Scoring vs Learning

In a recent article, Economist pictured a lot of parents climbing over walls of an exam hall to help their kids to pass the 10th grade exam. Given below is an excerpt from the article which surprised me.

An education system that favors elitism over basic schooling is in part to blame. The OECD found that the top 5% of 15-year-olds in two Indian states performed as well as average rich-country children in reading, mathematics and science. But the rest were far behind. And there are shortcomings even in higher education. Technology firms complain that graduate recruits are not up to scratch. Only a quarter with technical degrees are considered employable, according to one industry body.  Economist

What surprised me is that only 25% of the graduates are employable in the technology industry. The remaining 75% are not employable in spite of having a degree certificate. How’s that possible? I was able to answer this question by looking at my own experience. In 12th grade, I scored 97% in chemistry. From the marks scored one can conclude that I should be proficient in chemistry. But the fact is that I never knew how to read a periodic table. I realized my ignorance when I took a 20 hour chemistry course at Stanford last year. In 20 hours, I learnt more chemistry than what I learnt during my high school days. Why is that?

The reason is very simple. In high school my focus was to score high marks and at Stanford I signed up for the course to learn. The difference between scoring and learning is same as the difference between price and intrinsic value. Those who don’t understand are sure to fail both in education and investing. This difference was beautifully explained by the nobel laureate, Richard Feynman. When Feynman was visiting Brazil, he had an opportunity to attend a lecture in an engineering school. What he observed in the lecture summarized the difference between scoring and learning.

The lecture went like this, translated into English: Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration.” The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.

I didn’t see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge–nothing!

After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes–what do you do with them?”

“Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.”

“What will the exam be like?”

“Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized. – Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

As Buffett tells, games are won by players who focus on the playing field and not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. Similarly if we want to improve the quality of students coming out of college, we should change the incentives to make them focus on learning instead of scoring. Until that happens we will produce graduates who can recite Third Symposium word by word without knowing that Plato is taking about truth and beauty.

Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek–even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?”–and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrr-up”–he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek. But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty! – Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

17 thoughts on “Scoring vs Learning

  1. Jana,

    yesterday was my first day on your blog and you blew my mind, I wasn’t able to sleep till 3 in the morning.
    You write so beautifully and explain lucidly. As Albert Einstein says “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”, perfectly simple explanation.

    I have a question , if you could help me over it.
    Warren Buffett says to be successful in investing you only need two things

    1) Right Mindset Towards Mr Market
    2) How To Value A Business.

    Since I am from non-commerce background, I don’t know how to value business. Kindly recommend necessary study material to get a good enough idea about valuation.



  2. Four year of college Education and then the student finds that he is not employable for even 10,000 Rs. per month.

  3. Good one Jana. As usual, another great article. In fact, this was the only bothering issue from my recent trip to India. I’ll definitely be doing something pretty soon to fix this problem in a smaller scale.

  4. Hi Jana,

    Very well said. Isn’t this similar to what Amir Khan’s role was trying potray in the movie 3 idiots, it reminds me in accounting parlance the ‘substance over form’….

  5. Hi Jana, you have an awesome blog. Just love your lucid explanations. I am from non-finance background(and based in India) and wish to become an independent security analyst. Currently I have almost nil knowledge of accounting and finance but very interested in learning. I have also gone through your blog post about my favorite books on investing.
    I have ordered
    and planning to take financial accounting course on coursera.

    Do you think these are good for beginners. I basically like steep learning curve. Thanks a lot for spending so much time in presenting such wonderful learning material.

  6. You make sense but it is not going to happen since we focus on things that does not make us think too hard. You had high marks in HS because that was the measurement to get into Stanford. Then you went to Stanford but grades did not matter since for many companies, a degree from Stanford is all they care about.

    Others have to err on certainty so I see why parents go through this to get their kids to score well. People who will be looking to hire are going to eliminate kids who don’t have a certificate. We live in a society that weeds out people quickly so we do whatever it takes to stay in the game as long as we can, even if it means cheating.

    • Jay,

      You have a valid point. I agree with that. At the same time marks should not come at the cost of learning. In an ideal world they should co-exist.


  7. Did we come across any educational system in world which can full fill this ideas – Project based learning / Curiosity based learning – i imagine the education system with 30% in classes and 70% on real world starting from 6th standard to map the 30% to 70% real world to make learning more fun and meaning full.

    • Hari,

      It’s slowly happening and will take sometime before everyone follows it.


  8. Hi Jana,

    I was looking for the Chemistry course link you have mentioned but couldn’t find out where to enroll myself?
    Can you explain a bit about the offering? Is this website offering something similar to coursera?

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