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. hi provost!
    i think your blog is very cute haha.
    anyway, i want to know why we cannot get back our final exam papers. the final exam is the last contact we have with that module right, isnt it good for us to learn from our mistakes?? and for big classes, sometimes the marker will make mistakes marking right?
    please let me know. thank you!

    1. Hi Mimi

      Our professors have only a week or so to grade final exam scripts, and they usually are not able to include too many remarks in the answer scripts. Thus, returning these scripts may not be very useful for students. However, I do propose that CA assessments and mid-semester test scripts be returned to students for their reference and learning.

  2. It’s great to hear about the initiatives that NUS has been rolling out to enhance student learning and move beyond the traditional summative assessment approach. I hold very similar views and it’s reassuring to know that people in higher management are trying to change things. However, I think there are at least 2 things that will need to be examined before a new outlook to learning can fully take root.

    First, mindsets need to be changed. This is probably the hardest thing to do, but efforts need to be made. Unfortunately, I fear that this mindset you’ve described has become entrenched not only in the undergrad’s mind, but also in the minds of several generations of Singaporeans. How can we effect a paradigm shift on such a scale?

    Second, the results of continual assessments, which I understand to be a form of formative assessment, should be released to the students. In order to maximise learning, we need to be able to learn about where we’ve gone wrong. The current practice of not allowing students to view their CA test papers and the lack of individualised feedack on assignments hinders the learning process. While it may logistically more difficult, as you’ve mentioned,I feel that there would be plenty of benefits, both tangible and intangible, to adopting such a practice.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject.


    1. We will begin with all of you to bring forth a mindset change!

      I agree with your second point. Graded CA assignments and mid-semester tests should be returned to students for their reference.

  3. Dear Prof, it’s good to hear your more relaxed views on the matter of examinations. I’m glad that you believe in “refrain from using (exams) them solely and deterministically” in assessing a student.

    But correct me if I’m wrong, many organisations locally & perhaps even graduate committees in NUS do look upon CAP scores with heavy weightage or even view it as a deterministic factor for recruitment, salary benchmarking and course admission. I do hope your views as a Provost can gradually persuade employers, academics and students to be less fixated on CAP scores and realize that their other abilities count too.

    Until then, it would be difficult for students to choose between a broad-based education or a pragmatic CAP foundation for his/her own future. Even academics get fixated on impact factors (e.g. for grants & promotion), don’t they? 😉

    1. In the working world, my sense is that the CAP only helps in landing the first job. After that, progression depends on your job performance. When you become an employer, look beyond CAPs! Change has to start somewhere and it can start from you!

  4. it’s not easy to balance the proper exams for all students, it’s hard to discuss how to get a proper exams in NUS. thus let’s put exams in its proper place.

  5. Dear prof tan,

    It’s reassuring that you are touching on the issues of exams and nice to hear that we should not be using just exams and tests as the main way to assess our learning. To be frank, all the fear, grip and tension that you have experienced are still present, especially so for science students, where mid term tests and exams r still the main assessment medium. Esp for chemistry, projects or group-work based assignments are really unheard of at all.

    Another facet you may want to consider: i personally think there is a serious loss of character development e.g. Soft skills due to the demands of the tests and exams. Most of the students that i see around are most highly likely to be mugging for their tests and exams, just so because their fate is highly determined by the CAP. That’s a way for them to decide not to be involved in various activities to increase their social exposure and gian useful life skill sets. Then what we graduate with is just good results, but what we dont have would probably be real life skill sets such as communication, leadership and more importantly, especially during our studying days, work life balance. I am pretty sure, if CAP wasnt such a big issue, more people will want to be involved in the NUS community fabric, such as halls or residential college or sports etc. Or even student exchange programme. Do students who dont do well academically but yet excel in their co curriculum actvities be penalised?

    So ultimately, from a student’s perspective, i would like to ask is the education system in NUS student centric or is it just simply wanting to fulfill the school’s mission, but yet the needs, the dreams n desires of the students be sacrificed? Is it just relentless reserach excellence or truly n sincerely wat to help equip and develop students to qualityt people who can use what they learn to apply themselves in the world out there n make a difference? Is it just work n work for every single one in NUS or a balance of having fun in work and balanced lifestyle ater work?

    1. Which year are you in? I am surprised to hear that Chemistry has no projects or group work-based assignments.

      You are correct on soft skills; it is crucial. I will touch on this subject in another post. I sense that many of our graduates focus too much on their CAPs and forget about this very important aspect of their development.

      1. Dear prof,
        I am currently in yr 3 right now, and will be graduating at the end of this year.

        So far throughout my life in NUS, , there is really minimal group based assignments or projects done. The main work that is done are usually studying the content, doing tutorials and study for mid term tests and exams. Even when it comes to practical, we have to do it on our own for organic and inorganic chemistry which involves synthesising the compounds. Probably the only source of group based stuff done would be a time when we are doing physical and analytical lab experiments together with 2 or 3 other people( which end up needing to write our individual lab reports).

        The ones i’ve experienced are out of chemistry dept, physics dept for example.
        I’ve also come across a module that im currently taking that the lecturer gave an option to the cohort to choose between group projects or tests as mode of assessment, which most of the students chose tests instead. From this instance it seem to me that exams n tests, to the students at least, CAP is their main objective. With this, the sad thing is that the only form to hone the soft skills or even bring about interaction amongst people is to be involved in various activities in school or even stay n halls of residence or residential college and given that such involvement involves time and effort, it will not be an option to those who just wanna focus on their results.

        If i were to review my education journey in NUS today, i would say that the only regret is to have better academic results..but i enjoyed myself in terms of being involved in sports and able to help organise events on a team scale and the university level. Those experiences definitely helped to hone the soft skills and my character as a person. I am grateful to NUS for that.

        Maybe, if there is such an opportunity before i graduate, we can have a discussion on this and other things in my heart that in my view may help to improve NUS as a whole?

  6. Hi Prof,

    Just a very quick view. I agree very much with your statements.

    But I believe that the heavy ‘obsession’ with exam results is not just about the undergrads’ mindset. It has got to do with the mindset of the entire Singapore’s society on the whole.

    If we look at the starting pay (in civil services, for example) of fresh graduates, there are much difference between one with simply a degree, a degree with merit, and of course, the different classes of honors degree. A difference of perhaps 0.1 CAP can possibly translate to a few hundred dollars per month for the first job.

    If the student’s first job and starting pay is going to be decided by their CAP, how can they not be worried about exams? Even by attaching grades to projects and CA, it may end up making students view projects with an unhealthy mindset (insistence on doing the tried-and-tested politically correct things to get higher marks), instead of seeing it as a platform for making friends, expressing creativity and aqquiring soft skills.

