IIT-JEE (Advanced) toppers spark stress debate; experts disagree

By: Rakhee Roy Talukdar
Updated: 13 Jun 2016 05:59 AM
JAIPUR: Three toppers in the IIT entrance exam, whose results were declared on Sunday, attributed their success to what they described as the positive influence of the stress they were under, but mental health specialists dismissed the claim.

No. 1-ranked Aman Bansal, one of three Jaipur boys to make the top 10 in the JEE Advanced, said stress was inevitable and good.

"One has to become habituated to stress as stress will always be there. What matters is taking it in a positive way and not losing heart," Aman, who scored 320, told The Telegraph.

His friends Kunal Goyal and Gaurav Didwania, who ranked third and ninth respectively with scores of 310 and 292, echoed him.

(From left) Aman Bansal, Kunal Goyal and Gaurav Didwania

"Stress is important in such exams. It helps produce better results as you are always under pressure. I always used the pressure to give a better output, to concentrate more," Gaurav said.

All three went to the same coaching institute, Allen, and were part of an elite Special Rankers Group (SRG) of 18 students. Aman said his fellow members of the group were his biggest motivators as they discussed problems and kept a close check on one another's progress.

"My coaching class friends, who too are toppers, kept the pressure on me to compete and perform," Gaurav agreed.

But Lalit Batra, professor of psychiatry at the Sawai Man Singh Medical College, Jaipur, said it's wrong to highlight the role of stress in exam success. "Stress cannot be the reason why they topped, or anyone tops," he said. "Doing well in exams would be the result of their capacity for answering what was asked."

Kishor Gujar, a psychiatrist at a public hospital in Pune and council member at the Indian Psychiatric Society, said a low level of anxiety or stress could have a positive effect.

"A minimum positive stress is necessary but only in the limited context of creating the motivation to do something. But for many students such exams are a horrible source of negative stress," Gujar said.

Belief in the "positive" effect of stress seemed almost a religion at Allen Jaipur. Ashish Arora, its academic head, said the SRG was trained specially by 12 teachers over two years. Of its 18 members, 7 have made the top 100 and 4 more the top 200.

"We kept the students under pressure always, in three ways," Arora said. "First, they were constantly threatened with being thrown out of this elite group if they didn't do well. Second, every Friday, they had four hours of classes at a stretch, followed by tests on Sundays," he said.

"Third, the results were out in an hour and those who didn't do well were temporarily ejected from the group. But they all raised their performance and returned to the SRG."

He said the three toppers never had to leave the group.

Whatever effect JEE stress had on the three toppers, not all the thousands who have had to face it have reacted the same way.

JEE coaching hub Kota, 255km from Jaipur, witnessed 26 student suicides in 2013, 14 in 2014 and reportedly 30 last year. Parents have blamed the suicides on stress, the punishing schedule of long hours of study and preparatory exams, and lack of counselling.

M.L. Agarwal, a local psychiatrist counsellor, had told this newspaper the first "setback" the students in Kota suffered was when they competed with toppers from across the country and saw their coaching-class grades fall in comparison.

"It's then that frustration and anxiety set in," Agarwal said, adding that his helpline got at least 1,000 calls a year from distressed students.

The toppers' comments are likely to start a debate at a time minister Smriti Irani has said the JEE Advanced questions would from now be of "Class XII level" and not have the "graduation level" toughness that forced students "to take coaching".

Several IIT teachers, however, have been sceptical about the proposal, saying the "difficulty level is deliberately kept high to eliminate as many students as possible" because of the huge gap in the number of examinees and seats available. Another said tough questions weeded out those who had learnt their lessons by rote.

Some 13 lakh students now take the JEE Main, with the top 2 lakh allowed to appear in the JEE Advanced for IIT admission. The IITs offer 10,500 BTech seats.

It's the toughness of the competition that has made coaching so crucial and put rural, poor and vernacular-medium students at a disadvantage.

Counsellors say stress is understandable when the top coaching institutes charge anything between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh a year.

Following the spate in suicides in Kota, the district administration has been insisting on measures like yoga, meditation and a day off for the students.

Arora, however, said: "In Jaipur, we don't have any yoga classes - maybe once a month or so.... To see such remarkable results, it's necessary for us to create stress. We can't escape it in any way."

Kunal, the third-ranker, said stress held no terrors for him. "I've developed an ability to concentrate deeply in whatever I'm doing. This way I know I can handle any kind of stress."

-The Telegraph Calcutta