Writing and Communications

English has become the lingua franca of academia, commerce and even diplomacy. Proficiency in the English Language – reading, writing and communications are now critical skills required in all vocations. This is also an area that employers have singled out as a weakness of NUS graduates.

I have been deliberating on whether it is necessary to introduce compulsory language and communications modules in the undergraduate curriculum. We do not want our graduates to be unnecessarily hampered or disadvantaged in the global talent marketplace, because of sub-par reading, writing or speaking skills. Language proficiency will give our graduates an edge in productivity and effectiveness at the workplace.

The undergraduate cohort is a diverse one. To cater to the varying levels of language competence, the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is looking into how students can be matched to programs of an appropriate level according to their language ability. Some pilots are already in place.

Our challenge is that students are not keen! Our pilot Writing modules are not attracting much interest from Science, Engineering and Computing students. And students from the Science and Technology disciplines are precisely the ones who are most in need of these courses, as they have far less opportunities to develop language and communications skills through their disciplinary modules.

I sincerely hope students are convinced of the importance of English proficiency. Prof Brent Strong, the Lorin Farr Professor of Entrepreneurial Technology at the Brigham Young University, has written a persuasive piece on ‘Why Engineers Should Read Shakespeare’. He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.  He encourages engineers to read Shakespeare, and explains how Shakespeare will help us think, because we think in words.

Of course, we recognize that a single module, or a set of modules, does not suffice to produce sustained results; we must in parallel encourage faculty members to integrate writing and communications components into existing course modules (and for each major). Supporting infrastructure must also be put in place to encourage and assist with writing and communications; these may include seminars, workshops, and writing and communications stations and resource centres amongst others.

I had to realise the importance of, and then learn English the hard way. English did not come naturally to me. I was raised in a dialect-speaking environment. Father had secondary education but in a Chinese-medium school; Mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education. And so, my siblings and I picked up English in school. I managed alright, until secondary school, during which English and Literature became my weakest subjects.

When in Pre-U, I harboured hopes of going abroad for university. I excelled in Math and the Sciences. But alas, it wasn’t good enough. During a PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship interview conducted in the middle part of Pre-U 2, a panel member remarked that he didn’t think I would be able to pass my GP (General Paper). There went my overseas scholarship.

I felt hurt and indignant. And I was determined to prove to them that I could do well in GP. I was from a poor family and my parents could not afford tuition. So I decided to self-teach. I bought a few assessment books and First Aid in English became my ‘bible’. I read voraciously and disciplined myself to write a GP essay every day. Eventually, I was happy to have managed a P3 at the ‘A’ levels – though not stellar, it was a decent grade.

I still have this in my Math office.
I still have this in my Math office.

Language can be likened to music. Music is a medium of expression; one can depict merry and melancholy through music. We have heard and can feel how tenderly an instrument like the violin can render ‘Air on a G String’. But we cannot execute the same, unless we have acquired technical mastery of the instrument. Language is our primary mode of expression and communication. Likewise, without the requisite grounding in grammar, vocabulary, semantics et al, we are not able to express ourselves as richly and fully.

Language acquisition is a lifelong endeavour; I am still at it. Never cease to learn, and never ever give up.


An unfortunate incident occurred on Saturday, 1 Oct 2011. 725 students were scheduled to sit for a Managerial Economics (offered by the NUS Business School) mid-semester test, which had to be cancelled at the last minute. Shortly before the test was due to start, the lecturer found that he had less than 500 scripts on hand. After considering various options, he decided to call off the test. Within moments, comments were tweeted and disseminated instantaneously. The mainstream media fielded many reports too. There was much interest, speculation and commotion. Later, our preliminary investigations confirmed that a human error had occurred. A staff was tasked to print 750 scripts, but had instead printed less than 500 copies. We must and will take steps to avert a future occurrence.

The brouhaha and outbursts witnessed are perhaps in part a manifestation of how intensely our students and society view examinations. The Singapore educational system prides itself as a meritocratic one. Somehow, the notion of meritocracy has been deeply entwined with examinations. I would like to take this opportunity to share about the evolving role of examinations at the NUS, and how we should develop a healthier and more balanced perspective towards examinations.  

When I was an undergraduate at the NUS some 25 years ago, ‘exams’ was a terrifying word. Then, each course was taught over two semesters, and a typical load was to read 6 courses. Each course entailed 5 hours of lectures and one hour of tutorial every week, excluding laboratory time! At the end of the second semester, we had to sit for a three-hour exam for each course. Exams determined everything – it was a ‘make it, or break it’ system (or some would say, ‘do or die’). Should you fail an exam, you can attempt a Re-exam (the proper term was Supplementary Examination). If you’re not able to clear any of the ‘Re’s, there were no ifs and buts about it – you’ll have to repeat the entire year.

The release of exam results was even more interesting. NUS students nowadays can go online to view their results, or opt to receive SMS notifications. But back in those days, the Registrar would print out the matriculation numbers and corresponding grades of all candidates; these would be posted on a notice board near the Registrar’s Office. Results were usually released at around 8 am and many anxious students will be congregating there hours before.