    That being said, I’ve no better idea on how a good educational system should be like, though.

    1. There are employers who are discerning. I encountered a Third Classs Honours Engineering graduate who was recruited by an MNC and was posted to the UK, beating many other First Class Honours in his cohort! I think one important aspect is how to present your distinctive features to your prospective employers, even if you have a weaker CAP.

      And to your last statement – fret not, no one has the complete answer!

    2. Hi Ang Rui Xiang, Prof Tan, and everyone,

      If we observe more carefully, the root of the problem is, in my opinion, a bit more complicated. Many students are worried of their CAP, because, as you said, they want to get higher salary. Why then they aim for high salary? It is the value at the back of our mind that determines what we do day in day out. I have a friend of mine who just shared yesterday that he does not know why he is studying chemical engineering now (he is year 3 now). He does not really know why he wants to do after college. Perhaps, he chose chemical engineering in the first place because it is a popular field and people earn a lot of money doing that. A lot of my juniors (I am year 3 now) are also concerned by the pay after they are graduated. See, most of us are concerned by the pay – money, money, and money! People don’t pursue what they really want to do, but instead those which give more money. I watched the movie 3 Idiots a month ago, and despite of all the fantasy, that movie reminded me to enjoy learning and focus on where my passion is.

      Our culture shape us to think the way we think as it is. Just a very quick example: I read in the Ridge magazine a few months back, there was a section in which it compares the employment rate and average salary of every department in NUS. I know statistics are fancy and nice to know. But, isn’t this one factor that makes us to be salary-driven, or in our context now CAP-driven? To be a bit radical, we may want to remove those kind of things which do not really help to build a learning community in NUS. To be swimming against the flow is never easy. But if we want to make some changes, we need to pay some price. It is up to every one of us to choose what kind of person you want to be, but I do really hope that those who sit as leaders in the university will ‘swim against the flow’ of destructive thoughts and cultures. They should become the leaders, and together with the NUS community we can create a better culture and possibly a new trend that those outside NUS will be marvelled at. (Just like some of us praising MIT’s system, Brown’s system, etc)

      That is my humble reply. I have always wanted to change the world and am willing to take some risk to do it. However though, this world is so complex and as we flip our calendars each day, I’m sorry to say that this world ain’t getting any better. I have a lot of thoughts on everything I am faced of (which in current case means about NUS). Grateful that this blog exists so people can share their thought openly. I hope someone reads my comment and be challenged to make a positive change.


      1. Hmm, it seems to me there are two components here that consist the mindset you are mentioning.

        Premiss One – People are concerned mainly about money, more so than other factors.
        Premiss Two – A high CAP will result in higher pay.
        Conclusion – People are concerned about CAP by proxy because of their concern for money.

        I’ll be discussing the validity of the premisses in this post to address your thoughts. The conclusion automatically follows if both premisses are met, and thus requires no discussion.

        ===Premiss One===

        Honestly, I agree with you on this one in general, though there are exceptions to the trend, as always. Also, it is doubtful whether the trend can be easily changed, and also doubtful as to even whether such a change is good or not.

        Increased materialism is largely a by-product of accelerated economic development – as countries aim to develop their industries and businesses, the mindset that the most important thing is profit will proliferate, as people tend to take their priorities quite readily from their governing body, and this is fed back into governance if the country is democratic. Similarly, increased emphasis on military strength by a rapidly militarising nation will generally result in a more militant people. The people and the government they elect will feed a positive feedback loop.

        We are not alone in this particular case, there are other countries, notably China, due to its current high speed of modernisation, whose materialism exceeds that of ours by far. And there are also other countries who largely do not have the same problem.

        One of our Japanese teachers (who just came from Japan) was rather amused when we did language exercises regarding “what kind of boyfriend/girlfriend will you like to be with?” Singaporean and Chinese students (who comprise the bulk of the students) tended to respond with one of the criteria being a “guys with a lot of money” answer, which is something that she had never encountered before in Japan.

        In the case of the Ridge magazine article, it is not just the case that the publication is inculcating a materialistic mindset, but more importantly, that particular article is written because the readers want such information. It is the general rule for most publications to publish what your readers want to see – if you don’t, they won’t read it! Again, that positive feedback loop may apply.

        Attempts to address materialism will not be complete without attempting to address the population which is materialistic; modifying media and systems alone will not be adequate. Mindsets are usually… set, before students even come to university though, so I would propose that any effective changes you wish to implement will have to begin much earlier in life, perhaps at the Secondary level of education.

        That said, materialism is not completely bad. If it was, it would not be embraced to this extent. Inasmuch as it is a product of economic development, it also helps economic development. Materialistic behaviour results in more trade than otherwise, and more consumption than otherwise – the increased demand can then lead to increased sales, and through that generate growth. Attempting to address this may help the intellectual quality and/or character quality of people, but at the expense of economic growth.

        I will quote you as saying that “to make some changes, we need to pay some price.” However, is the price you are proposing something which people in Singapore at large wish to pay? You being willing to think differently is one thing, but changing the flow of society at large is an endeavour many governments in the world wish to implement, but find it difficult to do so. It is so much so that some people define politics as “the best way to lead people forward based on who they are, as opposed to who you want them to be”, because measures based on an ideal people will fall flat when applied to an imperfect people.

        To raise quality of life, we must deal with material aspects first before nonmaterial aspects can be considered. Is the material development of Singapore quality of life complete?

        ===Premiss Two===

        This is actually mentioned in many other comments on one of the Provost’s other blog posts, specifically regarding the influence communication skills has on career advancement.

        In short, a high CAP alone may not even get you your first job, though it certainly is “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it”. Measures along these lines are separate from those for Premiss One; these are also significantly easier to implement because it works with an existing mindset.

        Basically, if CAP is not enough, what is enough? Generally, CAP + people skills + connections. There is emphasis on the first. The other two do not have it, and perhaps measures can be put in place to develop those. But really, this is the topic of another post, and it might be useful to read through what some have already proposed, and add your opinions to those.

  7. Dear Prof Tan,

    I feel that one of the main reasons why examinations are stressful at NUS is because they are too easy. This seems quite counter-intuitive, but under a bell-curve scaling system, easy exams do not imply easy grades. When exams are too easy and many students score almost perfectly, students are forced to fight for top grades by minimalising small and trivial errors.

    In my experience in the Faculty of Science so far, it seems as if the majority of exams consist of repeated questions from the course notes. This style of examination is easy, in comparison to an examination which requires the student to expand upon and develop raw course material.

    Easy exams, where the students mostly just regurgitate material, lead to students forcing themselves to memorise as much material as possible. This is a stressful, time-consuming and inefficient activity!

