Friday, September 15, 2006

The Student

We will begin with trying to understand the undergradute IIT student (I know too little about the post-graduate students' mindset to comment here). We start with accepting that fact that the motivations for coming to IIT vary widely amongst the approximately 600 undergraduate students who join IIT Bombay each year. Also, before we delve into their motivations, let us try to understand the basic nature of these students (as I understand it).

The JEE (The Joint Entrance Exam, the only way to get into the IIT undergraduate programme) has historically been a challenging examination. Even with the so-called "degradation" of the exam as well as the "factory-production" of JEE aspirants in Kota and elsewhere, it remains a tough exam to crack - not least because about 1.75 lac students appear for the exam and only about 4000 are finally successfull. With the odds of success this low, it takes a rare breed of very motivated students to get through. Even at the so-called "factories" of Kota, the kind of persistence and will power demanded from a student is extraordinary.

One very specific trait that I've observed in most IITians is that they are particularly (for lack of a better word) whimsical. I'll clarify what I mean here. Once a student gets it into his head that a certain thing is something he wants to do (for whatever reason), he is capable of putting in tremendous effort to get it done. On the flip side, if he perceives low value, he will not bother to do it for any reason (We will get back to how an IITian judges value in a while). This is more true after he has "proven his mettle" by clearing the all-conquering JEE.

Before I go deeper into the nature of an IITian, I'll try to list out the broad reasons why a student would want to join an IIT in the first place.

1. Interest in engineering (the ideal case?)
2. To find new challenges (this is different from a basic interest in engineering)
3. To study with the best in the country (ensured by the tough JEE?)
4. Parental pressure (We'll try to understand why parents would pressurise the students, under another heading)
5. To prove one's capabilities (I can too)
6. To secure a good career (the IIT brand)
7. Peer pressure (all my friends are doing it)

We'll come back to discussing the student again later.

The Stakeholders

As is customary in any such study, I'll begin with trying to list out the major stakeholders in this issue. The first two, and the most obvious, stakeholders are the students and the faculty. Followed by these is the institute as an independent organisation with its own presence in society and academia. Another immediately associated group is the group of parents of the students of the institute. In a peripheral way, the industrial sector of the nation is also a stakeholder as they depend on research coming out of institutes such as IITs for furthering of technical prowess. The government is also a stakeholder since they provide the largest share (infact, almost all) of the money required to run these institutes. Insofar as the government is spending the tax-payers' money to subsidise education/research in these institutes, the tax-payer is also a stakeholder. Thus, we have established that the stakeholders, not necessarily in this order of importance are:

1. The students
2. The faculty
3. The institute
4. The parents
5. Industry
6. The government
7. The tax-payers (people at large)

So it begins...

Initially I had thought that each entry will be to tackle one small problem. However, over the last several weeks, I have been exposed to a more critical and immediate problem. This is the problem of plunging student motivation within IIT Bombay. The faculty has been very worried that the students no longer wish to study their courses and that they (atleast the undergraduate students)produce very little research. This has been a topic of ongoing debate for a while now but no clear solution is forthcoming. The solution, in my opinion, will emerge only by understanding the motivations of both, the students and the faculty, for being at IIT Bombay in the first place and then creating an incentive system that takes into account these motivations. However, understanding the motivations of 6000-odd (and I do mean odd) individuals is no mean task. Here I will attempt to put down what I make of it, and in the process, hope that atleast some of the issues get clarified.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Maslow's Hierarchy

Abraham Maslow, in 1943, proposed a theory that has now come to be known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This theory states that human needs fall into 5 distinct levels of a hierarchy. Once the needs in the lower levels of the hierarchy are fulfilled, a person moves to needs in the next level. However, it is not possible for a person to move higher before the lower needs are fulfilled. The needs at the five levels are as follows:

1. Physiological Needs
2. Safety Needs
3. Love/Belongingness Needs
4. Esteem Needs
5. Being Needs (Self-Actualization)

Physiological Needs: These needs include the need to breathe, the need for food and water, the need for sleep, etc.

Safety Needs: These needs, in the modern context include include the need for security of employment, security of revenue and resources, physical security (from violence, etc), familial security and security of health.

Love/Belongingness Needs: This includes the need for relationships, family and sexual intimacy. In brief, this is the desire to be needed. However, one's need for these surfaces only after the previous two levels are satisfied.

Esteem Needs: This is the need to be respected, by oneself and by others. A person at this level wants to be recognized and wants to indulge in activities that gives him a sense of contribution.

