A Different Grading System in the First Year for Undergraduates – Part II

 

Thank you for your hearty responses to my earlier blog post on the proposed grade-free system for first year undergraduates. I have read through and given thought to each of them. Concurrently, we have had many constructive discussions with Deans, Vice Deans, Department Heads, faculty members, the Board of Undergraduate Studies, the University Committee on Educational Policy and the University Senate.

 

There is broad consensus on the rationale and intended objectives of a grade-free system. There are, however, a range of views on how this can be implemented at NUS, and the appropriate options to adopt, given the current curriculum structure and the need to ensure compatibility with existing educational policies. While many recognised the merits of encouraging students to optimise their learning experience and build a positive and conducive learning culture, there were valid concerns with student motivation and calls to ensure that students develop strong disciplinary foundations in their freshman year.

 

Many stakeholders have taken a keen interest in this issue, and the proposals have been sharpened and refined in the course of this iterative consultation process.

 

I am pleased to share that we are now ready to present the details of a new grading system for modular degree programmes that will be applied to the cohort of freshmen matriculating in AY2014/15.

 

NUS will be introducing a new S/U policy, where students may exercise the S/U option for up to 20 MCs during the first semester of their candidature. This new policy will apply to all Level 1000 modules and Level 2000 modules offered without other NUS modules as pre-requisites as these are the modules that freshmen read in the first semester. (The non-credit-bearing English Language proficiency modules offered by the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) are not included.) The fine details of the new S/U policy are being worked out by the Board of Undergraduate Studies, and these will be communicated to students through their respective Faculties.

 

Unused S/U MCs from the first semester may generally not be carried forward to subsequent semesters. The current S/U option for up to 12 MCs at any time during the candidature will remain unchanged as this encourages students to learn broadly via cross-faculty electives during the senior years. However, it will be broadened to include Major, Faculty and USP requirements read in subsequent semesters, so long as they are Level 1000 modules or Level 2000 modules without NUS modules as prerequisites.

 

In essence, students can exercise the S/U option for up to 32 MCs during their candidature, of which up to 5 modules or 20 MCs may be exercised during the first semester. This is effectively an expansion of the current S/U policy to allow for a grade-free first semester for freshmen.

 

As you know, under the S/U mechanism, letter grades are assigned to modules. However, students can decide whether to have these grades counted towards their Cumulative Average Point (CAP). When students exercise the S/U option on a module, the letter grade will not be shown on the transcript nor computed towards the CAP. An ‘S’ grade will be assigned if the student obtains a grade of C or above; a ‘U’ grade will be assigned if the student obtains a grade of D+ or below. Alternatively, a student may choose to retain the letter grade and have it factored towards the computation of his or her CAP. The S/U declaration exercise is conducted upon the release of examination results, and will end by the stipulated deadline, which will be announced each semester.

 

The S/U mechanism encourages students to put in effort for the modules they read, as good grades can be recognised and contribute to their CAPs. Students will also avoid being penalised for experimenting with modules they are less familiar with; they are thus free to pursue and widen their academic horizons without having to worry about the repercussions of poor grades.

 

Concomitantly, to prevent students from deliberately overloading in the first semester and thereby missing out on the spirit and benefits of a grade-free semester, NUS will limit the workload in the first semester: students may only read up to a maximum of 20 MCs during the first semester. Exceptions may be granted for students on special programmes such as the Double Degree Programmes and the Global Engineering Programme.

 

We will be monitoring and evaluating how students and faculty members take to this new grading system. If it turns out to be a highly positive and beneficial initiative, we may eventually move towards a full grade-free first year.

 

I am glad that education at NUS has been evolving and maturing, and that as a community, we are now ready to take this bold step that will hopefully lead to an even more transformative educational experience for our students. Our end vision is to seed and imbue a strong culture of inquiry, exploration and discovery at NUS.

 

40 comments:

  1. Just to clarify. So during the first semester, students have the autonomy to either s/u those subjects that they did not do well for or choose to retain the letter grade and have it factored into their CAP – up to a maximum of 20MCs.

    The s/u option is extended to core modules as long as they are level 1000/2000 modules with no prior pre requisites.

    Is that accurate?