    If exams were more difficult and examined a student’s ability to grasp the most challenging ideas and implications of a module, then students would modify their study patterns to suit the exam style. They would focus on understanding the ideas presented in the courses and spend less time stressing over trivialities. The most capable and intelligent students in a module would also be those achieving the best grades, not just those who work the hardest.

    1. ===== To the Original Poster =====

      I am greatly encouraged to see that I am not alone in my philosophy on learning, Rai. Let us just say that the number of students I know of out of at least 2,000 people I’ve met over the past 13.5 years of study in Singapore with this view number exactly 2, you being 1 of them.

      ===== To Prof. Tan =====

      === OFF-TOPIC ===

      First and foremost, I’d like to get a completely off-topic thing out of the way. Your post on the matter is a work of literary brilliance really (necessarily evil vs necessary evil, embrace or eschew etc), whether or not it was intended to be so. It is not usually my style to comment on the style of a comment, but credit should be given where it’s due, and given how often I shoot people down for being really bad at using language it is only fair that I compliment the few who are really good at it. And you are definitely one of the select few who are.

      Back to topic now…

      === Current examination nature ===

      The nature of examinations in the Singapore context through my experience has been that of the following:

      1. Regurgitate as much trivia as possible
      2. In as little time as possible
      3. With as few errors as possible

      Application questions are generally applications which have been already done to death in past examinations, and they usually do not require any form of understanding, only practice as to how the process goes.

      The Advanced Level General Paper is the worst offender I know of in this category, where students are required to know exactly how to write essays in the exact format, and to know as many inane facts as possible about as many topics as possible so that when the exam comes out we can give the examiners in Cambridge exactly what they want in the exact format they want. I scored a D7 for GP in the first year of JC, and after an intensive second year where we did nothing but memorise formats and useless trivia, my mark improved to an A1.

      Honestly, I know my abilities in writing and understanding have improved by exactly 0% in that year, but that didn’t affect the technique’s ability to boost marks, which really was what the school – and the majority of students in Singapore – actually want.

      Examinations have an inherent weakness as marks are given when the marking criteria are fulfilled, so anybody who knows the marking criteria can manipulate the system to get as many marks as possible, but an understanding of the examination system does not equate an understanding of the subject being tested, and while we may generate many students capable of scoring As, I will say that the vast majority of them are completely incapable of applying the concepts learnt in a novel situation. Thus, the productivity of our work force will not increase, and we will not be able to innovate significantly as a nation, if our students are capable only of repeating past achievements.

      My Economics teacher went so far as to say that “A good Singaporean student is not necessarily a good student, though a good student will necessarily be a good Singaporean student”. Anyone who fully understands the topics being taught will be able to clear the majority of exam questions being thrown at tthem, but it is possible to clear the majority of exam questions even without understanding anything at all.

      Rai’s point on difficulty of exams applies here. There is no differentiating factor between students of high level understanding and those of exam manipulation ability, and the latter will eventually win the former in many cases, since the upper end of the mark scale is differentiated mainly by two things: speed and care. In fact, students who understand subjects better are sabotaged on the speed element since it takes little time to regurgitate a prepared answer, but it takes much time to apply concepts to think of a completely new answer.

      In my H3 Chemistry paper in JC, I scored a Merit (60 -70ish percent I believe) even though I completed only 70% of the paper before time ran out, and so people with higher completion rates but less correct answers as a percentage still easily beat my score. Not that that result actually mattered at all for admission to NUS, but it is the clearest example I have from my limited life experiences that shows how timing can completely skew the ability of an exam to test ability.

      === Student learning styles ===

      Rote learning/memorisation/mugging is very common, and the popularity of module-review.com is a indicator that learning is playing second fiddle to result farming for most students. I find that in many cases over the past 1.5 years I’ve spent in NUS, I am the only student in my modules who has asked questions of the lecturers for understanding’s sake, as opposed for just the grades’ sake. Such as, asking about the implications of certain concepts when applied to certain other situations that are outside the syllabus. Full understanding of the topics cannot be achieved without knowing this, and yet nobody else asks, which demonstrates it is possible for generations of students to pass the examination system without ever understanding the topics. Some lecturers have even commented before that some of the questions I’ve asked them are questions no student has ever asked them in all the years of their teaching experience. Given the extremely high academic performance of people who are in my course (due to its high entry requirements), to say that this is a sad situation is a complete understatement.

      === Lecturer teaching styles ===

      I have had the fortune to learn under some excellent teachers during my time here so far, and while quite a few were happy to help me with my questions, some of them were already jaded, and initially answered most questions with a “what you’ll need to know for the exams” qualifier, before they eventually realise that I don’t actually care about the exams at all, but more about learning for its own sake. Many of them are genuine intellectuals who have a passion for the subject, but who have been disillusioned by countless students who have only the passion for the certification that they give only what most of the students want. After all, lecturers are appraised after every Semester through the feedback channels, and I doubt the ones who are passionate about passing on their understanding to their students will be appraised well by the bulk of the students who consider such extraneous material to be irrelevant to their interests.

      Of course, there are also the lecturers who are personally more interested in maintaining the status quo, who when questioned enter a defensive mode and do not provide any further useful discussion. As much as they are the lecturers and I am a mere student, I generally do not challenge them any further if I find they are of the antidisestablishmentarian persuasion, instead preferring to conduct independent investigation. My aim is to learn, not to win arguments, and learning from one who has stopped teaching is an exercise in inefficiency. Suffice to say that in certain instances when I carried on secondary research on the topic I found cases where they actually taught conceptually incorrect stuff, and have the ensuing headache of whether to give them what they taught during the exams, or to give them what is correct. So far, my policy of strictly giving only what I believe to be correct has not yet murdered my CAP, but we will see how things progress in the next 2.5 years.

      It is interesting to note the how nationalities of the lecturers are actually a very reliable predictor of whether they are interested in teaching or interested in maintaining the status quo. I fear I have already said too much on this topic given its potential sensitivity, and will not further elaborate on specifics.

      === How much of a difference can NUS make? ===

      So how does this rambling discourse on understanding, lecturers and the nature of exams relate to the topic you presented earlier?

      I am of the opinion that as much as the school may attempt to reform the assessment system to allow those who want to learn to do so more effectively (such as through the S/U system), the actual beneficiaries of such an action will be strictly limited, as most students are not actually interested in knowledge in the first place, but are here to get the qualification so they can do the job they want/least hate to do for the next few decades of their life. Education to them is a stepping stone, a means to the end of sustenance and economic survivability, not a goal in its own right with its own value. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink if it’s not thirsty.

      That is not to say that changes have no place. It is just that the effect of changes will be far more limited than we would prefer. With them, the very few students that care about learning will have an easier time doing so without being penalised by the system, and it is worth making the changes if some of these students go on to make significant changes in society. That in itself is worth the change.

