Explaining the enthu of first-year college students
Friday, December 12, 2008
(Enthu is slang for enthusiasm.)
It is customary for graduating (final year) students in my undergrad college to make an "year video" or a "batch video" - something that was meant to capture various aspects of the graduating batch's 4 years in college. In the batch video of one of the batches senior to us, I remember there was a joke on the naivete of students in their first year. The scene shows a first year guy with his shirt tucked in, hair neatly combed, wearing shoes and carrying a bag (ostensibly full of books) leaving from his hostel room after the day's classes were over. His room-mate asks him where he is going, and our hero replies, in all sincerity: "Library yaar, sessional pandrah din main hai!" (Library dude, the midterms are in fifteen days!). The scene would provoke much laughter among the gathered 3rd years or final years watching this video, not only because to study for a midterm from 15 days before is ridiculous, but also because they realise that many of them were in fact like that back in the first year.
Anyway, the point of this story was to illustrate the fact that in Engineering colleges, first year students have way more enthu than more senior students. For me, and for many of my friends (studying in colleges other than mine as well), plotting the aggregates across the 8 semesters showed a nice monotonically decreasing function. My first semester aggregate was in the mid 80's I think, and by my last semester it was in the late 60s. Heh. First years are also the major takers of most of the "general aptis" and "C aptis" (apti is short for aptitude test) and various mutants of these two general forms that were informally organized in our college.
So why are first year college students so much more hard working? (Throughout this post, I'll be talking about the average student. There'll always be exceptions - people who retain their enthu through all 4 years or people whose enthu actually increases over time.) Or to put it another way, why does enthu drop so much with years in college? The straightforward explanations are that first year students are "naive"; that people get jaded with time in college; that people get sidetracked with other obsessions (gaming, movies, drinking etc.). W.r.t the last explanation - I think it's likely the students get sidetracked only because they have already decided that studies aren't worth their time and are looking for other things to pursue.The explanation that students become jaded with time is also a bit circular - it is just another way of saying that they lose enthu, which is the phenomenon we are trying to explain here. Another explanation that someone from my college might come up with is that seniors restrict the lives of first year students as a part of ragging - preventing them from going out of campus, drinking etc. But this fails to explain why the pattern of declining enthu holds even in colleges without much ragging or even a hostel.
As you might have guessed by now, I have a different explanation, but I have to digress a bit first to introduce it.
It is well known that when a brood of chickens is first assembled, they fight for the first few days until a status hierarchy or "pecking order" gets established. This is the pattern not just in chickens, but other animals including monkeys as well. Researchers who want to artificially induce stress in a group of monkeys (in order to see what effect stress has on their health, say) introduce a new monkey into the group every now and then, so that there will be renewed fighting to figure out where the newcomer fits into the hierarchy. The point of the status hierarchy is actually to prevent future conflicts - once hen B knows that it is weaker than hen A it won't mess with hen A anymore and both A and B will save themselves the costs of fighting in the future.
I think something slightly similar may be happening when students first enter engineering colleges - the main difference being that the considerations according to which humans accord status are subtle and culture/peer-group dependent. When students first enter college, they don't know the abilities and skill levels of the others - they don't know who among them is the smartest, who is good at speaking English, who is good at sports, who is witty etc etc. This is an unstable situation - people want to know what their status in various spheres so that they can save energy by not taking part in status games where they are likely to lose. But this situation also provides a great opportunity for first year students - may be you are better than most others in your batch at something or the other! Students who get admitted into elite colleges will be particularly susceptible to overestimating their chance at being better than their new batchmates - for these students would have been at the top of their respective heaps before joining the college. Hence the "naive" enthu of batch after batch of first year students - besides studying hard for their coursework, they take part in aptis, quizzes and any other crazy-ass competition evil clubs invent to make money.
This also explains why students lose enthu over time. Once it is relatively clear who are the winners in the various status games, others know better than to waste their time competing. If you've determined that you are only mediocre in your class (even if you were a topper before coming to college), there is no longer much point to studying hard (even though what you are studying now - in your third year - is actually much more important to your job prospects as well as your general competence as an engineer). You might as well save yourself the energy.
There are probably other factors - such as social proof (which basically says people will do things that they see others doing,) - that amplify this phenomenon. And there's always noise that may either amplify or weaken the phenomenon for short periods - e.g., the enthu among students in the month before recruitment season (when everyone is busy mugging English word lists and C programming fundae) is way higher than what the long-term trend alone would predict.