    Thought of a loop hole. In theory, a student might be able to s/u all 4 modules, obtain an A, and have a CAP of 5.0. Similarly, another student might have 3 As, 2 s/u, and still get a CAP of 5.0. A method of computation might be necessary to nullify this advantage. Say, MCs ‘s/u-ed’ will not be included in the accumulated MCs used for computing subsequent CAP.

    1. This isn’t really an issue, since that artificially high CAP will only last one semester. Taking your above example, if those two students were to get 2 As, 1 A-, 1 B+ and 1 B (4 MCs each) in the second semester, the first student will now have an overall CAP of 4.5, while the second student will now have an overall CAP of 4.625. If there were a third student who scored 5 As in his first semester and did not S/U any modules, and scored the same grades as the first two students in his second semester, he would now have a overall CAP of 4.7. CAP is a weighted average of MCs in each module, not of semesters, and so having one relatively empty semester with a high CAP will not help much in the long run.

      1. This will be an interesting question for all incoming students to attempt, and Chee Yann has some ingredients to the answer:

        If you received grades A, B, C, D and F for your 5 modules in the first semester, how should you S/U? Should you just keep the A, and be happy with the CAP of 5 (perhaps for 1 semester)? What is the most optimal approach to take?

  2. Will the broadening of the the current S/U option for up to 12 MCs be applied to existing students? (“to include Major, Faculty and USP requirements read in subsequent semesters, so long as they are Level 1000 modules or Level 2000 modules without NUS modules as prerequisites.”)

    1. Unfortunately, no. This is a complex issue as there are different groups of students among existing NUS students, and broadening the current S/U policy will not be fair to those who have already activated their S/Us.

  3. Modular credits that are S/Ued never count towards computation of CAP. I do not understand the loophole stated.

  4. Well, in retrospect, if such had occurred to me I would have gotten a First Class Honours and not a 2nd Upper. I’m sure some of us here would have felt that way too.

    Won’t be fair to us NUS alumni. Not that the society cares much anyway now.

    1. Ben, you’re spot on.

      That’s what happens when we are the ones pushing for the gradeless system and the younger ones get to benefit, not us.

    2. I shared the same opinion. Many of us suffered in the first year due to the time taken to adapt to new environment. For some, In fact, some of our grade are badly affected during this period of transition to university. Some give up after the first sem.

      By having such a policy (leaving out the existing students), it will be quite unfair to existing student.

      I understand the point of numerous challenges if the policy were to apply to existing student. However, on the other hand, if such a policy do apply to existing student, some of those who “screwed up” in the first sem, may because of the policy, get motivated again. It aren’t a bad thing totally.

      1. By the same reasoning, no one will ever bother to improve on systems since the full benefits are always felt long term rather than short term. Another student may say that had this system been on place, he would have taken different modules in his earlier semesters.

        The S/U policy has always been that you can only exercise the option just after results are released, and cannot be applied (or negated) retroactively. It’s unlikely that that will change.

        1. Chee Yann, in any case, all our classifications for our honours system would have been degraded thanks to this.

          It would have been much easier in this case to score for a first class honours due to such flexibility, definitely unfair to those who have suffered. There MUST be a way for some compensation.

    3. Not as simple as that! It is not the same as picking your worst 5 modules and not counting them in your CAP. The increase is small because the CAP is cumulative and 5 modules out of 40 modules is only 12.5%.

  5. Well, what about modules like MA1100, MA1101R, MA1102R, aren’t they pre-requesities for MA1301?

    Just saying. Putting this as a reference because the NUS Provost is formerly from the Mathematics Dept of the Faculty of Science.

  6. Should also think from the perspective of employers. Additional S/U options given in the first semester/first year could potentially increase the ease of achieving honors degree by keeping only the best grades achieved and SU-ing the weak grades. Comparative to the system that NUS alumni goes through, the bachelor degree program can be said to be less rigorous than before and hence such a move could potentially threaten the value of the degree especially also if other universities do not make the same change (others will be seen to be more rigorous)
    On the other hand, with the lessen burden of grades in the first semester, students may have more capacity to focus on co-curricular activities to develop useful interpersonal skills, something employers care too. Hope a proper balance can be evaluated taking these points in view.

    1. As mentioned above, the increase in CAP is small. If you could answer the math question above, you will see that S/U-ing all 5 modules (in the first semester) is not optimal. Most would S/U about 3 modules, and so the impact on the CAP is even smaller, likely in the region between 0.15 to 0.20. The marginal increase in CAP, if any, will make a bigger difference to academically weaker students than top students. It will most certainly help students who have taken modules which are not suited to them.