      But if we want to improve things on a wider scale, then the perception of learning on a nation-wide level needs to be changed.

      === What can NUS do? ===

      Now that the limits of how effective changes can be has been covered, I can move on to talk about suggestions through which improvements can be made.

      The first one is identical to what was mentioned by Rai. Exams should not be easy regurgitatable affairs. They should test understanding in various levels from low to high; the easiest questions should be answerable by anyone with just a cursory knowledge of it which is obtainable from rote learning, and the hardest ones should be answerable only by students who have mastered the topic. Thereafter, exam periods should be lengthened significantly, even doubled if necessary, and converted into open-book format to diminish the value of rote learning significantly. In the real world, we will be able to refer to the literature, to Wikipedia, to our peers, and use those resources in novel ways to help us to solve real problems. Open book exams with high-level application questions test the exact same skill set required, and perhaps after sufficient assessment in this mode students may gain the ability to apply critical thinking in their lives and professions. With enough students of this caliber in the workforce it will be inevitable that Singapore makes significant innovations that improve the lives of not only our citizens, but people of the world at large.

      The second is something you hinted at, the expansion of the S/U system. At present it is limited to three modules of of about 40 modules which students may read over the course of an Honours programme. Increasing the number of S/U uses, and well as more importantly increasing the scope of S/U uses (from elective modules only to use on ANY module) would encourage people to pursue their interests instead of just focusing only on results. Students unfettered by concerns on maintaining a good CAP will be able to learn more effectively than those who have to spend so much effort on it that it is unreasonable at best to expect them to do anything more.

      And lastly, on Continual Assessments. I do believe that it is a step in the right direction, but the nature of the CA is equally important. In fields where objective truth is difficult to establish (particularly the arts) CAs may make it difficult for students who do not share the same views or aesthetics as their lecturers to score well. Project work types in particular is a rather non-objective means of assessment, and the best way I can think of to illustrate this is with yet another A-level example. During the year in which the A-level was restructured (my year was the Guinea-pig batch), Hwa Chong Institution’s students achieved more than 80% A results, and my school (National Junior College) achieved barely 3%. I find it extremely difficult to believe such variance can be reasonable, given the small difference in abilities between students from the two institutions, and the similar high quality of teachers in both institutions. Different people will rate different projects in different ways, and as much as one tries their best to be objective, it is difficult for an examiner to be completely fair in marking an assessment of this form without first having to lose all traces of his/her humanity.

      Examinations have been a popular assessment for years not without good cause, but perhaps there is no need to do without them. Spreading the workload out amongst A LOT of examinations would grant the objectivity characteristic of formal examinations, while also allowing students to be graded using consistent performance instead of a single final result, which may not be as indicative of their actual capabilities.

      In terms of concrete examples, I would like to highlight what is being done by the Centre of Language Studies in NUS. For one of the module series I’m taking (Japanese Language), we are assessed every single week through oral performative exercises, listening comprehension tests, vocabulary memory tests, grammar usage tests, class performance in our employment of all the material we have been taught up to that point, and in addition we also have mid terms and final examinations, with comparatively lower percent weightages. Because of the way in which this is structured, I am FULLY confident that whatever mark I get for the overall grade in this module series is reflective of my overall performance over the entire module relative to my peers, which is not a claim I will extend to any of the other modules I have taken in NUS so far, or for that matter, to any module/subject/course I have ever taken in my entire life up to this point.

      Even if I fail the module completely, I am happy to report that I know I will have deserved to fail the module, and I will be happy to repeat the entire module to make sure I know what needs to be known. In comparison, I can’t say I’m happy even if I score an A+ for most of my other modules, since I’ll always have that doubt that it may have been a lucky break, that there is more I could have missed out.

      By that measure, I am insane by normal Singaporean students’ standards.

      ===== Postscript =====

      Initially I thought that this blog was just a channel for you to dispense your views (much of which will be ‘official’ views) for students to read in the guise of dialogue, and I am pleasantly surprised to have been proven wrong by your in-depth responses to many of the students’ comments over the past few posts.

      It is highly encouraging to know that someone at the top of NUS’ management is genuinely interested in engaging the students in open discourse. Thank you for caring about us enough to do what you do.

      ===== Post-postscript =====

      If someone else actually read through all that text above (it took me 1 hour + to type), thank you as well. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on everything, but caring enough to read through a daunting length of text is in itself testament to your committment to knowledge, especially when you definitely have many other things to do with your time.

      1. Having seen how my course mates struggled while attempting an open-book advanced stats exam, I’m inclined to think that knowledge application might have been their Achilles’ heel.

        In this era of innovation and novel thinking, exams that promote regurgitation might be counterproductive. Like what Jack mentioned, these days information is readily available at our fingertips and I feel what we need are graduates who can critically think from different angles & draw upon different concepts. However the onus of lies on the lecturers to find the balance between memory work & knowledge application.

        Another skill set possibly lacking among some Science students (pardon me if I stereotype my own kind) is “Communication”. The ability to smoothly package and communicate scientifically dense, jargon-filled concepts across to others is not a simple task. Such soft skills are and will be important for jobs within and beyond science as long as the work is complex.

        Alas, mentality doesn’t change easily overnight nor perhaps within the years of University education. Some do, some still remain attached to the safe harbor of regurgitation. Exams will still remain a sieve that distinguishes between those who mastered the domain knowledge and those who don’t. But I believe we can do better in promoting critical thinking by creating exams that demand critical thinking.

        I too, would like to thank you for taking time off your busy schedule to actively engage with us and hear our views right from the ground 🙂

        1. The University Scholars Programme (USP) has a writing module. The module develops critical thinking and writing – thinking and writing go hand in hand. USP students who have taken the module have found it very challenging, and many of them benefitted tremendously from this module. This is also why we have introduced two writing and communications modules on Ideas and Exposition in our Residential Colleges. How will students react if I make this compulsory for all students to read?

          1. I feel that the USP Writing Module teaches skills which can be taught in other modules, therefore I do not see the need for a compulsory Writing Module similar to the one in USP.

            In my experience, the main benefits of the writing module are:
            – Communicating ideas, both your own and from others
            – Synthesising those ideas in a productive and coherent manner
            – Engaging in written dialogue with other academics through one’s own academic writing

            These learning objectives of the Writing Module target a specific hole in the Singaporean Education system. Many students don’t know how to talk. (In an academic setting, that is)

            I find that the drawbacks of the writing module are that, topically, it can be irrelevant to one’s own field of study and that many students have already learned how to write coherently at school, and just need practice.

            Perhaps first semester, first year modules in every faculty could focus on developing the same skill set, but geared to the appropriate discipline. Students should be forced to learn to talk in class, ask questions and express ideas. This will raise the confidence level of first year students and will promote the learning value of participating in class.

