DU Economics

Skimpy has been writing about how people with an Economics background from Delhi University have abysmal conceptual clarity about the subject.

Ok I guess I’m likely to get flak for that comment about the “BA types”. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a few Economics toppers (undergrad)  from Delhi University. And I’ve found them extremely weak on fundamentals. They know what the graphs look like. They know the definitions well. They know the formulae. But are frequently found wanting when it comes to absolute fundamentals.

Considering that there are hajaar people in my sample (technically, in IITese, anything greater than 2 is hajaar), and given that DU is considered to be the best univ in India for a UG in Economics, I think my generalization is justified.

Coming back, Aadisht says that this lack of fundamentals in these people might be attributed to inappropriate teaching. I won’t rule out that reason. I have the sneaking feeling that lecturers and professors in DU are also mostly from the same background – with an undergrad in Economics. And would have themselves learnt stuff the same way.

When I said inappropriate teaching, I was talking about the terrible textbooks and curriculum more than the teachers themselves. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I got the impression that the fundamentals of microeconomics and macroeconomics form only four papers out of about twenty or thirty in the Economics Honours course at Delhi University. Equal weightage is given to highly arbit courses like Economic History of India and whatnot.

After that GTalk chat, I realised that there are two other important factors at work: the DU admissions system and the DU examination system.

DU admission happens on the basis of your Class 12 board exam marks. Class 12 boards consist of one massive exam at the end of the academic year, with at least a month of study leave leading up to it. DU exams are the pretty much the same. Although some internal evaluation and mid-year exams have been introduced in recent years (I think), the major component of evaluation is still the end-of-year exam with lots of study leading up to it.

To use another framework invented by the Wimp, people who grasp concepts immediately are studs. People who can’t grasp concepts, but make up for it by devoting all their time to mugging and understanding the implications of the concept and how to use it without actually understanding the underlying logic are fighters.

The problem with a massive exam where you get a whole year to prepare for it is that unless you design it very well to test only for conceptual clarity, it ends up obliterating the differences between studs and fighters. The studs will always appreciate surprise quizzes where they can use their understanding of first principles to come up with answers while the more structured, studying-oriented fighters will be caught unawares. Similarly, studs will prefer open-book exams where you have to figure out which first principle to use, and then build theories from the ground up, while the fighters will prefer closed-book exams where they can peacefully obtain marks by regurgitating a given formula or derivation1.

So the DU admission procedure neutralises any advantage studs have over fighters, which leads to the intake consisting largely of fighters. And then three years of an examination process which once again neutralises the advantage any stud in DU might have, means that the toppers will usually end up being mugging-oriented fighters rather than concept-oriented studs.

By contrast, engineering colleges have semester-based continuous evaluation, where the advantage given to a fighter is heavily mitigated. For starters, you have only a four or five month semester to mug, instead of a whole year. Secondly, your concepts keep getting tested throughout the semester. This means that the lead time you have to absorb a concept goes down, and puts additional pressure on fighters.

In the IIMs, the situation is made even more brutal. You have trimesters instead of semesters, and the lead time for fighters to absorb concepts falls to almost Nil. Studs have a clear advantage in this environment (except in courses with lazy profs who set only a midterm and endterm).

Two related points:

  1. A couple of years ago, Annie Zaidi complained that she loved English literature, but used to keep getting outscored by people who didn’t understand it but just mugged it like robots; that this proved that merit in education was nonexistent, and so there was no merit-based argument against reservations.
    Actually, rather than proving that merit in education is nonexistent, it only proves that Annie’s university rewarded meritorious fighters rather than meritorious studs. The policy response therefore is to change the evaluation system, not to proceed with reservations.
  2. The question of what you should be evaluating in an educational system – actual conceptual clarity or the ability to be functional despite a lack of concepts of course remains open. Ideally, an evaluation system would reward both the ability to grasp concepts and derive from first principles, and the ability work with something even if you don’t understand it. But that only reinforces the case for continuous, multi-component evaluation systems.

1: Skimpy’s anguished outburst in the Financial Derivatives class on this very topic will remain forever etched in my memory. In the memory of everyone who attended that class for that matter.

17 Responses to DU Economics

  1. Dibyo says:

    Strong stuff. Two comments:

    1. We (us faithful readers) would like to hear more about the Wimp’s outburst in the said class.

    2. While the Wimp’s concept of stud-fighter (and loser) is hajaar strong, I fear it is slightly dismissive of a fighter. Fighters are people battling against their natural lack of gifts (or poor initial education) to put, well, fight. One has to respect that, on some level.

    PS: there is some sort of bug in your template. The blog roll suddenly goes from a blue to a white background.

