A Different Grading System in the First Year for Undergraduates

Some of you may have read from press reports that NUS is planning to roll out a gradeless system for first year undergraduates.

Why are we embarking on this change?

–       Adjusting to the Academic and Social Culture of University life – A gradeless first year allows students time and space to adjust to the academic and social culture of university life. We have received strong feedback from students that the university and the demands of university life are different from their previous schooling environments. In Singapore’s context, male students who have served National Service will also have spent considerable time away from an academic setting. Students want to make a successful transition to university life and a gradeless first year helps to facilitate this outcome.

 

–       A Markedly Different and Transformative Learning Experience – For many, learning at university takes a different form from schooling years. Here at NUS, you will chart and tailor your own academic journey. One is expected to engage in exploratory, self-directed and independent learning. Much learning occurs in exploring, deep reading (sometimes with source documents), critical thinking, digesting masses of information and from interactions in class with lecturers and classmates, or through group assignments. This mode of learning may be new to some students, and a gradeless first year helps to ease the transition as freshmen embark on this new learning journey.

 

–       Expanding Academic Horizons – We want to encourage students to expand their academic horizons, to challenge themselves to read courses that they are interested in, without having to be preoccupied with achieving good grades. You do not have to stick with ‘safe’ or ‘tried and tested’ options. Instead, take the opportunity to expose yourself to a new academic discipline, to broaden your thinking and to develop new and multiple perspectives. A gradeless first year allows students to experiment with academic subjects that they may not normally choose to read, as it scaffolds a safe and conducive space for students to explore different learning modes.

 

–       Moving from Exam-focused Learning  to Cultivating a Passion for Learning – Within each module, be it a core module or an elective, professors and students can explore certain themes or ideas more deeply. Students will be encouraged to engage in collaborative thinking and problem solving.

 

–       An Enriching and Holistic Education – Beyond academics, students will also have considerably more flexibility to participate in learning opportunities beyond the classroom. The NUS campus is a rich, diverse and vibrant environment that offers many valuable learning opportunities. Under a gradeless system, you can attend a guest lecture by a renowned visiting expert, or perhaps join in a drama production, take part in an entrepreneurial competition, or participate in a community project – the possibilities are endless, without having to overly worry about scoring well for a test the next day. These pursuits may not add to your academic credentials, but they add to your life experiences. They broaden your perspectives and help you become a more interesting person. I encourage you to take the opportunity to do something different, to reflect and to learn.

 

A gradeless first year may seem radical, and some of you may be concerned that such a move may dilute the reputation of an NUS degree. I would like to share that universities overseas do practise grading policies which have the effect of reducing the stakes of the freshmen year. In leading UK universities, first year grades typically count for little if at all, towards the final degree classification. In the US, there are a myriad of systems that universities have put in place, such as amongst others, first year grade exclusion and freshmen pass/no record policy.

 

The concept of ‘gradeless modules’ is not a new one at NUS. Within the modular system, the first attempt to launch the pass/fail concept came in the form of the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) policy, which dates back nearly a decade. The S/U policy is intended to encourage students to pursue their intellectual interests, without undue concern that exploring a new subject area may adversely affect their CAP. Students may choose to exercise the S/U option for applicable modules, for up to 12 Modular Credits (MCs), i.e. students decide whether to include or exclude the grades obtained for those modules, in the computation of the CAP.

 

At NUS, since 2010, the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine has implemented a Distinction/Pass/Fail system for its first and second year undergraduates. The School has found that student performance has not declined as a result. There was however, considerably less stress as students did not see nor were they vying for letter grades.  From AY2014/15, the Faculty of Law will not be assigning grades for compulsory modules during the first semester; letter grades are only accorded from the second semester onwards.

 

I am personally convinced that it is timely to expand the ‘gradeless modules’ to a gradeless first year, so that we can reap the full benefits of a gradeless first year, as I have outlined above.  It is timely also because the reforms to General Education (GE) at NUS will take effect from AY2014/15. Broadly speaking, to fulfil the University Level Requirements (ULR), students will read three GE modules in their first year, one Singapore Studies module in their second year, and one Deep Dialogues Module in their third year. As such, students on the modular system will typically read 10 modules in their first year, of which three are General Education modules, and seven modules are disciplinary-related. The 10 modules taken in the first year, on a gradeless basis, is a good blend and balance that will allow for exploration, risk-taking and deep learning within and beyond one’s primary discipline.

 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this new grading system.

 

94 comments:

  1. Brilliant Idea.
    The only problem might be that in most cases students’s grade appears to be the highest for the first year.
    This act might result in lowering the average CAP of students.

    1. Going by the way the grade moderation system is programmed as elaborated by the Provost in earlier posts, the only way this is possible is if faculties deliberately moderate grades upward for the earlier semesters and downward for the latter semesters. Otherwise, the grade distribution should, by definition, not change regardless of which year the student is in.

      That said, certain subgroups will, indeed, have higher CAPs than certain other subgroups in the first year. In the absence of data, logic would dictate that the most significant subgroup aberration should be that female students should have a higher relative CAP at the start then slowly decline to 50%, while male students should have a lower relative CAP at the start, before slowly inclining to 50%, based on the assumption that female and male students have equal ability – because 2 years of disruption of academic activity would inevitably diminish grades during the readjustment period.

