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.


  1. Exams have always been important stage-gate processes and I have the experience of both the brutal past and the rather complex present. To me, exams is like “forced rating” in an appraisal system. Whether they are good would be how they are implemented and how the final outcome is being interpreted. After all, it is just a snapshot of how I answer what is being asked. Is the exam representative of my full appreciation of the subject matter or just a collection of my scribbles for what is deemed important at that moment? I remembered the views of my first boss – exam results at best indicates that you have attained a certain level of understanding or you reached some kind of standard, what is more important is how you are applying that understanding in a real situation. Whether it is the brutal past or the complex present, there is no significant difference in this aspect. Are we focusing too much on the what’s & where’s and not emphasizing enough on the how’s and the why’s? So if exams are not everything, how do you translate real-life experience into an academic standing? Does z years industrial experience equate x modules * y modular credits of relevant subjects?

  2. Firstly, I must say this is a very good initiative for stakeholders to air their opinions in the current state of things.

    With regards to the topic, I would just like to share a few things. I do agree with most of the previous comments on how education today is largely influenced by the society which focuses too much on the eventual honours a student is conferred. However, although employers do look out for other qualities other than academic achievements, we cannot deny the fact that with a 3rd class or 2nd lower, the chances of even getting an interview opportunity to present and market oneself are much lower than those getting higher honours. Hence, it is important to build up a strong portfolio during this formative stage in our college life in order to enthuse employers to consider the application.

    Therefore, I feel that we should also look at whether there are sufficient opportunities for relatively weaker students to develop themselves. The reason I say relative is because under the bell curve system, one can be good but still score an average score. I understand that there are many overseas opportunities and local programmes to enrich oneself. But more often than not, these programmes select the ‘better’ students, largely by virtue of their CAP. One example will be that of SEP. Hence, weaker students are highly disadvantaged in this race due to the stiff competition. Also, students from FoS and FoE have to compete with overseas scholars not only in results, but also for special programmes like SEP. Based on released statistics, NUS has 20% of international students (correct me if I’m wrong), and if half of these numbers are scholars, coupled with the bell curve system, it is inevitable that students feel the pressure and difficulty of scoring well for exams and students will naturally view examinations all the more important and focus most of their time in mugging to get good grades.

    I am privileged to be able to go for SEP at University of Wisconsin-Madison and I would also like to share some experience I have with their system. Students there are not afraid to make mistakes and in fact, they are encouraged to make mistakes and learn. The situation in Singapore is the exact opposite. Students only want to get the correct solution, because getting the wrong answer will place them at a lower standing compared to their peers thus discourages learning. Hence we should try to change this culture and mindset in Singapore.

    Class sizes are also much smaller despite being a state university (though total enrolment is still smaller than NUS) but having smaller classes does promote better learning as the Professors are able to pay more attention to students and also for students to pose queries and questions. Also, for the classes I’ve attended, no lecture notes were given and students are required to copy notes during the lecture. Classes focus alot on fundamentals thus were at a slower pace so students have time to copy and internalise the information. Application of knowledge was assessed through weekly graded assignments and projects. In Singapore, lecturers try to cram every single information into you and lose many students in the process of rushing to complete the syllabus. In the end, we only become exam smart and are unable to adapt to other situations that may arise in real life.

    Final exams in NUS (at least for FoE) are at least 60% to 70%. of the final grade This is enough to tell students that the deciding factor for your grade is still the final exam, thus there is little, or no change from the old system. In the States, final exams are mostly worth 30% of the final grade. This will promote more continuous learning and relieves the pressure off final exams.

    Other interesting things I found out, which is not necessarily applicable to Singapore, is that certain Universities, like Brown University, do not have GPA/CAP/Honours and you graduate with a Brown degree. I feel this is a double edged sword but it does shifts the focus off getting good results for a good degree.

    Lastly, we can also look at MIT at their Freshman Grading system, where grades in the first semester of Freshman year is not calculated for GPA and in the second semester, only A, B, C grades applies as a transition to the regular A to F grading. In the 2nd year, or Sophomore year, students are allowed to declare Sophomore exploratory option on classes that they take to enable students to explore other classes without having to worry about their GPA.

    1. Thanks, Kee Guan, for the lengthy piece. I like the MIT model which allows a first semester of exploration. I am, however, not convinced that this would work at NUS. It may work with an enhanced S/U framework for the first semester.

      You have made several good observations with regards to competition. We are mindful of these issues and will take steps to manage problems which may arise.

      Some day, I will write on the bell curve which seems to be blamed for many things!

  3. Dear Rachel,

    Pardon me for wanting to keep my identity anonymous. I am not sure if there is a need for friendly chat. I feel that it is up to the provost office to conduct any follow up investigation based on my comments. If need, I can provide you an alternative email address to correspond with me.

    I feel that NUS should head towards a system which Kee Guan mentioned. The departure from grading students is important. The abolishment of the bell curve system should be the first step.

    I feel that the education system may has lost its way in its attempt to revamp itself to cater to the working world or to compete with other top-notch universities

  4. Hi, I strongly recommend this article “A Russian Teacher In America” by Andrei Toom. (http://michel.delord.free.fr/toom_russ.html)

    In it, it shows how excessive obsession with exam grades can have a detrimental effect for learning. It has already started to happen in America, not to mention in Asia where the exam-mentality is even stronger.

    “Some students are so busy and anxious counting points on tests and predicting grades that they have no “mental room” left to think about mathematics. It seems even irrelevant both for them and for the university whether they have learned anything at all: what matters for both sides is that the students overcame another barrier on their obstacle-race toward graduation (and wasted some more months of their young and productive years).

    At one lecture I wrote a theorem on the blackboard and said to the students: “Look what a beautiful theorem it is!” Some laughed. I asked what was the matter. Then one explained: “Professor, it is nonsense, a theorem cannot be beautiful!” And I understood that these poor devils, who had always learned under the lash of grades, never from natural curiosity, really could not imagine that an abstraction might be beautiful.”

    Although it is easier said than done, I hope NUS can come out with some plan to tackle this problem, before it becomes a serious obstacle to learning.

    Thank you very much.

  5. At one lecture I wrote a theorem on the blackboard and said to the students: “Look what a beautiful theorem it is!” Some laughed. I asked what was the matter. Then one explained: “Professor, it is nonsense, a theorem cannot be beautiful!” And I understood that these poor devils, who had always learned under the lash of grades, never from natural curiosity, really could not imagine that an abstraction might be beautiful.”

    Amusing but unfortunate. And undeniably the Mathematics examinations I have taken at NUS do not give candidates any opportunity to explore a topic or theorem or problem. One professor even remarked that Mathematics done in the examination is different from Mathematics done for leisure. I think rather that a true Mathematics test must never put one under the stress of time. There is no good reason for testing candidates’ ability to regurgitate or to reproduce well-worn methods brought to the examination on help-sheets or on the mind, all under a rather tight time constraint, both of which stem from a very weird concept of how Mathematics should be done… This is not good at all. When the time comes that students can remark on how beautiful a theorem encountered in the examination is and can come up with their own methods for solving problems, then indeed Mathematics education at NUS will have gone a long way. But it will never be of any use if no one wants to believe that it is possible teach Mathematics this way, which is what I am always told anyway… I might as well add that I found the CS1231 examination to be a refreshingly interesting examination compared to the rest, although I do believe the module content could have been taught in a much better way. I also think that tutorials should never be simply there to cover the syllabus! Of course almost no professor would agree with this though… haha…

  6. I was from chemical engineering and during my time exams weightage were at least 60% so your final grade a lot would depend on how well you performed during the 2 to 2.5 hours

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