Monday, April 10, 2017

My C++ online test invigilator & evaluator experience of student blaming me incorrectly for his poor performance at vital entrance exam

Last updated on 11th April 2017

Today I saw a sarcasm joke Facebook post having cartoon pics of a teacher telling a student, "You failed the test!" and the student responding, "No! You failed to educate me."

Given below are my share comments on my Facebook share of it, https://www.facebook.com/ravi.s.iyer.7/posts/1890924751124093.

As sarcasm and as a joke, the share cartoon pics are OK.

But this reminds me of one unhappy incident that I had in the Sai university as the C++ test evaluator for M.Tech. (Comp. Sc.) entrance exams sometime around 2005 or so (I don't recall the year clearly; it could be a year earlier perhaps or perhaps even two years later).

The C++ program test was a crucial component of the M.Tech. (CS) entrance exam and had acquired a reputation of being one of the key tests which differentiated those who made it to M.Tech. (CS) and those who didn't. The number of those taking the test - around 40 max, if I recall correctly, and available M.Tech. (CS) seats then - around 15 max, if I recall correctly, were small. Note that there were other components to the M.Tech (CS) entrance test like paper questions on various topics, with some department faculty members being given responsibility of preparing various sections of this question paper and evaluating the responses of students. While one batch was answering the paper questions, another batch was doing the online programming test. Later this would be flipped.

My task that year (like in a few other years) was to prepare the C++ program test question paper - essentially a program specification which the students had to write a program for, ensure that all the computers in the Lab. were in proper shape for students to take the test, be the key (and mostly sole) invigilator while the test was going on, and later do the evaluation on the same day. The around 40 students who appeared for this test were broken into two batches of around 20 each, taking the test separately. If I recall correctly, I had to prepare two sets of question papers/program specifications which had roughly the same degree of difficulty.

While the test was going on, one student complained to me that his computer has not been set up properly and that the C++ compiler on it was not working properly. We encouraged students to use Linux OS and C++ compiler on it, which is what this student was using, if I recall correctly. I looked at what he was doing and saw that he had made a syntax (computer language grammar) error in his source code, due to which the (Linux command line) C++ compiler did not produce an executable file for him to run. Now I was relatively new to conducting such exams then. I felt it would be unfair to other students if I told the student that he had made a syntax error.

So I just told the student that the computer system (PC) and the C++ compiler on it has been set up properly. He did not believe me. I looked around for another teacher/invigilator who could confirm my analysis of the student's problem and tell the student that the computer system and C++ compiler on it is working properly. Two such persons telling the student would have made the student accept our view. But when I asked around, other teachers who knew C++ were too busy with their work in this M.Tech (CS) test, and nobody was in a position to help me.

This student did not make it to the list of those who cleared the M.Tech. (CS) entrance exam! Typically, M.Sc. Maths students would be around 18 or so. Say around 15 to 16 of them would take the M.Tech. (CS) entrance exam, and most of them, say around 12 to 13 of them would clear it, the following interview and get the M.Tech. (CS) seat. The two to three M.Sc. Maths students who would not clear the exam/interview but see that most of their colleagues got through, would be despondent. As teachers it would be heartbreaking for us to deal with these two or three students who did not clear the M.Tech (CS) entrance exam and/or following interview (with Vice-chancellor, warden, HOD etc.). But such was life. It was perhaps the most difficult thing for a person like me to face in my role as a teacher in an Indian (deemed) university. So I would go the extra mile to see to it that I would do my C++ test program specification fairly, that the Lab. facilities were provided properly to the students, and do my evaluation fairly. I would then have a clear conscience that I did my duty properly even if the outcome was not satisfactory to all the students.

Now, the above mentioned student (who had incorrectly presumed that his computer system and C++ compiler were not set up properly) bumped into me a day or two, or perhaps a few days, after the results were announced, on the streets of outside-ashram Puttaparthi. It was just before Samadhi Cross I road and next to Staff Quarters, with Mother Easwaramma samadhi grounds on the right. At that time, if I recall correctly, I was living in a rented room on Samadhi Cross I road which I moved out of sometime in 2006. [The M.Tech. entrance test results would be put up the next day for students to see, with successful students being informed of the schedule for the following interview.]

If I recall correctly, this student had a nickname of Pepsi - I don't recall his proper name. Now Pepsi repeated in a nice way without any aggression but with a lot of hurt that his computer and C++ compiler were not set up properly at the exam. I don't recall whether he also said explicitly that because of that, which was my responsibility, he lost his M.Tech. (CS) seat. But clearly that was the message to me. At that time, I was not sure whether I could tell him then even though the online exams had got over and the results were declared, that he had made a syntax error in his C++ source code which is why his C++ compilation did not produce the executable file. There were lots of instructions to us teachers in the department about secrecy and confidentiality with which these tests were to be conducted. I think I was concerned that if I told Pepsi that, even a few days after the exam, I could open myself up to university authorities faulting me for breach of confidentiality about tests. I think I simply kept quiet as I knew how despondent he would be for having not cleared the entrance test. I did not want to increase his hurt by repeating what I had told him during the online test that the computer system and C++ compiler which he had used in the test, were setup properly.

Perhaps even today, brother Pepsi holds the view that I was the person who did not do a proper job of setting up the test computer which he had used, and so I am responsible for him not clearing the M.Tech. (CS) entrance test of the Sai university. I don't know if this public post will ever come to his attention.

Today, I am of the view that there should be an established mechanism with associated guidelines, with which a student can question online computer program test invigilators and test evaluators for VITAL (for student's future career) entrance exam kind-of tests, and receive appropriate answers from the test invigilators and evaluators, directly or indirectly. That would make the system accountable to students in a somewhat transparent way. That would prevent misunderstandings like brother Pepsi seemed to have developed towards me, as described above. [For my particular case mentioned above, an additional teacher who knew C++ should have been made available to verify my view of the student's wrong complaint, and convey that to the student. Further, a guideline from the university authorities should have been provided whereby, after the test was over, I should have informed the student of his C++ source code syntax mistake. The guideline from the university authorities should also clearly state that such clarification would not be a violation of confidentiality requirements of such tests.]
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Given below is a comment on above mentioned Facebook post associated with this blog post:

Surya Nimmagadda, an Indian academic, wrote: Hats off to a sensible teacher in Ravi S. Iyer bro. I strongly feel the need of accountability in University testing procedures.
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Ravi S. Iyer wrote: Thanks bro. Surya Nimmagadda.
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Over email a USA based computer scientist and academic wrote:
These days, there is a simple way to check a program against all major C++ compilers: https://gcc.godbolt.org/
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Ravi S. Iyer responded (slightly edited):
For those online exams that I was involved in a key role, I would ensure that each PC's setup is checked with a compilation of a test C++ source file. And since we used to use major and widely used Linux releases, we never faced C++ compiler problems for the kind of C++ programs that students wrote in these tests or lab. courses.

Also, while the online exam was going on, we would cut off the test machines from Internet access to prevent cheating using the Internet.
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