          2. I would actually be against that unless it can be proven that what it offers is substantially different from Literature, Philosophy, or any other FASS module.

            My main reason for not joining USP actually was because of the fear that these modules would take up my valuable UEs, preventing me from pursuing my interests whilst repeating what I practice in Literature.

            Similarly, I avoided Utown to preserve my UEs/minor and to avoid repeating what I already do in my major which does after all, study how we use the English language. Indeed, I would be interested in finding out how these writing modules can differentiate if not outshine what we already have in Literature especially when more than half of the staff involved in planning the Utown modules have majored in Literature.

          3. Dear Rai

            You have articulated the benefits of the USP Writing Module well, but I am not convinced that most of our students are already competent in these aspects, and so we are hoping students will learn and pick up skills from the Writing Modules. Though possible, it is more difficult to integrate these learning components into the disciplines. We have done a few pilots, but it will take time.

      2. Dear Jack

        This is an excellent discourse on learning. I intend to share it with some of my colleagues. Drop me a note – I would like to continue the conversation with you.


    2. “I feel that one of the main reasons why examinations are stressful at NUS is because they are too easy”

      Dear Rai,
      May I ask have you tried any Math modules (core modules)? Most of the time most students can barely answer half the paper. Definitely not too easy.

      I agree with the “spirit” of the rest of your post though. Exams should test understanding, not regurgitation.

  8. Hi Prof,

    Thank you for your insightful post on the matter of examinations. I have to agree with you that the the change from the past system to the current one which places less emphasis on the examination component has created some form of value. It’s true that today’s model is one which is more flexible.

    However, I beg to differ on the part where it is more forgiving. While Sir, you may be right in saying that it’s forgiving in the sense that we do not have to repeat the entire set of modules should we fail one, the system, nevertheless, is still as cruel. The shift from higher weightage on final examinations to increment in class participation in the business school sees classes with more people speaking up. However, is it the aim of the higher emphasis on class participation to just get more people speaking, or do we want more constructive and value-generating participation in the classroom? Some students, now, participate more “actively” in class – by simply answering questions with answers from textbooks, asking questions that will be covered in the following slides, all in the name of CAP. My point here is that, even if we reduce the weightage on any of the component and shift them to the other aspects, we will still see a system where students chase after CAP. Is this the maximization of learning we would want to achieve?

    In today’s society, we face more challenges than the previous generations. No longer is 2nd Upper Class alone sufficient. We, now, need to possess achievements in all areas, from leadership to sports to community involvement. While the school has provided us the opportunities to achieve these ‘highly-desired’ qualities, I feel that students, ultimately, are still yet to be empowered to maximize their learning. They can only choose paths which have already been carved out according to the whims and wants of society, creating an atmosphere where many would chase the shortest and easiest path (which includes S/Us) to their desired certificates at the end.

    Sir, I appreciate that the school has done lots to help students achieve what they want, but the persisting mentality which exists in most students – that success triumphs over learning – will only render these changes ineffective. It will only be a situation where the horde of mice chasing towards the cheese which is being thrown here and there. As mentioned above by the other students, I, too, have no good solutions to these problems.

    Thank you for taking your time at reading this.

    1. On class participation – the professor would be remiss in his/her duty if he/she simply awards marks to someone who talks in class. The impact of contributions should be key, and not how often one speaks!

  9. Dear Sir,

    I believe there is essentially only one major problem with examinations: the type of questions and the time limit. In my opinion a tight constraint on the time given to solve problems is quite unrealistic in most real-world situations. Of course there are exceptions, but in general the ability to solve a new problem that has never been seen before is much more important than being able to solve known problems. Unfortunately, tackling a new problem needs substantial time, which the current examination system does not provide, thus the problems given in the examination mostly have routine solutions that merely test the students’ capability to apply fixed methods that have been taught rather than to come up with new methods to solve new problems. A new problem also means that one has to be given sufficient time to try many possible approaches, many of which may fail, before hitting or stumbling upon one of possibly many successful paths. If indeed such tests are conducted, I believe it will really reveal how well a student can deal with new problems in his or her area of specialisation, which rarely have routine solutions.


    1. One of the best classes that I took had just ONE assignment. On the first day of class, the professor gave us 20 questions, and said that if we are to listen and work hard enough, we should be able to answer quite a number of them. If you answer at least 10 our of the 20 questions correctly, you will get an A. No examinations and no tests! And group work was encouraged. That surely was one of the courses which I had put in the most work, and learnt the most our of! Maybe one of my colleagues can try it too?

  10. Dear Professor,

    I don’t believe that it’s the cancellation of examinations that caused the brouhaha. Rather, it’s the change of assessment criteria midway through the semester that caused even more unhappiness.

    Why? Take this module for example. Before this fiasco, it was 15% Assignments, 15% Presentation, 30% Midterms, and 40% Finals.

    After, it is 25% Assignments, 25% Presentation, and 50% Finals.

    I do understand that in the tutorials, students are grouped and each group is to deliver a 25-minute presentation.

    The thing is, there are groups that had done their presentations before the midterms, and there would be groups that would do it after the midterms. Knowing that the percentages would be shifted, the later groups would then commit more time on their presentations, enabling them to score better than their peers, who cannot do much about it.

    Professor, is this a fair practise in NUS?

    1. The Business School has received feedback from students. You have a valid point and the School has decided to re-calibrate the assessments and exam. You will be informed soon.

      1. The feedback has a measureable effect. 0.0

        (P.S. It’s amusing how the captcha code is “human587” for this post, and “human 58” = human said.)

  11. Exam grades may affect students’ chances in graduate school.

    Most schools in the UK require at least a second-upper honours degree to pursue a postgraduate degree.

    Schools in the US mostly require A/A- in upper division courses.

    Hence, I hope NUS can grade exams in a fair manner, that is comparable to institutions worldwide, so that NUS graduates can compete on equal footing with their international counterparts. It is well known that UK/US universities experience “grade inflation”.

    Perhaps, it should be made known in the school website the NUS grading policy, so that graduates from NUS will at least be given the benefit of the doubt that NUS’s criteria are more stringent when compared with their international counterparts.

    1. Indeed, NUS has more stringent grading than many top universities. But grade inflation is not the way to go. We do moderate (our well-known but mysterious bell curve) over the years. NUS has a good reputation amongst graduate schools in that our graduates are much better prepared and more hardworking, and this is already a premium.

      1. Thank you very much Prof for your reply. I am reassured to hear that NUS has a good reputation. This has been proven in part by NUS improved global ranking. I am indeed proud to have studied at NUS.

