Until about two months ago, I thought that as a Literature student I was free from the vapid horror of multiple-choice questions. Never would I have to worry about “ticking” the right answer, because hey, Literature is known to be a subjective course. We think, we write, we argue. But we don’t choose from four options and use the old inky-pinky-ponky technique when we’re lost, because there’s never one correct answer, right? It’s all about substantiated interpretations. Why would anyone set a multiple-choice question paper for an MA English Entrance Exam? Right? Wrong.
Most regional and some central universities in India set a multiple-choice question paper (some include a descriptive section too, almost as an afterthought) with negative marking, for their entrance exams into post graduate programs. Only a handful of universities have fully descriptive MA entrance exams. Our professors have now grown accustomed to feeding OMR sheets into machines to get results. University administrations take pride in publishing results of an exam written by more than 8,000 applicants in 10 days. Above all, students have grown used to the robust, apparently infallible model of “bubbling” the right answer and some thank their good graces that they don’t have to write!
There’s also the fact that NET exams for Humanities, written for research fellowships, also have multiple-choice questions. Basically, in order to become an assistant professor of Literature in India or a research fellow, you need to memorise a lot of unnecessary details instead of actually showing evidence of previously done research or presenting your academic writing skills. This is very different from other countries, where a multiple-choice entrance exam, such as GRE, is simply a component of your college application, along with others such as your previous scorecard, an application essay, recommendations from professors or even your previously published work. No, here we look only at a multiple-choice assessment.
But people go with it. Not many questions are raised. We love ignoring Humanities or dissing subjects under it as useless or irrelevant. What’s the big deal, after all? Why is this model a matter of concern for Humanities alone? Also, for India with its vast number of college applications, isn’t OMR testing a blessing?
When we assess Literature graduates using only multiple-choice assessments (and make them get habituated to it) we do two things – encourage a memory-based approach and neglect assessing their writing skills. Both these consequences are detrimental to developing research skills and the very idea of studying Literature. Most students who take up graduate programs in Literature aspire to do research and continue in the same field. Even if you don’t aspire to do research, you hope to gain knowledge and skills from studying canonical and non-canonical texts, which you can later apply in other fields. Remembering specific dates, authors and literary movements was never the aim of literary studies. It was always to encourage close reading, historicise texts, isolate literary aspects, write criticism, substantiate the use of literary tropes etc.
The skill of applying literary theory on texts goes essentially untested in such entrance exams. To write research papers and develop connections between texts, you don’t have to know the biography of a 17th-century University Wit poet; but you might need the skill of drawing thematic connections between 17th-century literature and contemporary times.
Like Einstein said, any fool can know; the point is to understand. Analysing and substantiating arguments about texts is essentially the crux. Not much of that can be tested by a rigid objective type question paper. Even a carefully set multiple-choice question paper that tests everything from grammar to your knowledge on literary genres, to reasoning behind the naming of a particular literary movement, will lack because of its inability to test how you present your argument! Writing skills are not tested in such assessments and anybody who memorises a bunch of dates and names are bound to get through to some of our top universities in order to become research scholars. Seriously, what are we doing?!
The problem here is the intrusion of multiple-choice assessments, made popular in our country by the Engineering-Medicine entrance exams, into Humanities. This model might suit subjects under the science stream, because science is not as subjective. However, it’s different for Humanities. Throughout the years, in spite of inculcating scientific thinking into literary criticism and theory to a degree, the brand of reasoning is still very different for both streams. It’s always been one answer versus multiple answers. Through objective-type assessments where factual details are tested, we are facilitating the continuation of a memory-based learning in Indian schools, instead of breaking away from such an approach to focus on things beyond just memory. As for the sheer volume of applications received by universities in India, it is certainly tempting to use OMR testing in order to speed up the evaluation process.
However, think about what we’re losing when we move from a holistic testing method such as a descriptive exam or a combination of descriptive and objective, to a more prescribed and rationally efficient mode such as a multiple-choice assessment for Humanities. In that movement towards “rationality,” we compromise skills on the altar of convenience. I’m not discounting the benefits of multiple-choice question papers. When used well, they can be a great assessment tool. Descriptive exams also require memory skills in order to do well. But when we use only an objective exam to find the future research scholars of our country, we’re losing an opportunity to search for and encourage inquisitive individuals, who might as well be the next great literary theorists.
Alternatives exist to this approach. Universities can incorporate a descriptive section to their Humanities entrance exams. Better still, an entrance exam can be made just one component of the college application. Currently, the importance of these exams lie in the fact that they alone can get you access to the best universities in the country. Not the marks you scored for your degree, not the recommendations from academics who are familiar with your work and certainly not the research papers you’ve written, but just a multiple-choice assessment. Such an approach obviously puts all candidates on an equal footing (which is essentially the purpose of standardised testing), but that also makes it the university administrations’ responsibility to put together the best combination of assessments and selection methods. How is it so hard to use the common-sense approach of matching subjects to suitable assessments, in order to slightly improve the face of higher education in India?