      Perhaps your observation of a diminishing average CAP of people you know may indicate your social circle is largely composed of people whose subgroup performance is somehow relatively better in the first year.

      Sheltering the readjustment period may align the system back towards parity. Statistics available to the University would provide a better basis to estimate relative subgroup performance than a priori induction, I’m sure.

      1. If the problem of a huge group of students not doing well in the first year is rooted in the problem that many students do not remember what they had learnt in JC, then I don’t see why NUS should just accept the results of a poorly implemented JC education system.

        What we should do is to call for change in the JC system so that students would actually be familiar with the concepts taught in JC. We should be raising standards overall, not dropping standards just to suit an unfavourable situation.

  2. instead of a gradeless first year, another option could be to extend the amount of S/U modules up to 6 modules, and allow 3-4 to be used for level 1000/2000 core modules.

    I think that this would be a much better and fairer choice and still helps to alleviate some of the concerns about NUS not retaining their competitive edge.

  3. Hi Provost

    I think this is a good step forward. Indeed, as you have noted, the emphasis on grades in first year students might create a situation in which other objectives in education are compromised.

    Emphasis on grades is not the only reform necessary to promote the above objectives you have outlined. Heavy emphasis on class participation (20-40%) has to be examined as well.

    (1) While nobody would dispute the practice of rewarding a person contributing in class when nobody else is, the situation has now evolved into a case where everyone is vying to speak up. In the end, it is the tutor who chooses whom to speak next — and who s/he chooses gets the Class Participation points. This may promote a system of favoritism

    (2) Class Participation is very subjective. There is no objective standard of rating class participation. Some profs rate it by the number of times a person speaks up. Other profs factor in the value of the students’ contribution. While subjectivity is not a sin in itself, giving something subjective a large weight (20-40%??) would greatly cause grades to fluctuate unpredictably.

    It would be great to hear your thoughts about this matter. Thanks for looking into improving student life at NUS!

    1. Quite agree with Lin. After a year into my studies, I thought class participation has become an advantage to students who like to speak vs part-time students like myself who, after a long day of work just wanted the opportunity to listen and learn and not be pressured into finding something to ask or say. Quite often, i wonder how does that help in understanding the subject itself.

    2. I am not aiming for a perfect solution, and I do not think one exists. We will continue to work on refining our system. Thanks for your comments on the assessment of class participation.

  4. My concern is if someone is applying graduate school and results of some certain modules are critical as they are foundations of their research, the other school may not be able to judge students from NUS fairly. Therefore, i think it is good that results are given, but not calculated to CAP.

    1. The Level 3000 or 4000 modules are more crucial in such a case, and these are not usually taken in the first year.

  5. This just came a little too late. Many of us chose to explore our options and to discover university life outside of the academics at the expense of our results in year 1, and now we’re already at our final year.

    Nevertheless, I am glad future students now have this opportunity that we did not have.

  6. Courses that deal with foundational knowledge, like Sciences, Computer Science, and Engineering should NOT have a gradeless first year. It is impossible to understand what goes on in subsequent years if students think that they can slack off during the first year. All knowledge that goes on in subsequent years are DIRECTLY built upon first year knowledge!

    I seriously don’t care if other overseas university implement gradeless systems for their liberal arts programmes. A course with foundations in science must not do so!

    1. This might be a gross generalisation. In the Life Sciences Major for example, the nature of the specialisation tracks mean that some first year modules are not foundational (or even pre-requisite) for advanced year modules.

      But there is this brings up another point. If the first year is gradeless, how would students decide their preferred specialisation? Waiting to see the letter grade at the end of your 2nd year is too late.

    2. I don’t agree. If you take the S/U option, for instance, a grade of “S” requires at least a “C”, which is more stringent than a pass grade of “D”. Currently, there are students who continue in their majors with D grades in their foundational modules.

      1. Getting a C is not a proud achievement. Students with C usually have not grasp the basic concepts being taught in the module, it can be easily obtained from all the free marks that the professor had set.

        Maybe that person with D had not even bothered to turn up for tutorials to get participation marks? One exception does not prove the rule.

  7. The rationale behind the policy is very good. But there may be some problems during the implementation of the policy.
    1. Inside the same cohort, there may be both freshies and seniors taking one module. If only seniors will get the grades, the juniors may not be cooperative when doing group projects/assignments.
    2. At the same time, if the cohort for a certain module is very big, but only a few of them are seniors, the bell-curve grading strategy is also very hard to implement.
    3. To get a better grade, students may tend to take harder modules during year 1 while waiting to year 2 to take some trivial modules. (especially GEM/GEK mods)

    1. It is plausible that some students may try to game the system. But if they do so, life would be much harder from year 2 onwards. We should communicate our policy more effectively to our students and advise them appropriately.

  8. Dear Provost

    I would like to bring up potential areas for development, as well as practical problems that this grading system might face. In short, we can consider ways that we can use the gradeless 1st year to promote innovation and creativity. However, other practical issues inherent in this gradeless system itself need to be addressed.

    PROMOTING INNOVATION

    I think the University should clarify what it means by “risk-taking”. Does it mean taking modules OUTSIDE of your discipline, which might potentially be harder? Or does it include pursuing innovative solutions to projects and assignments WITHIN your discipline?