  12. Hi Professor, I find that many exam/test invigilators are not strict towards students cheating. Moreover, as tests are sometimes carried out in lecture theatres where students are seated in close proximity, it greatly favors those who copy or share answers. Also, the practice of copying others’ lab reports is rampant in FOE. These inconsiderate cheating practices put the honest students at a significant disadvantage. We might work harder, but fare worse than those who use such underhand means. I hope that this adverse situation will be overturned. I know of course, that it takes much work on the professors’ part to address this problem too. So I wont press you for results haha; I just wanted to bring this to your attention. Thanks.

    1. I would like to add that this is not restricted to FOE, FOS also has a similar situation. An attempt to write a lab report from scratch got me a zero mark in one of the earliest modules I took, since when you use a bell curve and everyone else has generally perfect answers (since they’re been refined over many iterations of the same module), a deviance from that is nearly guaranteed to put you into the red.

      In another module, the lecturer told us rather clearly that he knew students were cheating for an online assessment since “nobody got full marks for it for the first 5 hours, then suddenly one student had full marks, followed by about 20 different students from the same department in the ensuing 5 minute period, with access locations to IVLE all originating from the Science/Medicine library, not to mention some of them completed the 20 minute test within 1 minute and still got full marks.”

      He did nothing past mention that. I would personally have failed the entire batch of students when the evidence is so clear.

      1. I agree – I would have failed the entire group. By the way, we do not use the bell curve for CA! The bell curve may be used for an exam if the class size exceeds 30.

    2. We cannot compromise on integrity, and will come down hard on students who cheat. I am aware of the copying in lab classes. Having different experiments, screening using anti-plagiarism softwares such as Turn-It-In, etc., have helped to alleviate such problems. But I know some lecturers have chosen the easier “paths”.

      I was a graduate instructor at Yale and I had taught many calculus sections. Exams or tests were administered without invigilators. Students abide by an Honour Code. Anyone who cheats will be reported by the students, and punishments are harsh. In most liberal arts colleges, students determine the punishment (which are usually harsher). I prefer such a system.

      1. Moderation by a higher authority will only result in compliance when the higher authority is present. Moderation from an internal system of integrity will result in compliance at all times.

        That said, I’m not sure how we can achieve the effect of inculcation of integrity. Top-down approaches would not result in an internal shift, and it is simply too useful in many companies out there to occasionally take a break from ethical behaviour, such that given the choice many will take the unethical route. As long as the incentives for certain types of behaviour persist, the behaviour will tend to also persist.

        I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of having internal moderation, but the question of how to start introducing this, the implementation problem… that is a considerable challenge.

        Of course, if the questions were applicative ones as opposed to regurgitative ones, it might help somewhat to diminish the usefulness of copying (not to mention increase the likelihood of catching them). That assessment was an MCQ, and in this kind of assessments, copying is usually undetectable (unless they do really stupid things, like submitting the assessment within an unrealistically short time… which they did *facepalm).

        1. It is a culture that we are trying to inculcate, and changing the culture of an institution is most difficult. You can do it with a big swing, but chances of failure can be high. Or you can do it progressively, but the change will take time. Since last year, I have asked NUSSU to consider taking over the disciplinary processes for students found violating our rules. NUSSU is represented in our Board of Discipline meetings, and hopefully, NUSSU can take over cases which are minor violations. We’ll see how it goes. Any ideas?

  13. “My view is that exams certainly do provide a means to measure learning outcomes; they are the traditional, tried and tested assessment medium. ”

    My comment and critique on the NUS grading system (even though it has treated me extremely well) is that if students don’t get feedback about their exam results and what they have done right and wrong, exams and grading at NUS are not fulfilling its purpose (feedback to student about his/her performance).

    Eg. for some classes a final exam counts for 40%, how would one know how one performed at the end exam if it does not get feedback on the result of the final exam. Instead what we get is a final grade.

    Let’s say the final grade is an A-. What does this say? Nothing!!! as one is graded on the normal curve, so in this case a student could still have scored on the final exam 75 out of a 100 (so miss 25%) but the student will never know this as the student only received an A- and will never get feedback on what the student has done right and wrong.

    If NUS is serious in measuring learning outcomes it would have to start to be more transparent and allow students to look at the result of their final exams/papers and get feedback on their performance and know what they did right and wrong.

    Only by doing this they can finish their learning curve and as of now they system does not allow student to finish their learning curve. A real shame I would say.

    In summary, I would call for more transparency and if the grade is split in 4 parts each part should be graded and shared with the student who should also be allowed to get detailed feedback so the student can finish his/her learning cycle.

    Some would say well that this would create extra work for the Professors. Well, students are here to learn and with feedback limited to a letter we hardly get what we deserve and more importantly need.

    ps. the same counts for grading class participation. If a student never gets any direct feedback how can he/she improve? Previously, I have asked professors to share with me my grade for class participation, but they were never willing do so (for reasons that go beyond this comment.)


    NUS MPA-MBA double degree student

    1. I agree that students ought to receive feedback for Continual Assessments. I have explained that it is difficult to provide individual feedback for exams. However, a simple summary on the general performance of students would be useful. Such feedback could be posted on the IVLE for the benefit of students who have taken the exam. I hope to put this in place.

  14. Have to admit this is a really cute idea, provost! Okay, won’t make this like an essay but just a few comments 🙂

    It’s in truth that exams aren’t the best ways of measurement but it can also be understood that even if there were other forms of measurement, how much point would there be for allowing comparison – which inevitable, we all do? A simple albeit superficial example is how SMU, for their great seminar-style classes and learning, is yet to be fully ‘qualified’ in some international rankings due to their (unfortunate!) disadvantage. Very much a wait-and-see move as well, it’s really evolving alongside what deems fit and suitable too!

    My only other gripe is how many a time, CAP is conveniently used to deterministically judge the worth of a student, sometimes too harshly to allow room for other aspects to be explored 🙁 and also, a good move to work towards allowing S/U options for more modules (though not letting it be an easy way out of course); work with FASS students first! Who usually aren’t allowed to S/U non-major related modules, but who says just because I can be good at Geography means I would do well in Economics too! That’s all, thanks! 🙂

    1. Rankings normally do not capture how well we teach our students. They only display some aspects of academic excellence.

      Can you elaborate how, in your view, S/U options may be tweaked to facilitate learning (and not just to maximize the CAP)?

  15. To be honest, the number and type of assessments don’t matter to me as much as the integrity of the assessments themselves. We have lots of group projects which don’t seem to have a good reason to be group projects (apart from the fact that they save effort in marking). Some of the time, these projects don’t even make sense as assignments, as they don’t really add to our understanding. Very often, the marking criteria and format of assignments are not properly explained, making it very difficult to figure out what the professor’s expectations are exactly. In one of my current modules, my tutor is constantly giving us new information about how he expects us to write our graded assignments; all this information should have been given to us at the start of the module, before we began to turn in our assignments. The tutor’s expectations seem to go beyond the lecturer’s stated expectations on IVLE. Comparisons between tutorial classes seem to indicate that each tutor marks with different levels of leniency. We need more standardisation, vetting and quality control when it comes to the marking, design and explanation of our assignments. Rubrics would be great.