Self-Actualization: This is the instinctual need of an individual to make the most of his unique abilities and to strive to be the best.

At this point, it is important to remember that one progresses to a level only when the needs at a lower level are satisfied. Now, it is my contention that these levels of the Maslow hierarchy are somewhat related to the Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, and hence this hierarchy also plays an important role in understanding someone's motivation for doing something. I'll try to establish this relationship now.

Consider the case of a person who has no fixed source of income, and hence is unsure about where his next meal will come from. In such a situation, it should be reasonable to expect that he would be willing to do something simply because it ensures that he will have ample to eat for the next week. He is thus operating at stage two of the Kohlberg's stages. He might also do something if he is convinced that it is the right thing (level 5) but only if it does not jeopardize his food supply.

Again, consider the case of a society in which law and order has broken down and the mafia has taken over. They shoot anyone that opposes them and no formal authority is capable of punishing them. Thus, for an individual, physical security not present. In such a case, it is hardly reasonable to expect someone to stand up to the mafia because he is convinced that it is the right thing to do. I accept that there are exceptions everywhere, but it is hardly to be expected from a group of any size.

The reason I say this is thus. When we analyse why certain schemes of the government fail, we must keep in mind the society and the level in the Maslow's hierarchy of the general population. In a country of abundance (say the United States, which is what India is usually compared to these days), most people would be beyond the basic stages and hence can be expected to be in the higher levels of the Kohlberg's stages as well. Hence, the structure of incentives provided in the US will necessarily be different from the structure of incentives provided in say India, or worse, certain countries of central Africa. It is in this light that I will continue my exposition in later posts.

Disclaimer: I am not a student of psychology and as such am unaware of any theories that may corroborate or contradict what I've just said. I'm sure about the basic theories that I've stated and the conclusions are derived from first principles and intuition. Psychology is often counter-intuitive and hence I may be wrong. Please let me know if you think so.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

First Cut: 6 reasons

I'll begin with something I remember from back in school. During one of the random sessions when our principal, Fr. Jose Philip, would speak to our class, he once outlined 6 reasons why people would do something. Somehow, those points have stuck and it is with those points that I will start. The points, in order, are:

1. Fear of punishment
2. Anticipation of reward
3. Social acceptance
4. Play-by-the-rules
5. Conviction
6. Love

Fear of punishment: This is a simple situation. A child who does his homework because he will be punished by his teacher at school if he did not, is operating under this rule.

Anticipation of reward: A child, who studies hard for his exams in anticipation of receiving a new bicycle is operating under this rule.

Social acceptance: A student joining a particular group might have to say something against another opposing group. That is when he is trying to get social acceptance.

Play-by-the-rules: A person does something because it is part of the rules. He might not even be convinced that the rule is fair, but he does it because it is the law or a rule.

Conviction: A person is convinced that what he is doing is the right thing to do. For example, he might find a paper cup lying on the road and he might decide to put it into a dustbin. He might be doing it because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

Love: A person does something out of love for humanity in general. It is almost like being an ascetic, a situation that few people achieve in life.

Ideally, a person would mature from stage one to stage six over the period of his life. However, realistically, that is not the case. For various situations that a person finds himself in, his reasons for doing something can vary anywhere from level one to level six. These six reasons may not even be able to completely explain all the different kinds of behaviour we observer. As I try to analyse different situations, other reasons might emerge; however, this is the first cut.

Update: Fr. Jose reminds me that these stages were proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg. These stages are also known as Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.

A question of motive

I've decided to start writing this blog in a situation of turmoil in the country. A large fraction of the student community is literally out on the streets protesting against the hikes in reservations in educational institutes. But this blog is not about that. Participating in the discussions centered around this theme, there were a lot of other things that I noticed. There were people who have never been discriminated against fighting in favour of reservations. There are those who belong to the "less privileged" classes who are against these reservations. It made me wonder about the reasons for any of the people involved in the demonstrations/discussions to be present. Clearly not everybody is there for the "cause". It might not even be exactly clear what it means to be there for the cause. However, everyone does have some motivation. There has to be. And this is true for any activity that a person, political party, corporate body or any organisation indulges in. In examining these motivations, we might be able to come up with solutions to problems which otherwise seem intractable. Even if we cannot come up with solutions just based on this examination, it would lead to a radical clarification of the issues at stake. In this blog, I hope to pick up different situations and scenarios and examine what the underlying motivations of participating parties are. Whether I will be able to propose any solutions to those problems/situations is not on my mind at the moment. Just an understanding would be personally very satisfying, hence the blog.