    If we were to promote innovative thinking, we should also promote risk-taking WITHIN your discipline. The 1st year gradeless policy would allow students to comfortably take risks to find innovative solutions.

    But realistically speaking, innovation means coming up an answer where few has considered. It also means a higher chance of error. These errors could translate to a deduction in grades, or in a career, your rice-bowl. Not all innovations have the same risks.

    To promote smart risk-taking, I suggest the University to consider giving letter grades in the first year, but withholding the grades from the CAP. The would allow students to use the letter grade evaluate their how they take risks, and promote innovation. Again, witholding grades from the CAP would provide this space for learning.

    PROMOTING CREATIVITY

    Secondly, I believe a gradeless 1st year can allow lecturers to revamp assignments and allow more creativity. Currently, many 1st year modules in NUS are largely graded on a MCQ basis. We should let students tackle more projects and essay-based questions head on in the first year. Throwing students from a gradeless year of MCQ into the 2nd year is just delaying a student’s intellectual maturation.

    PRACTICAL ISSUES

    There are several practical issues to consider. Firstly, students may wish to clear 2nd year modules in their first year. There are exceptions which might even create a loophole. There are 4th year modules that only have 1st year modules as perquisite. Would this allow students to clear 4th year modules gradeless, and pull their CAP by taking an easy level 1000 breadth in their final year?

    Another practical issue is that not all first year modules have the same load. For example, in the School of Computing, there are 1st year programming modules that cover the material of two 1st year modules in a single module. Would the gradeless option encourage students who lack the capability to take on a module they cannot well handle?

    I believe that if these issues are addressed, the 1st year gradeless option would truly benefit students.

    1. It is meant to encourage students to read different types of modules as well as to experiment with different modes of learning. Professors must also do their part by adopting the appropriate pedagogies to make learning more effective.

      Keeping letter grades but not counting towards the CAP is another option which we are considering.

  9. We are living in an era where there is a shortage of STEM (Science, technology, engeering and math) graduates worldwide. Any drop in quality of STEM students being produced is not something the world can cope with. NUS should not be setting a precedent for that to happen.

    1. Why do you think that this would lead to a drop in quality? Take the S/U option as an instance, and refer to my comments in #17.

  10. This is a major step in the correct direction. The academic culture among students at the moment is still greatly towards the direction of doing what is necessary only for the grades and actually not caring about learning, especially when learning is a less efficient method of grade maximization – someone who is already a master at a particular module who takes it will get an A/A+ by default as long as the grading is fairly done. And as far as I am aware, the grading IS relatively accurate.

    I have seen my fair share of grade-maximizing students in my electives so far already. This factor makes the already reticent students even less likely to venture outside their area of specializations as there is a chance all the A ‘slots’ have already been taken by people with prior mastery in the module.

    To prevent this, some modules have in place placement tests. This is not very effective however, as in more than just a few cases, people simply fake a lower ability level for the placement test and throughout the semester, before acting normally for only the high-grade percentage components.

    Zeroing the grade effect would help, at least for the first year.

    On one hand, having a grade just for feedback purposes but not including it in CAP, like another poster suggested, also achieves, from the student’s point of view, the same risk nullification benefit while also offering the ability for the student to gauge his/her own abilities. On the other hand, doing so creates additional work for faculty staff; freed from the constraints of grading or examinations entirely, academic staff may indeed be able to teach better for the sake of learning than they are at present under the constraints of having to teach, grade AND do their research simultaneously. For this cause I do prefer the ‘no grading at all’ approach.

    Extension of S/U is intrinsically problematic. Doing that instead of doing a gradeless version means that students may still, to the limit of their module credits, take a lot of ‘Mickey Mouse modules’ to boost their CAP, and nullify any risks with S/U if necessary. In contrast, having it grade-free makes it IMPOSSIBLE to CAP-manipulate within the first year at least, which diminishes the advantage such students would gain over students who take modules under a more legitimate reason… diminishing it even more than the current level, where people can CAP-manipulate for all 4 years if their module credits allow. This I believe was the reason why NTU does not even allow S/U to be applied after knowing the results; people who take a module and realise they do not have aptitude in it do not require the final exam results to know they need to apply an S/U after all. The current system is fine, but extension of CAP may do more harm in assessment accuracy than good.

    I am not going to be able to benefit from any of these changes since I am graduating this Semester, but it is heartening to know that future students can look forward to an even better system than the one we had the honour of experiencing.

    1. Good points, Jack. The current 3 S/U may have led to gaming by our students. If the S/U option is used for the entire first year, it will not be wise for students to try to game it too much by a random choice of “easy modules”. You need to choose your major, or at least have a good sense of your major in your first year.

  11. I support this idea. I agree that males who return from army need time to adjust back to an academic life. Doing mostly physically straining activities for 2 years, and then switching to doing mostly mentally straining activities, does not end well in most cases. The brain needs to be woken from it’s “slumber”.