    Also, exam questions are often not meaningful. Some exams have included questions about trivial details of videos shown during or even before the lecture. Even students who had been at the lecture would be very unlikely to remember such details, and students who happened to be ill that day would have absolutely no way of answering these questions. Surely the exams are meant to test for knowledge and skill, not memory and health? None of the lectures I’ve had so far have webcasts, so any students who don’t manage to make friends in their modules will have trouble finding out salient details about what was covered in the lectures, let alone such seemingly unimportant details. Information about what exactly may be tested should be very clearly laid out, and not just stated as “Chapter 1-10, and also any material covered in lectures and tutorials”.

    Many of the FASS exams I’ve taken so far are basically just one huge memorisation task. Given that we can just look up this information if we ever need it in real life, huge numbers of fact-based questions don’t seem at all meaningful.

    Underlying the question of what types of assignments to give is the more important question of what the purpose of a university education is. For example, an undergraduate course might aim to give us the framework to more or less know what kind of information to look for when we want questions answered, and to teach us how to find that information when we need it. If that’s so, writing papers that involve some real research into the literature would be the most meaningful form of assessment.

    In short, I want to know:
    a) what the university wants to achieve with us, and
    b) that, in order to meet these goals, there are systems in place to make sure that a minimum standard is met in the modes of assessment chosen.

    1. Dear Kate

      Can you email me? I would like to have more details on the courses and the assignments which you have taken. Thanks!

  16. One issue I would like to highlight is the fact that examinations does not ensure that the student meet all of the learning objectives in a module.

    What I mean is, the student goes for an exam. And the student gets enough answers correct to pass. The student is then deemed to have completed the module and met the prerequisites for a subsequent module. Yet, clearly the student has some knowledge gaps in module. To top it off, if the student barely passed, the student gets a non-flattering label in the form of a ‘C’ grade.

    One way to overcome this problem is to introduce mastery based learning and grading. The idea is to ensure that “students are not advanced to a subsequent learning objective until they demonstrate proficiency with the current one.” This could be implemented in foundation modules which are crucial for subsequent modules.

    Khan Academy has embraced this mode of assessment and provides exercises that forces the student to get correct 10 in a row before being allowed to proceed. Also, the student is allowed to try as many times as he needs to. The online exercises themselves are automatically and randomly generated. Hence this method is not labour-intensive to sustain although it might require some work on the staff to employ this system for the first time.

    This form of assessment also motivates the student to meet the learning objectives without the fear of getting a bad grade or failing, as the student can “fail” as many times until he gets the assessment right.

    In NUS, I understand that each lecturer sets the mode and weightage of assessments and no one method is prescribed to all lecturers. Also, implementing a mastery based assessment would take enormous effort on the teaching staff to plan and execute. But I hope the NUS management can see the merits of such an assessment and encourage the teaching staff to leverage on IT, explore assessment methods that better ensure learning objectives are met and at the same time de-emphasize the fixation on CAP.

    1. Our educational model adopts the mastery-based system which you mentioned, wherewhich, passing a module allows you to proceed to the next stage. The issue is, of course, with the implementation. A “D” (i.e., the passing grade) under a tough professor might bring about a higher level of competence than another professor who is more lenient. The Kahn Academy has a good framework and we could adopt some aspects. For instance, it would be useful to have an online component (i.e., an interactive one like what the Kahn Academy has employed) to reinforce the understanding of basic concepts. When I was teaching a basic mathematics module to a large class some 5 years ago, I have weekly online exercises for my students – no marks were awarded, but they were compulsory. From their answers, I have a good sense on the level of understanding acquired by the students. Before each lecture, I would quickly go through areas which students have difficulty in. But it is a lot of work on my part!

  17. ht — i couldn’t resist replying your comment! i know right, this is so cute!! my non-uni friends are all like why your provost so cute one!!

    provost sir, maybe there will be a facebook account next? then we can upload photos and tag you! like the overflowing rubbish bins at utown (some need to be bigger)etc etc. and we can upload photos of interesting things around campus too!! just a suggestion!! 😛

  18. Dear Sir,

    It feels good to see the NUS administration taking a step towards trying to see things from the students’ perspectives. I find that the examination system at NUS has many flaws that should not be neglected if NUS really aims to ” empower students to maximize their learning opportunities”. Exams are simply viewed as a platform for attaining “A” grades, anything less is considered just satisfactory. I think that this reflects the attitude of the majority of students at NUS and is partly the result of the way in which education is perceived in Singapore.

    Most modules emphasize on training students in their various disciplines rather than educating them to think critically, question assumptions and formulate strategies based on facts, resources and evidence. At the end of the day many exams are simply a test of memory. I have taken several modules where pointless trivial questions that required memorization of facts were asked in the final exams. The emphasis should be on examining the application of knowledge rather than simple acquisition of facts.

    Continuous assessment also suffers from this problem. One obvious issue is that of allocating 10% or 20% of the grade to class participation and/or attendance which is completely unnecessary and redundant, since many student simply reiterate what the lecturer said to get these marks. This happens in many business modules, especially marketing modules.

    Another issue with CA is that of disagreements with the views held by the lecturer. This happens mostly in FASS modules but also in some USP modules. It is a topic over which many exchange students (especially the ones from Western Europe and USA) have expressed concern whenever I have engaged in a discussion with them. I feel that any kind of valid interpretation of the facts should be respected regardless of the dominant views held by the academics in a particular discipline. This is compatible with the spirit of free academic inquiry and critical thinking.

    At present there is no system of retaking examinations and students have to repeat the whole module in the next semester. This in unfortunate and it would be very helpful to allow students to retake exams in case they have not cleared it. From your post I understand that “Supplementary Examinations” used to be offered in NUS. Hence there should not be any major problem in reinstating this policy.

    It is good news that the administration is trying to reduce the percentage of the final exams. However, many modules still have a high percentage for final exams, including many engineering modules that have 60% or even up to 80% of the grade assigned to the final exam.

    The bell-curve grading system is in one word, unfair. It creates an unnecessary competitiveness that fuels students’ over emphasis upon the final grade and increase stress over exam results. It would be far better to have a hybrid system under which grades and percentages are moderated in case the exam is difficult.

    We should be allowed to view our graded final exams and NUS should become more transparent about the whole grading process. NUS needs to inform us about the exact details of the grading, passing marks and the distribution of scores.