  2. skimpy says:

    ok i’m biased in the stud-fighter debate because i’m more of a stud than a fighter

    of course the world needs fighters. there are so many things to be done where the only thing you have to do is to just put your head down and work – which a fighter excels in.

    for eg. i used to crib that some companies used to put too much emphasis on CG. later, on finding out what exactly is done in there etc. i realize that they emphasize CG because they are inherently fighter jobs. and people with good CGs are more often than not likely to be fighter

  3. skimpy says:

    one more thing – i’m not really sure if continuous and end-of-year exams are in any way connected to studs and fighters. i don’t think it should make a difference

    the larger difference – i think – would be in the nature of question paper. given that DU is a university with many colleges, the papers will be set to a “lowest common denominator”. you need to make thousands pass. so you have to ask lots of “theory” (different from “concepts”, mind you) and derivations, which tilts the scales in favor of non-conceptual people.

    for example, CBSE board exams and JEE have the same syllabus. however, the quality difference is “huge”. the CBSE exam is designed to make the masses pass. the JEE is designed to make the masses flunk.

    which is why I say that the best colleges should be made autonomous – the american/IIT model – will allow better question papers. and let each course have it’s own exam model to be set by the professor

  4. Aadisht says:

    Dibyo:

    describing that outburst is best left to Shamknot, who is maintaining the canonical Chronicles of Wimp.

    Also, yep, fighters should be given credit for putting fight, which is why I put in the second point of what the evaluation system should reward being open to debate. But like Wimp, I too am slightly biased in favour of studs.

    There’s another thing. DU-type evaluations reduce the advantage studs have over fighters. This is like speed-breakers reducing the speed advantage a Toyota Corolla has over a bicycle. Bringing the speed of the Corolla down isn’t necessarily a good thing in terms of traffic flow. A better thing to do is to have a dedicated bicycle lane or footpath. The analogy here is to shuffle fighters off into courses which require fighting rather than studness.

    Wimp: the difference that an end-of-year exam makes is the time it gives to fighters to put fight. Studs get concepts immediately, fighters take time to figure out and mug up the application of those concepts. If you have an evaluation every few weeks instead of the end of the year, it gives the fighters that much less time to absorb the structures around the concepts.

  5. Aadisht says:

    Oh, and strong agreer on the autonomous colleges funda. Except I saw in the Slimes of India this week that Central Government is planning to centralise and standardise the syllabi of universities. Another nail in the coffin for what little autonomy was there.

    I think the cycle time to update syllabi in an independent Central University like DU is ten-twenty years. When syllabus updation has to be co-ordinated simultaneously across a hundred universities, and with all of them agreeing, it could shoot up to massive timescales. Givvup Only Are There.

  6. metalhed says:

    to me question papers of any sort, the kind you reply to sitting on a desk in x mins of time serve little more than toilet roll. intelligently devised practical project work distributed to students who then do the stuff and present it to examiners + fellow students for evaluation is the best thing to do. that’s how you set the corrollas on a freeway and remove all speed limit signs. the difference in the practical aspect of things is what puts the typical american universities at quite an advantage over us. given there’s too much to overhaul in the school system to allow this, it can perhaps be encouraged via extra credits of some sort for such work. The universities meanwhile, should have no excuse not to follow this approach since they are meant to produce specialists.

  7. Ritwik says:

    Aadisht,

    1) DU has exams in a semester system, so do the other main universities. I’m not sure about the weightage assigned to them though.

    2) The stud vs fighter success at IIMs that you have is a slightly flawed notion. First, the greater no. of people, atleast at WIMWI, are stud-fighters. I’m sure this was the case at B as well. Second, even when there are surprise quizzes (and we have them by the droves in every subject here), success at them is very often a function of whether you have been listening in class or whether you have been solving blackbooks (collection of previous years papers etc.) – things that fighters typically do much better than studs. Third, there is hardly a concept in management studies (or economics, at least the basic economics that management students study) that really requires a person to be a stud in the first place. Accounting is not exactly like Analysis of Algorithms.

    The overall effect is that a large number of people who do well here also forget basic fundaes. In my experience, familiarity with a concept after one is done studying it formally does not have everything to do with one’s inherent studness. A significant part of it also has to do with whether you have ever thought along similar lines ever since you got done with the formal course that you took. Studs and fighters have near-similar grasp pf concepts during term time and studs and fighters forget concepts alike. When a stud remembers a concept for a long time, it is generally indication that he put more fight than he normally does.

    3) Agree with you on multi-component evaluation systems, irrespective of my disagreement over other things. The benefits are too many to be ignored. Also agree with open book vs closed book exam systems. Don’t agree with the length of time argument though.

    One of the hallmarks of a non-stud fighter is that he manages to forget concepts as soon as the system disincentivises his remembering them. People who concentrate on 12th boards can afford to forget 11th standard mechanics. JEE aspirants cannot. The length of time actually works in favour of the studs rather than the fighters.