    Secondly, it is not simply not a level playing field for first year students. Some have prior knowledge and expertise in their major before coming in to University. Reasons for having such expertise include parents having the same major and cultivating in their children to adopt similar interests in that major. Another reason is that not everyone is fortunate to have cultivated a good studying methodology upon entering University, due to differing commitments in life among students. Some people simply do not have the time or environment to do so. Giving a 1 year pass, gives disadvantaged students time to bridge any such gaps they have to their more fortunate peers. Thus I am in favour of this policy as it cultivates a more fair environment in NUS.

    However having read some comments above that students may slack off due a gradless system, i think we have to compromise and still award grades, to keep students grounded in reality of University life but perhaps not contribute towards the CAP for the first year.

    1. I agreed that whichever the system used, we must retain the motivation for students to learn, and to do well.

  12. I do not think that it is the grades matters. Rather than having it gradeless, I think you should implement more elective that is gradeless and more fun. Eg, photography mod, sports mod that student can truly enjoy and grades don matter. At the moment, elective has similar workload and weightage, which defeat the meaning of breadth and elective for more exposure. Students are not able to choose elective that they wanted without considering the difficulty and CAP that the module will affect

  13. Dear Provost,

    First of all, I think the move is a fantastic start to help incoming students to adjust to the entirely new university learning environment, and serves to encourage learning with a purpose and interest, beyond the mindless pursuit of CAP score as an ingrained culture. Afterall, the true value of learning can only be manifested within a keen interest, coupled with the appreciation of the subject matter. Within the student community, it has been apparent all along that many students try their best to achieve better grades through rote learning and memorizing, and do not even understand the meaning of what they have remembered; all this in fear of achieving a low CAP score.

    In light of the optimistic shift away from this system, I’d like to point the problems faced by many students in their 3rd and 4th year. Many of our CAP scores are severely marred by the first year grades, and have since been hindered with progress despite doing significantly better after the first 2 semesters. It is without a doubt, that many students’ existing CAP score and their respective class of honours will jump a grade if their first year grades can be exempted from the computation of CAP score. It may be a futile attempt for me to urge the board to apply the system to seniors, but I still think it is worthy to bring to your attention the benefit it can bring to graduating students if the new CAP score system can apply to them as well. Since the grading system evaluates consistent performance over the semesters, I feel that students should not be discounted for their good performance after the freshmen years to make up for the bad grades during the initial adaptation cycle.

    Many of the senior and graduating students have found it hard to secure employment and internships (or just even warrant an interview from the companies) purely because of the influence of their first year grades on the overall CAP score. Since the existing problem has been derived from the observation and understanding of current students, I sincerely like to urge the school to consider extending the new system to current students. I cannot emphasise how tremendous the impact will be on the current students, and am certain it will be something most of us can appreciate and value.

    Despite the outcome of this appeal, I will like to sincerely thank you and the school for the effort made to better improve the learning and grading environment for the benefit of all NUS students.

    Thank you for your time.

  14. It seems like a very radical idea but that doesn’t mean that it is inherently good or bad. I can only speak of my home university (UK), where we do get grades throughout the whole 4 years of our undergraduate studies, but the first 2 years hardly count. In fact, in the first 2 years, we don’t even have a distinct major.

    However, I don’t think that the first year should be entirely gradeless. Where is the educational effect of education if there is not feedback? I have already submitted a few reports this year and I find it very disturbing to not get a grade for it since I have no notion of what I could have done better. So my suggestion would be so still give grades, with a particular emphasis on “give”. Let the students know their grades, but don’t count them towards the final grades at the end of the degree. That would maintain all the advantages (more academic freedom in the first year, for boys to get used to an academic environment after national service, etc.), but still gives student feedback.

    In order to maintain a certain competitiveness, awards, such as free coursebooks, could be used to motivate students to do well in their respective modules, even if they don’t count towards their degree.

    Even though I will only be here for one semester, I appreciate the opportunity to give feedback myself. I believe the NUS will continue improving its academic reputation and quality and it has been great to be a part of this community.

    1. We must retain the motivation for students to learn as well as to do well. We should also be able to provide feedback to the students on where are their weaknesses and how they have done, in a course.

  15. All the reasons stated in the article are great ideas, but I do not think a gradeless first year is a right way to achieve the desired outcome.

    My main concern is that first year modules are the fundamentals for all the higher modules. It is impossible to really understand the higher level module without a solid fundamental knowledge. I think the reputation of the NUS degree will definitely be diluted if a gradeless first year is implemented.

    I am a final year engineering student, from my personal experience, I still find that the first year modules are actually the most challenging ones. These modules deals with the fundamental and abstract ideas in science and mathematics whereas higher level modules deals more with the engineering application. In fact, all the higher level modules become so easy if someone master the mathematics taught in first year. That is why first year of university is so crucial.

    I think the university might increase the number of SU instead of a gradeless system. A total gradeless first is too radical and it brings too much issues.

    1. I totally agree with CY. The first year modules usually make up the fundamentals for all the higher level modules in almost all faculties. If there is an option of not consider it into the grade, the students may not put enought effort in those Foundation courses since back up of not counting the grade is offered. It may cause more problems and issues as the student move to higher level courses.

      Offering more SU instead of total gradeless is a better idea. And the process should be a gradual process instead of such a big jump like of gradeless for the entire first year. A lot of issues will be caused by this sudden change in the system.

