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The Semester System: Pros and Cons

Reform of the undergraduate system in Delhi University has been long overdue. But it would be a shame now when the opportunity presents itself for the university not to engage in sustained introspection and analysis, and initiate widespread consultation, as a prelude to implementing changes that are both bold and pragmatic. DU has, instead, embarked on a mission driven by an abject desire for global homogeneity, combined with a disastrous conservatism and lack of vision. A major overhaul of the system is being carried through with haste, students and teachers are being subjected to a costly and painful trial-and-error experiment, and draconian measures for implementation are being resorted to.


The Semester System: Pros and Cons

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan

have experienced the drawbacks and merit s of varied educational systems. From this vantage point I would like to draw attention to some overlooked aspect s of each that I feel have not sufficiently informed the debates. I base my discussion on my own subject-area, English literature, but

Reform of the undergraduate system in Delhi University has been long overdue. But it would be a shame now when the opportunity presents itself for the university not to engage in sustained introspection and analysis, and initiate widespread consultation, as a prelude to implementing changes that are both bold and pragmatic. DU has, instead, embarked on a mission driven by an abject desire for global homogeneity, combined with a disastrous conservatism and lack of vision. A major overhaul of the system is being carried through with haste, students and teachers are being subjected to a costly and painful trial-and-error experiment, and draconian measures for implementation are being resorted to.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (rajeswari. is with New York University, New York.

elhi University (du) college teachers’ opposition to the introduction of the semester system at the undergraduate level must not be taken to imply an endorsement of the existing system. On the contrary, the present BA/BSc degree programme, taught according to a fixed syllabus and culminating in a centralised annual examination in each of the three years of its duration, is widely regarded as faulty, inefficient and obsolete. Reform has, in fact, been long overdue. And now that the opportunity presents itself, it would be a shame for the university not to engage in sustained introspection and analysis, and initiate widespread consultation, as a prelude to implementing changes that are both bold and pragmatic.

It has, instead, embarked on a mission driven by an abject desire for global homogeneity, combined with a disastrous conservatism and lack of vision. A major overhaul of the system is being carried through with haste, students and teachers are being subjected to a costly and painful trial-and-error experiment, and draconian measures for implementation are being resorted to.

There have been no forums for teachers’ views, no pilot projects, no preparation of infrastructure and no visible intention of proceeding slowly. Instead, the administrative machinery, with a mandate from the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the government at the centre, has ridden roughshod over the objections of teachers and the interests of students. Whatever little explanation and rationale has been provided by white papers and other official statements for the proposed wholesale shift to the semester system is marked by inconsistency, absurd claims and a notable absence of any in-depth study of either the situation at home or institutions abroad. As someone who has taught for many years in colleges in India, followed by long spells in the US and British academy, I am in a position to

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my observations will hopefully be relevant to other humanities subjects taught in the undergraduate college.

Construction of Courses

The single most significant aspect of the semester (or quarter) system as it operates in the United States (US) academy is that the pedagogic content is structured as “courses” of shorter duration (10-15 weeks) than the “papers” that are taught over an entire academic year in the Indian university.

The other and more substantial difference is that semester-length courses, although requiring broad departmental approval, are created by individual instructors according to a specific theme or purpose that they seek to develop via a set of readings or texts, or as a broad survey of a field, period, etc. Much thought and effort generally goes into the construction of a course. Students choose the courses they wish to study based on the fit with their interests and larger goals. The course description is a major guide to their choices, and therefore, constitutes an important and integral part of the rationale of a course.

The typical paper as it is taught in an Indian university is defined, in contrast, by a fixed syllabus which remains unchanged for years if not decades, and generally, consists only of a list of texts. Its intention is identified at best by the title it bears (in literary studies by, say, period and genre: “The British Novel in the Nineteenth Century”), with no further rationale provided. The instructor then imparts the content of these topics or texts set from on high. It would not be unusual for college teachers to have taught the same syllabus for the entire duration of their careers, an unproductive exercise that makes teaching a numbing intellectual activity. The student, of course, exercises no options, except those that the syllabus itself might offer in a few instances. The difference between a variable course and a fixed syllabus is no small thing. The semester system as it is


being envisaged in du will not allow instructors the freedom to devise their own courses, but will instead pursue the fixed syllabus format in the interests of imposing uniformity across the large number of its affiliated colleges. So there will be no variation in academic content or its formulation; papers will be taught as before, only for shorter duration and in smaller segments than the year-long “portions” that have been the norm so far. But we are assured that as a result of semesterisation students will be allowed the freedom of choosing the courses they wish to study, and mix and match them across disciplinary boundaries.

