give in a blogpost, but here’s Seth Godin again:

The answer is simple but difficult: Switch to the Sal Khan model. Lectures at home, classes are for homework.

When we’re on our own, our job is to watch the best lecture on the topic, on YouTube or at Khan Academy. And in the magic of the live classroom, we do our homework together.

In a school that’s privileged enough to have decent class sizes and devices in the classroom, challenge the students to actually discuss what they’ve read or learned. In real-time, teach them to not only create arguments but to get confident enough to refute them. Not only can the teacher ask a student questions, but groups of students can ask each other questions. Sure, they can use GPT or other tools to formulate where they begin, but the actual work is in figuring out something better than that.
At first, this is harder work for the teacher, but in fact, it’s what teachers actually signed up to do when they become teachers.

This is far less cohesive and controllable than the industrial model of straight rows and boring lectures. It will be a difficult transition indeed. But it’s simple to think about: If we want to train people to take initiative, to question the arguments of others, to do the reading and to create, perhaps the best way to do that is to have them do that.

We’ll never again need to hire someone to write a pretty good press release, a pretty good medical report or a pretty good investor deck. Those are instant, free and the base level of mediocre. The opportunity going forward remains the same: Bringing insight and guts to interesting problems.

Kill our current mode of examinations, and help build a world in which we have passionate teachers who help students create. Not a world in which we minimize soul, and maximize those stupid, accursed “marks”.

But on and on we go. Pah.