      1. I think this is a point that we have to think about. My thought is that a drop in the NUS degree reputation will be inevitable if we are to go gradeless, no matter how we defend our cause to alleviate stress for students. The world will see it as a drop in competence, as academic rigour is wha really makes NUS stay up there in the top tier of university rankings.

    2. Increasing the S/U option is one of the approaches which we are considering. The S/U option also retains the incentive to do well.

  16. Dear Provost,

    It might be a good step for the benefit of the incoming batch to facilitate a better adjustment to the university, but I am a little bitter concerned about the impact of such system in the batch enrolled in AY2013/2014.

    For example, some students study Double Degree Programme will take five years to graduate and most probably they will enter the workforce/the next level of studies the same year with the batch that is going to nus in AY2014/2014. I heard the new system will give the students the option of include which module’s grade in the CAP calculation if they do well in a module. Will this privilege cause more students in AY2014-2015 onwards to get first class honours compare to the students enrolled in AY2013-2014 but graduate in the same year?

    Furthermore, if after the implementation of this system, assume the student go for exchange in year2 sem1 and NOC in year 3. If the student choose to graduate in 3 year without honours, will that mean the student only need to count the CAP with the result in one semester only(i.e. year 2 sem2).

    It is just some of the concerns I have when I know about the system.

    1. Thanks. There will be some complications as no policy is perfect. But we have also considered mitigations for some of the situations which you have highlighted.

  17. Speaking from experience, people do sadly treat ungraded modules with less importance than they should. I’ve been in GEM classes with uncooperative group members because they say “I’m going to SU this class, so it doesn’t matter”. The same happens with my modules at CAPT, where a handful of students who are genuinely interested in the module reap the full benefits, while the majority are there just to mark time and fulfill the requirements. I have no idea what the learning culture is like in the universities in the UK and US schools that have ungraded first year, but if this was introduced here there’s a high chance we’ll just have a whole bunch of first years who aren’t serious about their work.

    1. I’m another UTown resident, meaning that I’ve also taken ungraded modules in Tembusu. I have to say that I have met peers who treat the modules lightly. I wouldn’t agree that everybody would just ignore the module because it’s ungraded, as most people do choose the modules out of interest. However, the awarding of a grade does provide strong motivation to research more and do what you can to better yourself in the module. I know many people who are interested in the modules that they are taking, but don’t put as much effort into it because they know that it doesn’t count.

      I have another concern – under the present system of exercising the S/U option for selected modules rather than taking the whole of the first year on an ungraded basis, it is possible for a student to explore a chosen field in more depth. For example, a student interested in Japanese language and culture could take the relevant classes up to level 3 or 4, with the safety net of the S/U option accompanying him each time. With this new system, even if it does encourage students to broaden their perspective in the first year, they would almost certainly revert back to the “safe” or “tried and tested” methods in their remaining 2 or 3 years.

    2. Communication of the intent of such a policy (to staff and students) will be critical. It would be foolhardy for someone to waste it.

    3. They could do that for 3 modules, but if there are 10 modules, it will be foolhardy of them to squander them.

  18. Would be it possible that the period to exercise the S/U option be extended from the current short span of 3 days after release of the results.I felt that the S/U declaration the last time was too rushed especially since the next day was a public holiday and students like myself really need the extra time to decide carefully for the declaration. Even with advanced planning ahead of the release of the results, the decision to exercise the option is still best made only after the release of the results.

    2.) Could the S/U option be extended to more modules (including more core modules and cross-faculty modules). Currently, it is severely restricted to only a few modules (namely the electives and Breadth modules).

    3.) In line with current plans to do away with the grading system across faculties, may I suggest that the grading process be less focused on the absolute scores and hence I would like to propose a reduction in the number of bands by doing away with the additional pluses and minuses assign to each grade. In other words, the grading process be made less complex. Furthermore, perhaps more modules could be added to existing the pool of modules that are assessed on a graded/ungraded basis (not just industrial attachments & a few more, as is the case currently).
    Students can thus opt for modules that they are most passionate about and study at ease without worrying excessively about their performance.

    With the new grading system in place, non-first year students e.g second year students should also be allowed to review their first -year grades and void them if necessary.

    1. We are considering (1) and (2), but not the grading scheme in (3). Changing the grading scheme will also impact existing students which complicates the implementation.

  19. Dear Provost,

    While I believe that this change is a step in the right direction, I feel that there is a better way to achieve the desired results.

    As many of the comments above have pointed out, there are a few possible flaws of having a completely S/U graded Year 1:

    1. It may compromise motivation to excel in foundation courses and cause additional difficulties later on
    2. It simply pushes the ‘risk’ to the subsequent years. Discerning students will simply attempt to overload and clear as many modules deemed as difficult in the first year to get maximum value out of this system without actually learning more in the process.
    3. Many students are still figuring out what courses are actually available in Year 1. If they develop a firm interest elective studies only after Year 1, then the new system makes no difference to them.