    4) As for why DU toppers do not remember their economics, well I would have to lay the blame at the course content. Some little experience with DSE people tells me that the postgrad course is a whole lot better.

  8. Dibyo says:

    Reading the comments, I am reminded that everyone who did well (in terms of CGPI) in my batch was not a stud. There was a mix of both in the topper lists.

    Hence the IIM system helping studs is not entirely true.

    It might also be attributed to intelligent course choice by fighters (being fighters, they would check and choose courses which reward fighting)

  9. Aadisht says:

    metalhed: yep, lab work is the best way to filter studs from fighters. I should write a separate post about that…

    Ritwik:

    The length of time works in favour of the studs only if they are fighters also. All things being equal, a pure stud would rather be tested immediately, so he can use his/ her intuitive understanding of the concepts, while the fighter would still be struggling, not having understood anything at all.

    I also don’t get why you find no concept-based courses in an MBA. Microeco is heavily conceptual (refer the original post, where Skimpy and me are talking about drawing graphs applying first principles of the demand-supply-price equations, instead of bothering to mug up how a graph changes under taxation or subsidy, or demand shifts). Arguably, you can also derive all of accounting from just the initial concepts of double entry book keeping.

    And Skimpy will pillory me for this, but I think Rambo’s Marketing ApEx is one evaluation component which clobbers you if your group is neither stud nor fighter. You get shafted if you don’t use concepts clearly, but you also get shafted if you don’t put fight.

    Dibyo: The IIM system helps studs more than other systems do, is my point. And I think most group based projects reward groups which are stud+fighter.

  10. Aadisht says:

    Also, I’ll try and have a follow-on post to this before Sankranti.

  11. skimpy says:

    about rambo’s thing you haven’t gotten the negation right. you get clobbered if your group isn’t (stud and fighter). so you should’ve said that you get clobberd if either your gruop is not stud or if it’s not fighter! remember the great D Murugan once in a while

    and i’m quite slow in absorbing concetps i must say. i bulb for ages, and then there’s a day of enlightenment after which everything is clear. to be fair about apex, I didn’t understand the concept of STP till i almost graduated from IIMB.

    so while the normal stud would’ve cashed with daily tests, I for one would have gotten massacred. it wouldn’t have sunk in yet.

    and one more thing – not all fighters are non-conceptual. there are these fightesr who put so much fight that they do get the concepts. and these guys deserve to top. but there are also these fighters who put mug only and top; no concepts whatsoever. course design should be such that these guys shouldn’t be allowed to top!

  12. Aadisht says:

    That is what I said cheap guy. Shaft = NOT Stud OR NOT Fighter. Hence Shaft = NOT (Stud AND Fighter).

  13. Ritwik says:

    Aadisht,

    Of course MBA courses have concepts – I;m just saying that even the non-studs within the IIM system can grasp them without much effort. I also don’t get why you may be inclined to reward the quickness of grasping a concept – if a stud gets a concept quickly and then refuses to practise, he will forget it before long. Pure studs who dont put adequate fight are no good – this should be exposed by a relevant examination system.

    Agree with skimpy that the fighters who put so much fight that they get the funda are the ones who really deserve to top, perhaps even more than the god-studs who just dont need to put fight. Between non-fighter studs and non-funda grasping fighters, I’m also inclined to favour the studs. However, years of examinations have told me otherwise and I have a sneaky feeling that work life isn’t going to be much different.

  14. Primalsoup says:

    I needed to have read this post some years ago, when I was deciding between the rather wide variety of DU courses.
    At that time, most of the people I knew were doing Eco (Hons), had done Eco (Hons) or wished to do Eco (Hons).
    The moment you ended up with an aggregate of over 85% in your Board exams and didn’t have a clear subject that you loved, Eco was a logical choice. Oh you are doing Eco Honours, aunties would roll their eyes in appreciation.
    The first micro economics lecture you attend makes you realize that thebrief stint with Economics you had in Class IX (where one learnt up several definitions of economics, including the one that says – economics is the system of cooperation among sellers to satisfy the needs of the buyer) and what you have embarked into are significantly different. Once you recover from the shock of that, some well-written guide books written by DU alumni and courses like – Economic History of India and National Income Accounting come to your rescue. Three years later, you are out of that mistake and ready to take on all new mistakes.

  15. JK says:

    Hmm
    is that Howard roark vs. Peter Keating?

  16. […] the five month old DU Economics post had this reasonably long comments thread which instead of discussing DU or economics itself ended […]

  17. I really must say it’s very refreshing to check out a somewhat unique blog like this, great work. I look forward to visiting again soon. BTW I’ll be looking out for your next comment then.

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