The á la carte Menu

Before embracing such freedom as the expression of true (consumerist) choice, and/ or as the (only) means to achieving interdisciplinarity, as we are being asked to, it is worth pausing to look at some of the widely acknowledged weaknesses that the “menu” system is susceptible to in practice. Students are known not to choose their courses wisely or well, basing their selection on reasons other than academic, such as class hours, peer example or the instructor’s popularity. Departments do of course appoint faculty ad visers to guide students to ensure that there are no gaps in their courses of study, and they do prescribe core requirements and prerequisites.

Despite these precautions, an undergraduate education, even in the best regulated university, can end up being a spotty affair. The á la carte menu lacks the systematic coverage that a fixed syllabus offers, even with these precautions in place, and spread is achieved at the expense of depth.1 It is not of course only the fact of liberal choice which is responsible for this thinness. It is also the brevity of the semester and the structure of pedagogy that it dictates. The bite-sized, discrete format gives the illusion of self-sufficiency and completeness to a course. The kind of continuity, chronology and connection that at least certain fields of study require

– literary studies being one of them – and the long-term absorption of concepts, terms and scholarship that these enable, are sacrificed in the semester model.

A smaller, but not for that reason inconsequential, obstacle in the way of allowing meaningful – which necessarily means ample – freedom to students in choosing their own courses of study, has to do with the difficult logistics of time-tabling. When compounded by classroom shortages, shortfalls in enrolment for particular courses, overworked faculty and similar factors, the promise to students of being allowed to take whatever courses or combination of subjects they wish to, is in reality severely compromised. Even the best American universities often find it not viable to offer courses if enrolment is not sufficient, and many are forced to restrict registration in order to accommodate classroom size and numbers. du’s proposals might dazzle students with the prospect of unlimited options, daring cross-disciplinary combinations, easy transfers across institutions and flexible periods of study; but when it comes to implementation they are almost certainly bound to disappoint.

Hybrid Mode of Semester

The university’s proposal to accommodate the academic content of its existing courses within the semester format by simply halving the syllabus, thereby getting two semester-long courses out of one year-long paper, is exactly the kind of mechanical manoeuvre that one would expect the non-academic administrator to perform, resembling nothing so much as Solomon’s “divide-the-baby” judgment without the ironic intent.

In the US university, a typical course is designed to be taught in weekly segments, and students carry a heavy load of advance preparation by way of required reading and written homework. If the reforms are meant to accommodate foreign students in our universities or prepare Indian students for foreign universities, and thereby, bring us into the “global mainstream” – although whether this should be the major consideration while considering reforms is a question to ask ourselves – then a course which features a meagre two-three texts (half of an existing year-long paper), painfully explicated by the teacher as is the usual pedagogic practice in our classrooms, will hardly fit the bill. The change to a semester model will require nothing less than a radical rethinking of syllabus and content in accordance

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with the logic that underpins its educational philosophy.

The DU shift to semesterisation is similarly conservative as regards examinations. While the semester system typically allows instructors to be the sole evaluator of the performance of the students in their class – and not necessarily through a single end-of-semester examination but cumulatively and throughout the semester by means of a number of other assorted testing methods, such as quizzes, assignments, class presentations, group projects, mid-term exams, end-of-term research paper, class participation, etc – DU means to eschew this practice, choosing instead to retain the traditional end-of-term centralised exam format. The centralised exam anywhere is a logistical nightmare for administrators and faculty, quite apart from the looming threat it represents to students. Finding and appointing willing and qualified paper-setters and examiners, ensuring uniformity of criteria and fairness in marking, and finally, announcing timely results is a major project, one that can take up all the energies of those involved – so much so that conducting examinations has grown to be virtually the sole raison d’etre of such universities. Alok Rai2 has calculated that the process engages the du’s exam section for four months from start to finish every year. It is this top-heavy, laborious and chaotic examination ritual which is now being sought to be repeated twice every year – when you would have logically expected any reform initiative to focus attention on streamlining the existing one, simplifying it and reducing its periodicity.3

In other words, DU favours a hybrid mode which essentially leaches the semester system of its two most characteristic features – and arguably its most innovative aspects for the Indian university – and intends to continue to rely on the fixed syllabus and the centralised examination

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that represent the most problematic aspects of the existing system!