    In consideration of all these facts, I would like to build on suggests from previous comments and propose an alternative system (From a Computing student perspective):

    1. Increase number of SUs for electives from 2 to 6
    2. Allow students to SU 2 Core Modules
    3. Allow students to SU 2 Programme Electives

    The amount of SU-able modules remain very similar at 10, which is the normal workload for 1 academic year. However, this system has a few notable advantages:

    1. It does not compromise motivation to excel in Year 1 while providing sufficient leverage for the students to take risks.
    2. It encourages students to continue taking courses outside their comfort zones beyond Year 1
    3. It builds on the unique modular and flexible design of the NUS curriculum and further empowers students to plan their education.

    I believe that main challenge of implementing this systems will in educating new students about the 3 types of SU options. But I firmly believe that it will provide much more benefits and hope you will consider this proposal.


    1. chewxyu:

      Dear Provost,
      While I believe that this change is a step in the right direction, I feel that there is a better way to achieve the desired results.
      As many of the comments above have pointed out, there are a few possible flaws of having a completely S/U graded Year 1:
      1. It may compromise motivation to excel in foundation courses and cause additional difficulties later on
      2. It simply pushes the ‘risk’ to the subsequent years. Discerning students will simply attempt to overload and clear as many modules deemed as difficult in the first year to get maximum value out of this system without actually learning more in the process.
      3. Many students are still figuring out what courses are actually available in Year 1. If they develop a firm interest elective studies only after Year 1, then the new system makes no difference to them.
      In consideration of all these facts, I would like to build on suggests from previous comments and propose an alternative system (From a Computing student perspective):
      1. Increase number of SUs for electives from 2 to 6
      2. Allow students to SU 2 Core Modules
      3. Allow students to SU 2 Programme Electives
      The amount of SU-able modules remain very similar at 10, which is the normal workload for 1 academic year. However, this system has a few notable advantages:
      1. It does not compromise motivation to excel in Year 1 while providing sufficient leverage for the students to take risks.
      2. It encourages students to continue taking courses outside their comfort zones beyond Year 1
      3. It builds on the unique modular and flexible design of the NUS curriculum and further empowers students to plan their education.
      I believe that main challenge of implementing this systems will in educating new students about the 3 types of SU options. But I firmly believe that it will provide much more benefits and hope you will consider this proposal.

      I certainly agree with chewxyu’s opinions.

      The idea to have a gradeless first-year is just somewhat idealistic, but not very practical and certainly will cause lots of problems.

      Just to add some of my own thoughts here:

      As many have mentioned, the students may just read as many hard and high-level modules as possible in their first year. This problem is solvable by setting some limitation. However, this again cause other problems, for example, those students who really want to and capable of reading more difficult modules will not be able to do so.

      I strongly agree with the idea of allowing S/U for more modules instead of making all modules in year one gradeless. In my own opinion, I think the S/U options should be able to made available for all modules as long as it is not a core-module. Only by doing this, students may be able to choose those module they are really interested in. Currently we are only allowed to S/U up to 3 modules, which is definitely far from enough. Lots of students are choosing relatively easy modules for their breaths and GEs, since they know they can only S/U three of them, so they must do well in the rest.

      Moreover, I think we definitely need a proper letter-grade for all modules no matter it will be counted towards CAP or not. On one hand, it is crucial for a student to know their own performance for a module. On the other hand, some programs in NUS, for example DDP, needs to take consideration of the performance of the student’s first year’s results. Therefore, it will cause many problem for these programs requiring grades to facilitate.

      Thank you for letting us to provide feedbacks.

    2. Generally speaking, first year modules are foundational modules, and higher level modules are more challenging than first year modules. See my comments in #17 too. The new policy should be simple for staff and students.

  20. Sir, how about having a system that grants students more autonomy? Instead of having a blanket S/U structure for the entire year 1, perhaps students can have the discretion to S/U any (or all) of their year 1 classes?

    Say, if one chooses to study a blend of modules and do well for some of them, one can keep the better grades. If not, the modules can be declared on a pass/fail basis.

    Having the flexibility to retain grades may encourage students to continue putting in effort. Having the flexibility to not keep them is a safety net for students who wish to explore subjects that may prove challenging.

    This approach may alleviate concerns about freshmen not putting in effort simply because the modules are entirely S/U.

    Regards,
    XY

    1. With due respect what you described only encourages students – to an extreme extent – to see this whole system as a game. For example, say some student takes 20 modules in year 1 just for the heck of trying his luck to see what modules he can be good at. He predicts that he will do badly for 18 of them so directs his focus to just two modules, one each semester, getting A for two modules but C for the rest. He gets a 5.0 GPA and tops the cohort. I fail to see how this is a good system

  21. I’d like to chip in and agree with the concern that a gradeless first year may lead to weakened foundations. Many students take a more cavalier attitude to the modules they are taking on an S/U basis, and (contrary to the opinions expressed in some earlier posts) I feel that the year 1 modules in many faculties are crucial for building a strong foundation.

    At the very least, I would say grade feedback is necessary. If it is possible to make the S/Uing of the first year modules optional, that might be an even better solution, though it may open up other forms of grade trickery. I don’t see any particularly calamitous exploits though.

    Another concern raised by the gradeless first year is the possibility of students taking as many difficult, higher-level as they can during their first year, in order to exploit the ungradedness of the modules taken. However, I trust that the university has foreseen this exploit and will be implementing measures to prevent it.

    1. Please see my comments in respond to #17. Under the S/U option, the students do know their performance, i.e., grades. This is a feedback. On your last point, higher level modules are generally more challenging.