  7. Oh, what I meant was a scenario like this.

    Semester I:
    Student A: [4 s/u] [1A] CAP: 5.0
    Student B: [5A] CAP 5.0

    Semester II:
    Student A: 4B+ CAP 4.0
    Student b: 4B+ CAP 4.0

    Will they get the same SAP for the year? Or will the weightage of the result for semester I be different since the s/u gives a certain advantage.

    1. Assuming all 4 MC modules:
      Student A’s CAP: (4×5.0+20×4.0)/24=4.167
      Student B’s CAP: (20×5.0+20×4.0)/40=4.5

      As you can see, the calculation is based on MCs and not semesters. I also think you’re probably confusing CAP (Cumulative Average Point, the average of all grades up to that point, including all previous semesters and modules), and SAP (Semester Average Point, basically the “CAP” of that semester only)

  8. Just curious,
    Will the 20MC be extended to the ST/iMOOCs modules taken by RNSman?
    There are some degree requirements where you cannot s/u your core modules. Will this 20MC s/u be excluded in this requirements or the requirements will stay the same?

    1. Hmm that’s a good question. I think in principle, the policy should be extended to treat special term and iMOOC modules the same way semester 1 modules are, subject to the same rules, and with the 20 MC limit for the total number of modules S/U’ed. This would prevent students from abusing the system and takings as many modules as possible during this period.

    2. The general answer is yes (for both questions). As I have mentioned earlier, this is a complex issue as there are different groups of students among existing NUS students. Some students enter as second-year students; some read 3-year degrees and others read 4-year degrees; some read double degrees, and many other permutations. A slew of other related policy changes have to be made to support and align with the grade-free first semester. This is the reason why we are only ready and able to implement the grade-free first semester for the freshmen cohort of AY2014/15.

      1. Will there be an update on the issue of iMOOCs and ST modules since they are about to end and result will be released in due time? There should be information on the S/U option before they decide on it after the release of results.

  9. I think the plan looks good on the whole, but it neglects some aspects of the problem that we are trying to resolve.

    I’m a chemical engineering (CHE) student, and for a Yr 1 CHE student, there really isn’t much of a choice of modules when 4 out of 5 modules are allocated. Given this new implementation, doesn’t that mean that the same few modules will always end up having a high S/U rate? I know that MA1505 is probably going to be the worst hit: almost the whole Engineering Faculty and Physics students takes it in Year 1, Sem 1. All CHE Yr 1 will take IT1005 in Y1S1 too, since it is not offered in Sem 2, so that’s another potential module affected.

    I am also skeptical about the message that this implementation sends to the very practical students who just wants to clear university out of the way. Within the modules that have no pre-requisites, there are still hard modules, so doesn’t this encourage the student to put all his hard modules to the first semester just so as to get them out of the way? From this viewpoint, doesn’t the S/U scheme discourage students from trying their best to face their own shortcomings?

    From another viewpoint, this scheme is also rather unfair to some. For those who have no choice over their 1st year modules (all without pre-requisite), some might be stronger in modules of the 1st semester, while some might be stronger in modules of the 2nd. However, this policy of “no carry forward of S/Us” significantly disadvantages those of the former group, as they effectively has lesser S/U options available than the latter (at the point when the former group needs the 20MC S/U, the option’s no longer available). We have effectively no way to curb this problem since certain modules are only offered in odd or even semesters.

    The only way around this is to (1) mandate that all of such modules be offered in both odd and even semesters or (2) allow unused S/Us to spill over the at least Sem 2. I figure that option (2) would be more feasible than option (1) since (1) would incur a significant manpower cost.

    Of course, the best option would be to allow the system to automatically decide where to put the S/U (i.e. put it on the lower scoring modules). To me, this method best addresses the core purpose of S/Us and the real needs of the students. Not allowing this option means whichever module that the student chooses to S/U way before the semester starts would see him not putting in his best effort. The situation hence becomes a mockery of wasting the student’s precious time, as he puts in the least amount of effort to make his S/U worth. However, in view that I’m not the first to propose this, yet this scheme has not been implemented, I suppose the Provost have bigger concerns than this (that I do not know of), hence I shall respect his decision even if he does not implement this suggestion.