Examination and Evaluation

The reason for this preference in the matter of examinations is the putative objectivity promised by anonymous scripts and centralised marking, since instructors in colleges are not trusted to evaluate their students independently, without bias or free of pressure. Alok Rai (ibid) expresses sympathy with this argument:

The limited workings of the internal assessment system at the undergraduate level have already revealed the problems with this model – not to put too fine a point on it, the worse the college, the better the internal assessment marks! Quite rightly, then, the proposed model of ‘semesterisation’ at Delhi University does not embrace decentralisation.

Even granting that this is a justified fear – and the farce that internal marking has been reduced to would seem to bear out the suspicion that colleges in competition with one another will inflate their students’ marks – what guarantees of objectivity and fairness does the centralised examination offer?

This format of examining, which we have copied from the British university system, specifically the Oxbridge model, is notoriously difficult and deficient, unless it is able to follow Oxbridge in spirit and not merely the letter. It is widely acknowledged that Oxbridge’s undergraduate teaching method

– its famous one-on-one tutorials – is virtually inimitable. It demands enormous resources of teaching staff, time and library facilities (and consequently has lately been under severe strain in Oxford itself). In such an educational structure, the centralised examination is a weighty ritual, and for that reason necessarily more rigorous in its conduct and marking. I was an examiner for three of the years I taught in Oxford, and therefore, know something of what these entail from the inside. The integrity displayed in the evaluation process is striking to an outsider, particular to one accustomed as I was to the casual and chaotic practices of du where I came from.4 The system’s scrupulous attention to ensuring fairness in examination marking and results would be impossible to replicate in an institution lacking in comparable resources or commitment. And in their absence, centralised marking is simply a mockery.

But no matter how scrupulously exams are conducted and marked, they are not without their inherent problems. Should students’ performance in a single annual examination be made to count for so much? Is there not a built-in subjective ele ment in marking? Do not unorthodox but brilliant students suffer in a system that rewards the conventionally wellprepared student instead? I have heard college tutors in Oxford express frustration at their roles as mere crammers preparing their students for exams rather than independent teachers of courses they have designed and students they themselves test. Exams are hugely demanding of the time and energies of the teaching faculty roped into examining, a fact which affects their research productivity. And the so-called objectivity and uniformity in evaluation can turn into a fetishised pursuit: the splitting of hairs over a mark here or there is often farcical in the earnestness with which it is conducted and the belief that such exactitude is possible.5

In thinking about exam reform we cannot lose sight of the more foundational questions about the ends of testing. Evaluation, and that primarily via the terminal examination, has tended to usurp the education process, coming to look like its sole end and purpose. Institutional certification and evaluation are no doubt a necessary and important part of what the university exists to do. But the limits of these functions – and the vastness of all that lies beyond them – are all too often lost sight of. Surely educational administrators cannot be oblivious to the increasing dismissal of the results of large, centralised school-leaving or undergraduate exams by the very institutions that might be expected to take the greatest cognisance of them. Admitting institutions of higher education, for instance, are increasingly turning to their own entrance exams, interviews and other means of judging potential entrants. The corporate employer gives more weight to the prestige of the institution at which the candidate studied than to the marks she scored, while the government has of course long relied on its own behemoth of public service exams in selecting civil servants. The university examination, in which so much is being invested, is perceptibly losing its relevance, even as it insidiously loses credibility. It is time for the university to turn to its larger goals of providing an education, not least in the critical tradition of the humanities.


A critical piece of this kind is expected to end with “constructive” suggestions. So I shall risk a few, drawing for the most part from the implications of the critique that has gone before.

The hybrid, adaptive, and flexible combination of different existing models is undeniably the way to effect reforms in the system. In deciding what to retain, what to copy and what to reject, the administration cannot afford to neglect an understanding of the local conditions, both advantageous and disadvantageous, in which (even) the aspiring global university operates.

The 14- or 15-week semester sits uncomfortably with the kind of pedagogy to which the undergraduate students in India are accustomed, and which in most cases they do need. We have to recognise that a large number of the students who are college entrants in our universities cannot absorb a sudden and drastic change from the essentially spoon-fed school system in which they have been trained for upwards of 12 years, or venture confidently into the study of subjects from which they have been diverted through premature streaming as early as 10th grade.