  22. Dear Provost,

    I’m honoured to be in a university which is not afraid of taking bold steps like this to enhance our learning experience. I agree wholeheartedly with all the reasons for this bold change; they are very important principles to our education.

    However, in the midst of exploring new ground, I hope that the university administration has not further sidelined the 6 halls of residences. The sentiment that halls have been sidelined since the introduction of Residential Colleges 2 years ago has been very strong. As a Year 4 student who has stayed in the same hall since my freshman year, I am proud of the heritage of halls and their contributions to the undergraduate experience of me and many others. Granted, the holistic education halls have provided us with cannot be quantified as academic programmes like those offered in RCs but I don’t think their contribution to a holistic education should be neglected, as it is the case now.

    I have been prompted to comment on this issue although I am graduating in a few months’ time because I would like to articulate the concerns of like minded hall residents, especially after reading the article in today’s edition of ST “NUS to set up first residential college outside of UTown”. I frankly feel that halls have been devalued as compared to RCs in the article. The impression one gets from the article is that RCs is the way to go in NUS and halls are “just accommodation”, which is far from true. The experience of mine and many others would testify to that.

    Hence, I urge the university administration to make a clear stand on how it intends for halls of residences to fit into the overall enhancement of education in NUS. This could mean re-inventing the model of halls, but keeping it distinct from the RC model such that the university can truly boast a broad academic horizon that affords every undergraduate a choice that suits him or her the best, instead of a monolithic model.

    I look forward to the arrival of such day when any undergraduate, regardless they stay in a RC, hall or not on campus at all can proudly say that he or she has benefited from a truly holistic education at NUS, with no one feeling marginalized because of any particular option in NUS he or she has taken.

    1. Thanks, Han Zong. We do not wish to sideline our Halls. Our Halls provide an alternative and important pathway for our students. Our hope is to enhance it. We should have more discussions with students in our Halls.

  23. An optional graded first year shouldn’t be implemented either. The most important reason being that university should be a place of study. Not a place for students to wreck their brains on trying their best to game the system. (You may argue that gaming the system is mental work as well, but I doubt it has any educational value)

    The usual reasons of slacking off in first year foundational mods still applies.

    1. I met a student who was selected for the double degree programme in Maths and Computer Science. (This is obviously a very good student.) He scored As for Computer Science, but Fs for Maths. Unfortunately, he had chosen incorrectly. Up to now, he is struggling to get his CAP to 3.5, in order to qualify for Honours.

  24. I support giving students the choice to S/U any of the first ten modules they take (in addition to the three S/Us that currently exist for any eligible module), or keep the grades. This continues to incentivise effort for those who care to study in their first year.

    1. This is what I don’t understand. We are full time students. Why should we give incentives only to people who want to study? Shouldn’t everyone be studying?

      Any system that would somehow benefit those who would choose not to study in the first year would in principle hurt the hardworking people who come to university for the purpose of learning.

      While there may be ways to mitigate the effects of hurting these people (like optional gradeless instead of entirely gradeless, which certainly still doesn’t eliminate the inherent disadvantage that S/U afflicts upon people who want to study), I don’t think that any university should promote this entire idea in principle.

      1. In the first place, the idea that grades are the primary reward for effort in studying is part of the reason why the entire educational situation is problematic at the moment. Grades should be the last 10% on a 90% iceberg of actual ability acquired.

        A module that only gives a grade benefit and no learning benefit should be close to worthless. A module that only gives learning benefit and no grade benefit should be still worth nearly as much as it used to be.

        The fact that this is not, in fact, the way that a large number of students view education, is a severe problem, and there is a non-zero chance that this is the reason why our productivity as a nation is so low. This is also one major reason why a gradeless first year is even being posited as a way to improve the current situation. If extending grade fairness was the main reason, increased S/U would be the solution. The people involved in planning changes are very much more capable than to make the mistake of using a suboptimal solution to a problem; when it seems like the solution is suboptimal, it is far more likely that the problem it is meant to address is not the problem one feels it is meant to address.

        1. You have not provided a reason for not giving grades.

          All you have pointed out is that the way to access grades should not be tied to things like rote-memorization that provide no educational benefit. Which, by the way, is not something any good module in NUS does. Our modules (especially in Science and Computer Science) are designed to test students competencies in applying concepts.

  25. Dear Provost,

    I believe many have brought up very legitimate reasons for and against this suggested new system. Personally, I find that the cons outweighs the pros.

    I would like to suggest an alternative method to attain these same benefits, that is to reduce the number of Modular Credits (MCs) for level 1000 modules from the current 4 to 2. This alternative method will likely avoid the problems a gradeless system will have and also better encourage students to partake in smart risk-taking as compared to the current system.

    1. You are in FASS, which has a different system from others. Most Science and Engineering majors have 6 to 10 Level 1000 modules.

  26. Recalling my first year, it was really stressful as the pressure of excelling was high. My seniors had made a strong impression on us during the freshman orientation that having a good CAP in the first year helps a long way in securing your second upper or first class honours. Hence, almost every year 1 was working really hard to score good grades. It gets all the more stressful if the first 2 semesters did not turn out well, as the pressure to get better grades increase, not to mention it becomes harder to score as the modules become more advanced. Thus, having a gradeless first year sounds like a really good idea.

