The multiple choice questions, or MCQ, format has become an increasingly popular means of assessing student performance in India and is set to supersede other methods.

Its chief advantage is the ease and speed of assessment where a computer can do the job. It has therefore found favour with all-India admission tests taken by millions of candidates.

But the siren song of the MCQ format has also lured the Indian government to undertake more and more ambitious exercises to the brink of logistical collapse.

The fraught roll-out of the Common University Entrance Test, or CUET – for admission to central universities in India has sounded a warning. The number of registrations exceeded that of the Joint Entrance Exam, or JEE, for engineering courses.

Thousands of CUET candidates suffered the agony of repeated systemic and technical failures. One only hopes that the actual assessment is not impaired.

Independent thinking

The MCQ format feeds the scientific superstition that anything passed through a computer is more superior than the messy output of the volatile human intellect. It has grown alarmingly popular even where clearly inappropriate such as for assessment at the end of a course too.

Examinations at the secondary, higher secondary and even undergraduate level are incrementally adopting the MCQ format.

This has serious mental and ethical implications. The MCQ format can only address factual knowledge, set interpretations or, at best, analytic exercises with a single correct solution.

It is as inadequate for the sciences as it is for the humanities. The format will not work for all logical exercises and is useless in gauging a student’s capacity for strategising, judgement and innovation. It cannot assess whether a student can think for themselves or cogently adopt and defend one possible position out of many.

Such students can only take orders, they can neither debate nor decide. They will not vex the system with questions. Teachers will succumb to the same mental regime – if not replaced by packaged online courses.

Research in any meaningful sense is an early casualty of such an order. By discounting the capacity for inquiry and critical thinking, the MCQ format subverts the possibility of a dynamic knowledge order and economy.

It is disquieting that the MCQ format has also invaded the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test to select college teachers and researchers.

MCQ syndrome

Freed of the intellectual challenge of upholding a living education system, the authorities themselves contract what can be called “MCQ syndrome”. The outcome is worse than conventional bureaucracy. Bureaucratic obfuscation is due to inept attempts to subsume every minute complexity of governance. The MCQ syndrome, on the contrary, reduces that complexity to unreal simplicity, like a stick figure representing the human form.

This tactic approaches absurdity in the ongoing digital survey of public responses to the draft National Curriculum for schools.

There are, of course, real problems in conducting a huge nationwide survey. It cannot run to detailed granular feedback, still less to essay-type discourses. The MCQ format may be the only feasible strategy.

The surveyor’s skill then lies in framing questions that can elicit quality responses within the limits of the computable and quantifiable. The questions must be sufficiently numerous, probing and wide-ranging to ensure a critical mass of feedback. They must be focused and fine-tuned precisely because the answers will be brief and standardised.

Instead, the questionnaire on the National Curriculum comprises just 10 questions, almost embarrassing in their simplism. The choices cover a few of the possible answers, even if one ticks more than one option – which is permitted. There is no “other’ box to record a different response.

An open-ended option would be hard to accommodate in such a vast exercise and would require human intervention that the process is designed to avoid. But without any human analysis, the exercise will be reductive and fragmentary.

Three of the 10 questions invoke broad, pious principles like “what our society expects from school education”. Of the five possible responses, not one suggests that students might imbibe any knowledge and actually learn something. The options under “teachers’ role in the holistic development of children” are as platitudinous. (The buzzword “holistic” is a warning signal.)

Credit: NCF Survey website.

Another question addresses “futuristic and skill-oriented” education – two adjectives virtually opposed in purport. Also, why should “improving the dignity of teachers” concern an exercise in curriculum development?

Six questions, at most, relate to curricular matters and only four directly concern course content. They make sense as questions, but the responses on offer are limited in number and scope. The most glaring omission is of the basic sciences, which feature surprisingly little in the new National Education Policy.

Credit: NCF Survey website.

The options for secondary school courses add up to an alarmingly narrow range, with no reference to either the natural or the social sciences, or history, or any mathematics beyond the “basic”. At best, these are covered by an unspecified “basket of subjects”.

Omissions apart, the questions are badly framed in two major ways. First, as noted already, the options do not cover the full range of possibilities. This is most apparent in the question on languages. For instance, if the students are to learn Sanskrit at all, they have to start in Class 1. One also wonders what is meant by “official language of the state”. Is this veiled nomenclature for Hindi, which is not otherwise mentioned?

Credit: NCF Survey website.

Secondly, unrelated subjects are bracketed within a single option: choose one, choose all. Physical education is coupled with “Indian Knowledge Systems”. Health and sports feature in tandem with “knowledge of India’. One wonders what this last new entity might mean in practice.

There are two ways of explaining this perfunctory and unproductive exercise. One is to take it as just that, a tiresome formality for the record. The other is that the questions were deliberately framed so as to yield no substantive input that might interfere with in-house operations.

One also wonders about the intention, if any, in changing the order of the questions and the possible responses, halfway through the exercise. The content remains the same.

Either our planners regard the academic community as hopelessly puerile, or else they have themselves imbibed something of that puerility. It really does not matter. Either way, the MCQ syndrome will have prevailed. Once the syndrome is nurtured by our planners and inculcated in our teachers, what chance for our hapless young?

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University.