Therefore, a first-year programme which will consist primarily of introductory and core courses designed to develop concepts, terms and broad surveys of the field of study; that will offer remedial courses if necessary; that will require continuous written work and provide continuous internal assessment; and that, most importantly, will not entail a centralised examination (or worse, two), would help to achieve this transition. Effectively the first year would be only a qualifying year of study: hopefully, colleges can be relied upon to evaluate students in a simple passfail mode for this purpose. Acknowledging the heterogeneity of colleges (in other words, the vastly different competencies of students admitted to the different affiliated colleges), the affiliating university could also permit them some flexibility in how

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they choose to prepare students for the model of private universities in the west.7 following two years of the programme. It has to show considerable independence


While du’s explicit commitment to interdisciplinary studies is commendable, the current proposals seem to rely solely on the mercies of a lax “menu” system. It is important to make active faculty supervision available to ensure that students are instead directed to constructive combinations, and achieve sufficient specialisation in one or more fields of study. Equally, an innovative and well thought out non-Honours, multidisciplinary degree proand creativity if it is to retain its size and at the same time achieve comparable standards of excellence. More immediately to the point, du is itself a model central university for the rest of the country, and the responsibility it bears for the proper education of hundreds of thousands of young people is not one it ought to take lightly.


gramme would have much to recommend it at the undergraduate level. du’s “pass” course already exists as a viable liberal arts degree: ironical then, especially in light of the current buzz about interdisciplinarity, that it has been allowed to be so thoroughly devalued. If the idea should gain in cachet the Pass course would be well worth reviving and resurrecting. Other (more prestigious) models are the Oxford philosophy, politics, economics (PPE) and Joint schools, where a well thought out combination of subjects enriches the study of each. The Honours degree needs to be correspondingly deepened as well as broadened: deepened by encouraging students to read outside the set syllabus (many course instructors, for instance, provide a bibliography of “recommended” texts as an extension of the list of “required” texts; in my time, schools included texts quaintly identified as meant for “non-detailed” study); broadened by making “subsidiary” subjects more relevant and integral to the specialism. If the semester system is already a fait accompli – and sadly such appears to be the case – then the university cannot avoid the task of radically revising the content of existing syllabi to fit the semester structure and its distinctive philosophy; and it cannot afford to forswear consultation and consensus with college faculty on these new syllabi and their pedagogies. It will do well to find ways to both minimise the number and vary the nature of the exams it proposes to conduct centrally, especially from the point of view of the global model it so covets.6 Ultimately, a large public university like du, with a student population of over 2,00,000, can only depend to a limited extent on the 22 1 It must be granted, however, that the longer duration of the degree programme in the US, which typically takes four years to complete, and the fact that there is greater concentration on the major in the last two years of the programme, go a long way in achieving field specialisation. 2 Alok Rai, “Semester Fever: Is It Curable?”, Kafila, 24 November 2010, online at semester-fever-is-it-curable-alok-rai 3 In a memo dated 12 May 2009, the previous vicechancellor, Deepak Pental, wrote vaguely of his plans to address the problem by broadening the pool of paper-setters and evaluators, and – that catch-all technological fix – by introducing “IT based systems to lighten the logistics related workload of employees, as also to reduce manual transactions involved in the examination processes”. It is not clear why these reforms should apply only to the semester model. 4 Every answer script would be double-marked, and a third examiner called in if there was a discrepancy of more than five marks in the evaluation which the first two examiners were unable to reconcile between themselves. Every border line mark would be discussed in committee. The examiner is required to keep notes/observations on every single answer of every script she marks for reference and discussion if need be. Moderation is an extended process. 5 As part of the semesterisation package’s agenda of falling in line with the rest of the world, DU proposes to opt for the letter grade in place of numerical marks. While in general, the letter grade’s broader spectrum is considered more realistic in evaluating student performance than the pseudo-precision claimed by numerical marks, all test-based evaluation is at best indicative of students’ ability and performance rather than definitive. 6 Oxford itself has been looking for ways to reduce the burden of conducting these elaborate exam rituals. Centralised final exams are conducted only in two out of the three years of the BA, which significantly reduces the load on students and examiners. And not every paper is tested via an endof-term three-year sit-down examination; some optional papers instead require a long research essay, chosen from a range of suggested topics, and there is also the option of an honours thesis. Before it decides to perpetuate – indeed, increase – its self-imposed burden of conducting centralised exams, DU would therefore do well to examine the implications of such a commitment more fully. If even the exemplars of the system at Oxford University and Cambridge University are subjecting it to critique and gradual reform, it is for good reason. And really there is no good reason why, even if the academic year be divided into two teaching terms (or three, as in British universities), there should not be only one annual centralised exam, as in Oxbridge. 7 Compare Harvard with a total of 19, 500 and Oxford with 21,000 students. july 16, 2011 vol xlvi no 29 Economic & Political Weekly
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