    Nonetheless, I feel that the school should look into certain effects from having a gradeless first year. Firstly, senior year students would not want to take the gradeless General Education modules, since they would be graded for their work while the freshmen don’t. This means the freshman would be interacting within their cohort alone and not with other levels. While some may argue that senior year students have some advantages that go against freshmen (such as being more adjusted to the system), it is important to foster intra-university camaraderie which requires active interaction of students across all levels. Do we want the year ones to just interact among themselves in their first year?

    Secondly, I am not so sure about the positive impact of the gradeless system. Even though the School of Medicine has implemented it successfully, it is still a faculty with a relatively smaller student population. As mentioned by other readers before me, the problem of treating modules with less importance is there. For the School of Medicine, this issue is somewhat curtailed as there is only a small pool of medicine students and any attempt to do the modules half-heartedly will cause a strong peer backlash (students will try not to partner this student or they give less favorable peer reviews if they have to include him). For much larger faculties that teach general modules to large cohorts, this half-heartedness problem is complicated by the fact that they are unlikely to partner the same group of students again, thereby decreasing the peer pressure to put in their best efforts. As it is already a problem for the existing S/U system, it might be better for the school to look into how to mitigate this problem first.

    Lastly, as the issue of low CAP scores come mainly from not doing well on fundamental modules in the first year, the school can look into mandating all freshmen to clear all their General Education and unrestricted electives in their first year instead with the gradeless system. Not only can the freshmen have time to adjust to the system, but to have a fun time learning some general knowledge. Essential skills of critical analysis, using research papers, theory modelling etc can be introduced in the modules to let the freshmen have an idea of what’s to come. Of course, issues such as interacting with seniors and half-hearted participation should be resolved at the same time in order for the full benefits of the gradeless system to be reaped for future freshmen.

    1. You have highlighted some possible problems, and we believe these can be mitigated somewhat. I have explained some of these mitigations in the posts above. Most Science and Engineering majors have 6 to 10 Level 1000 modules, and they must be done before proceeding to higher levels. So, it is not simply an issue of reading GE or unrestricted electives.

  27. I am a local undergraduate engineering student who has gone through NS, currently in Year 1. Personally, I welcome this move as my first semester was a very hard adjustment to the teaching methods and learning methods as well.
    However, if the aim is to enable students to adjust well, I question the seriousness students will take with their modules in the first year.
    Since most modules in the first year are foundational, I wonder whether this scheme will cause a greater hurdle for students to cross, especially if the level of knowledge of the foundational modules is will affect their learning of subsequent modules.

  28. Dear Provost,

    I believe that, instead of a gradeless year 1, a possible alternative approach is to allow faculties to decide upon certain level-1000 foundation modules that can be gradeless/SU-able, or lessen impact of foundation module as stated in Post #34 by reduction of MC.

    This will be very helpful for the transition into university life, especially for male students that have been through army.

    Using this approach also minimizes exploitation such as:
    1. Students taking all the difficult/challenging modules in first year;
    2. Freshman/Seniors in the same module facing different grading options, and hence freshman being less cooperative.

    Reducing MC while maintaining total MC requirement also allows students to have more opportunity(spare MCs) to explore beyond the current available “quota” for UEs.

    However, it should be noted that the limit on level-1000 modules might have to be adjusted to minimize exploitation of taking all the gradeless level-1000 foundation modules to for MC-accumulation purpose.

    As for the issue on importance of foundation modules(especially for science & engineering), it is not really an issue because:
    1. IF the higher-level module requires strong foundation, students who slack off the foundation will NOT perform as well as the students who put in more effort, thus preserving the competitiveness, or in a sense, pushed the competition back in time but not doing away with it, thus it should not provide an incentive for students to slack off, otherwise the student will have to brush up eventually or face the consequence of his/her own action, i.e. A low CAP.
    2. IF the higher level does not require such a strong foundation, then a gradeless foundation will not be an issue.

    Thus, gradeless foundation modules should not undermine the competitive edge of NUS, while allowing smoother transition for incoming students. The departments however, can still provide feedback on how well each student perform by quantiles/percentiles but not CAP-factored.

    Also, I sincerely hope that such policy is extended to seniors , because it encourages all the current students to explore beyond their majors without worrying about affecting their overall CAP, i.e. A year 4 student doing his thesis may take a foundation module to expand his knowledge without sacrificing too much time for his level-4000/thesis workload.

    In conclusion, I’m proposing that
    1a. Gradeless option should be applied according to (foundation)modules, instead of the undergraduate’s academic year, or
    1b. Lessen the impact of foundation modules via reduction of MC.
    2. It should only be applicable to level-1000 modules, while keeping(or reducing) the current limit on amount of level-1000 modules one can take to prevent exploitation.
    3. Such a policy does not undermine competition but merely pushes it back in time to allow smoother transition because those that effect of slacking off is translated to higher level modules.
    4. If such policy is to be implemented, it should be extended to current students to prevent unfairness in the same module.
    5. Extending the policy to current students MAY also encourage current students to further broaden their knowledge, and hence shifting towards a learning-focused education.

    Regards,
    Bihou

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