    That’s my 2 cents worth on the scheme proposed.

    1. You have pointed out one of the complications, and have also proposed a possible solution. Thanks! We have studied many of these complications and have also thought about ways to address them. We will be explaining to the freshmen soon.

      Your (alternative) suggestion, is similar to choosing the 5 worst grades and S/U-ing them, is very different in intent. To reiterate, the University’s intent is for students to be less calculative about the CAP and focus on learning optimization, not grades optimization.

  10. @Thomas

    The weightage will be different.
    Assuming MCs of All Module is 4

    CAP of Student A who SUed 4 Modules and have 1 A in Sem 1, 4B+ in Sem 2:
    [4*5+(4*4)*4] / (4*5) = 4.2

    CAP of Student B who scored 5As in Sem 1, 4B+ in Sem 2:
    [(4*5)*5 + (4*4)*4] / (4*9) = 4.55

  11. I am a year 1 undergrad of 2013/14 and is concerned about such grading as it only applies for new cohort and not the earlier cohort. In short, existing year 1 would not able to have S/U option even for current semester am I right to say? It somehow neglects the struggles of existing freshmen and focus on prospect undergrads. I think the policy should at least look beyond and think about the existing undergrad as there’s been a constant thought in my mind… Aren’t 2013/14 considered to be freshmen too and what makes us different?

    1. I am mindful of the challenges of existing freshmen, which is why we have proposed this policy. As I have mentioned above, a slew of other related policy changes have to be made to support and align with the grade-free first semester and thus we are only ready and able to implement the grade-free first semester for the freshmen cohort of AY2014/15.
      I also wish to re-emphasise that many employers are increasingly looking beyond students’ CAP and evaluating graduates based on more holistic attributes. Current students and graduating students are welcome to tap on University’s resources, such as the Career Centre, to better prepare themselves for the future work place.

  12. I have just finished my final semester at NUS and thus my concerns have changed from wondering how difficult Year 1 will be to wondering about the possibility of inflation of the degree. Based on my peers, they have calculated that if we had the chance based on this system, many of them would have been able to achieve a higher class of honors.

    Employers who have a thick stack of resumes to look at will be skimming through the first few lines, which would typically state the highest education level and honours achieved. Thus with degree inflation, this might put those who have not benefitted from the new system at a disadvantage. This might not be so concerning for those who have jobs and when on a job change are still going into the same field but could hurt those who have not yet found jobs or are exploring other job fields when changing jobs.

    I am in no position to speculate on the numbers but has this situation been quantitatively considered?

  13. A strong step forward by NUS towards a holistic education. I have to say that, even though I will not directly benefit from the system, I am proud of NUS for having implemented such a bold policy in Singapore’s result-oriented and performance-driven society.

    My only concern is that should this policy be expanded to include the entire first year curriculum, this could have extremely hazardous consequences. As an engineering student, knowledge and skills acquired in each semester will be built upon and used in future modules. As mentioned by Hong Nan in his above comment, all engineering students take MA1505 and 1506, as well as some programming module (CS1010E or IT1005). This is not merely a hurdle that needs to be cleared before moving on to the next semester; the concepts and methods used in these modules are used again and again in subsequent modules, and no student who has failed to fully grasp these concepts can hope to do well in future modules.

    With a grade-free first semester, it allows students to explore the system and adjust to the university lifestyle. With a grade-free first year, however, the chances that student will abuse the system increase drastically. A second semester student who intends to abuse the system would have learnt by now how to put in the minimum effort necessary to pass a module at the loss of his own education. He would then go on to perform disastrously in his second year onwards. For courses such as engineering, the damage done by not putting in effort in his first year (or first one-and-a-half years, since he may take that long to realise that the problem exists) will be difficult to repair in any short period of time.

    A wise student should decide to use the system to benefit his education, by broadening his perspectives and exploring areas he would never otherwise dare to venture into. But unfortunately, with a grade-free first year, the ease for abuse is simply too great and will likely cause a significant portion of students to permanently harm their education.

    1. Thanks, Chee Yann. We are mindful that some students may try to game the system and therefore defeat our original intent. Thus, we are studying the implementation and outcome before proceeding to have a full grade-free year.