Imagine the fear, grip and trepidation that exams evoked.

But, let us examine objectively – are examinations necessarily evil or are they a necessary evil? Some students feel that exams are intrinsically linked to a CAP system and with a CAP system in place, exams will always take centre stage at the NUS. This is not so. My view is that exams certainly do provide a means to measure learning outcomes; they are the traditional, tried and tested assessment medium. There are however, also other alternative methods that are effective in measuring and assessing learning outcomes; many of these methods are notably more labour-intensive to employ. 

Should we then embrace or eschew exams? Exams are not intrinsically bad, but we should refrain from using them solely and deterministically. Yet, a system with no exams may not be ideal, as exams do provide a sound learning and testing platform for certain subjects. The sensible and constructive way forward, I think, is to adopt a balanced approach.

As such, the NUS has over the years been moving away from a rigid exams-driven system. We have progressively decreased the weightage of final exams, and to place more emphasis on continual assessment instead. Even with continual assessment, we hope that our lecturers will introduce innovative methods of continual assessments, beyond the traditional tests. Many modules now have project work as an integral component. Overall, the NUS system is today a more flexible and forgiving one. We no longer have Supplementary Examinations. If a student fails a module, he or she is not ‘retained’, but is given the opportunity to retake the module, without having to repeat the entire set of modules taken in the previous semester or year.

Ultimately, our aim is to enable and empower students to maximize their learning opportunities at the NUS. We have since allowed students to declare S/U options after the release of results – the motivation behind this move is to encourage students to try out challenging modules and not be deterred by possible CAP implications. Students know this S/U option very well, but many see this as an opportunity to ‘even out heavy course loads’. Many students would like the S/U option to be expanded beyond 3 modules. We may consider this and I will take this discussion further in a future post.

There is a place for exams, but let’s put exams in its proper place.

Global Readiness of NUS Graduates

We are living in a globalized and interconnected world; it has thus become imperative that our graduates are broadening their horizons, developing global mindsets and honing cross cultural skills.

 How we seek to achieve this is broadly two-fold. First, we try to create as many opportunities for students to gain an overseas experience. Over half of our undergraduates will have at least an overseas exposure stint; and a quarter of our undergraduates will spend at least a semester abroad. We have also expanded the range of international learning experiences, from student exchange programmes with universities all around the world, to an entrepreneurial work and study stint with an NUS Overseas College. There are also a range of programmes of shorter duration, such as internships, summer programmes and research attachment programmes.  Returning students have found their overseas experiences enriching and eye-opening.

 Still, there is the other nearly half of our undergraduate population who are not participating in any of our overseas programmes. And amongst this group, some are students who have done well academically. Perhaps some of you could share why you are not pursuing an overseas stint and what the impediments are. Is it due to the selection criteria, or are finances the key obstacle?

 Second, we are in tandem, ‘bringing the world to NUS’. Every year, we welcome over 1,400 exchange students from abroad. Faculty members join us also from across the world. There is so much richness in diversity, and its potential for mutual learning and edification is for us to embrace.

 Herein, many students have shared that residential living in Halls and the Residential Colleges has been especially beneficial for cross-cultural exposure and learning. Yet, I think we can leverage further on the diversity on campus, whether in class or in the dorms. Is there more we can do to help students benefit from this diverse community we have on campus? Would it be useful for lecturers to formalize interaction opportunities in the classroom, such as through the assignment of groups? Afterall, this mimics a working situation where we do not always get to choose our partners.

University Town Opens

It is almost surreal to witness UTown springing to life. From ideas and concepts to plans on paper; from architectural drawings to the piling and construction; from a hole in a ground, to a delightful town; it has been quite some years. 

Education Resource Centre  The Residential Colleges

 There is something in UTown for every NUS student. Those wishing to hit their books can retreat to the many quiet and conducive study areas for some peace, solitude and focus. Friends or project mates can gather for pow-wow sessions at the discussion areas that are freely accessible and equipped with handy boards and markers. The Town Green lawns are proving to be popular grounds for rest and relaxation; the Learning Café is lively even during the weekends and into the wee hours of the night.  The pilot residential college programmes have taken off this semester at Cinnamon and Tembusu Colleges, and we are keenly watching how students take to the immersive educational model of living and learning. I will be sharing my thoughts on residential living for undergraduates in a later post.

Town Green by day 

There are admittedly teething issues with UTown, such as the frequency of internal shuttle services and leakages at various locations and we had sought to resolve them expeditiously. More water dispensers will also be installed. We seek your patience, and I can assure you that the relevant University Offices have been working tirelessly to iron out the problems encountered. We’ve also been reading through twitter posts on UTown. After the first couple of weeks, the tweets are generally very positive. It’s heartening to hear how students are beginning to discover and develop an affinity for UTown.

UTown is for the NUS community; do make the best of it. I think UTown has become a definitive feature of the campus, and I hope it will add to fond memories of your life at the NUS. Do share your thoughts on UTown.