      One important point to stress is that these modules continue to be assessed, and students will need a good pass (i.e., a “C” grade) in order to make it an “S”. If someone has an “U” grade, it would not be credited towards graduation. So, if we calibrate the “C” grade properly, we should have sufficient confidence that the student has enough to proceed to higher level of modules.

  14. I personally disagree with the system. In courses under certain schools like school of computing as such, it comprises of very important foundation modules. Having a grade-free system on the first year would definitely give a safety net to many of these students, and most likely their efforts to build this foundation year is compromised. Of course, I would say the NUS system is sometimes overly rigid and tough to excel, and the grade-free system can give a less stressed and enjoyable university life for many students. However NUS is supposed to be an elite school in singapore. Doesn’t the beauty of such a school lies with the competition in entering and going through the school?
    Imagine certain courses that requires 3 years to complete. 1/3 of their university life will not be graded. Would that reduce the difficulty of the NUS system, resulting in a lower standard of students? Not only so, this grade-free system will affect every student from other years in NUS. I’ve ever read an article about how NUS choose to raise the difficulty of getting an A as compared to other local universities. Wouldn’t imposing a grade-free system reduce the quality of the year 1 students, resulting in the diluting of perhaps, the bell-curve system? Note that there are still year4s taking level 1000 mods etc, ie. linear algebra MA1101R.

    Overall, I believe that that this grade-free system will perhaps reduce the prestige of NUS. This is not healthy, and unfair for every other student that has been affected despite not being part of it. I am afraid as a student for my future and therefore strongly objecting to this system. I feel that every student that enters NUS should not just be looking at fun, and having a enjoyable university life. They should be challenged and pushed, to excel to their fullest potential, with the help of the university.

    1. The new policy will not lead to grade inflation as our simulations have shown that the effect on students’ CAP is fairly limited. I have given some numbers above, and it is not difficult to work out some examples to convince yourself.

      The intent is however to broaden students’ minds and open opportunities for students. I also believe that some pressure and stress is good for learning, but too high a level will be counter productive. The key is balance, which differs from one person to another, and is easier said than done.

  15. I applaud greatly for the new grading system for first year student. But what I don’t understand is that…why is it only for the incoming first year student? What about existing students? As a second-year student who did very badly for the first semester because of adjusting to the new environment, I have been deprived of the opportunities to get first class honor, and to get a job in investment banks forever! I got below 3.5 for my first semester, though I did well for the next semester, I need to above 4.7 consistently for all my semesters to just get an overall 4.3. This is not fair… Why I have to suffer this just because I am one year older? Why can’t university have a similar system for existing students? For example, take a better measure of CAP that excludes the extreme. From simple statistics we all know that taking average is often misleading.

  16. I have noticed that
    NUS will limit the workload in the first semester: students may only read up to a maximum of 20 MCs during the first semester. Exceptions may be granted for students on special programmes such as the Double Degree Programmes and the Global Engineering Programme.

    I am an incoming year 1 student. Will it be possible for us to take more than 5 modules even if we are not in special programme? I mean some students think that they have the ability to handle more than 5 modules.

    1. You can read more than 5 modules if you write to your faculty as an apeal with your reasons. But as a senior, I do not advise you to take more than 5 modules, though every year most freshies think they can handle.

  17. “However, it will be broadened to include Major, Faculty and USP requirements read in subsequent semesters, so long as they are Level 1000 modules or Level 2000 modules without NUS modules as prerequisites.”

    Does that mean that during the gradeless first semester, we cannot use the S/U option on modules that would allow us to meet the major/faculty requirements?

    1. Answering your question: you can S/U during the first semester, any module whatsoever.

      Restating the quote: Eventually, the Provost will allow you to S/U modules that meet major/faculty requirements in any semester.

      Anyway to those who think it’s unfair – you accepted the system of 3 S/Us when you entered. If NUS chooses to give your juniors unlimited S/Us, that’s a separate agreement and their prerogative. Will it make NUS less competitive and lower its prestige? Possibly, but that’s a risk NUS has chosen to accept and if NUS has gotten to it’s ranking thus far, I trust that this decision will bring it even further.

  18. Should you get a grade of d or d+ ar you able to exercise the S/U option? If not with such grade are you able to retake the module? If you retake the module is it true you will be giv a grade that is the average of the cap if the number of times you retook the module? Thanks

  19. I think NTU changed their grading system to exclude failed modules taken in the first year to be included in GPA computation and to allow s/u for D grade and above.

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