    AN important point to be noted is that in many engineering modules the kind of questions asked in the final exam are far more complicated than the ones practiced in the tutorials. Thus the tutorials serve little purpose in preparing students for the finals.

    The S/U option should be expanded to more than 3 modules and I am glad that you “may consider it”. Also, we should be allowed to S/U major and USP modules.

    Lastly, I would like to recommend a less narrow grading system, under which only A, B, C, D and F are awarded. Thus, eliminating the plus and minus versions of some of these. This would also help to reduce the anxiety over CAP.

    I hope that NUS would make further efforts to really listen to its students and make actual progress towards empowering them. After all it is we who make NUS a world class university, and will carry its legacy with us when we become its Alumni.

    Thank you.

    1. Dear Ahad

      Thanks very much for your comments. Indeed, many students are “grade farmers” according to Jack. No system is perfect. Our hope is to tweak our system so that students do not just focus on grades. I am not sure if tweaking the letter grades matter at all. What is most important – the culture of learning must change!

      You raised a point on the difference in opinion between lecturer and student in the humanities. Differences in opinion is a key feature in the humanities. A professor who insists on his/her views is doing a disservice to students. Students should be exposed to the broad spectrum of view points and be taught how to formulate their own (robust) opinions.

  19. reading thru those long posts and comments from students (ex-students?) and probably the public views about our education system in NUS; whether it is effective for learning and developing individual…. reminded me of Steve Jobs speech at Stanford…. 😉 education probably should be view in a larger view… life as whole… then education is indeed a life process.. beyond system and grade. And success just a by-product.


    1. I agree wholeheartedly – the process of learning is most important. Not the degree at the end of it! Unfortunately, many do not appreciate this.

  20. Professors always ask for fair a constructive feedbacks from students during the feedback exercise. Students got nothing from the exams, except the souless grade A, B, C.

    Why professors can see detailed feedbacks for free, but students, who are paying super high tuition fee never have the right to look at their papers again to get an idea on how to improve.

    A+ people who are Professor B’s student- always get A+ while B+ people, others Professor B’s students, are not given a single chance/glue to get A. Simply, they do not know what mistakes that prevent them from perfoming well in Professor B’s exams.

    NUS exams, in this manner, are meaningless.

  21. Unless you are going for some scholarships, having a decent academic grade (B average) is acceptable. I know of a friend from SMU who graduated magna-cum-luade (think she had many As) but took more than 6 months to find a job because during the job interviews, she was painfully shy and didn’t exude confidence. In the working world, it’s also better to have someone who can work well and be a teamplayer. Therefore, for students who are reading this, exams are not the end-all-and-be-all of everything.

    1. In most cases, academic grades aren’t all that important after you get into university. It’s only getting in that requires the grades in the first place.

      After that, social skills and connections play a significantly more major role in dictating the quality and duration of your first job. Social skills for going through the interview, and connections for getting the chance of the interview in the first place. Thereafter, recommendations and work experience take over as the main factors for getting latter employment.

      Personally I don’t actually like this system, because for people like me, our chances of getting employment are significantly compromised by this type of screening tests. Social skills are learnable for the most part for most people, but not by a small subset of the population. You could say it is a form of discimination (and Singapore law does not protect against this, though many other countries’ laws do), but the population of individuals thus hampered is too small to form any kind of significant dissent for the system to change. Whether or not you like it and/or belong to the normal population or that small subset, it is the way the world works most of the time.

      The system selects for students that are able to get the marks to enter university here though (VERY high requirements), and so even though grades are no longer anywhere as significant as they used to be in the actual world, they are still highly emphasised in the academic world, both by the students that form the system, and the lecturers who moderate them.

      You could say that academic results are necessary but not sufficient for employment. Annoyingly, independent thinking doesn’t factor into the requirements for most jobs (and are actively dissuaded in some jobs, such as that of the civil service), but is compulsory for societal progress in areas especially in engineering and research, causing the current employment paradigm to actively retard Singapore society’s progressive capabilities.

      Name me one Singaporean innovation within the past 25 years. Not like I can name you one, either.

      I agree with you that examination results are not the be-all and end-all of everything, but I disagree that the thing that students should focus on is social skills. In almost all cases, normal individuals already have more than sufficient social skills at this point in life. And the abnormal individuals cannot train the social skills needed as much as you cannot train a quadriplegic to sprint. So that shouldn’t be the focus, definitely not to the extent of recommending a compulsory module for. However, CELC and such may offer elective modules for the few people who still have the ability and willingness to further train social abilities to do so.

      Rather, academic instruction should focus on inculcating the ability to acquire new information, not just overload students with known information. Students’ academic focus should be training themselves to learn and to think critically about data they are presented, and to learn to apply them.

      And the second part, contacts, should be acquired within the specialisation field through collaborative assignments, collaborative practicals, and without the specialisation field through non-academic activities such as interest groups. It is more beneficial to students that interest groups be minimally moderated by the university administration, so that they will be able to learn to run the entire thing independently, an important experience for work. And for collaborative work within the specialisation field, students should be randomly assigned. It is one thing to form close relationships with a small clique of classmates, but in the working world this kind of association is less beneficial than having a wide array of classmates with whom they already have experience working.

  22. Dear Prof Tan,

    The fact that senior adminstrators like you are actually staying up late to actively engage and reply to our students’s queries is something that really makes me proud to be in NUS.

    I guess for most students, the issue about exams centers on the fact that most of the exams are once-off, and the the tensions that the bell-curve brings and has made it examinations to become.

    I too, have grudges against examinations and bell-curves, especially since the start of my academic experience in NUS. However, after experiencing another academic system whereby tests/assignments comes in piece meals of 5-10%s, and the final examinations account for about 40%. The fact that most of the workload felt like a 20-25% assignment in NUS, multiplying it by 5 assignments and 5 modules really did not make the experience a pleasant one, and I have come to appreciate the 2-3 assignments + 1 Major Examination system that we have in NUS, where I have a little more time to do my own learning outside of my curricular.

    While assignments throughout the semester does provide an indication of whether consisent work/effort is done throughout the semester, I for one do not do consistent work for most of my modules as I am usually more inclined to putting my time to explore my interests in environmental sustainability outside of my academic curricular. It has been a balancing act most of the time, and I guess for students like myself 2-3 assignments per semester is just the right amount to balance the workload in school and our own interests.

    In my opinion, feedback channels could be supplemented with examinations, as they provide additional platforms for learning. For now, I guess our feedback channels are either not publicized well enough or not adequately utilized by our students. I am suggesting for the following ideas: Allocated “Office Hours” for consultation, a timeframe after the exams for face-to-face discussion with examiners on exams, and a FAQ publication for our modules.

    While our professors are welcoming with our questions, some of us are unable to ask questions after class or have trouble emailing our professors with questions. Perhaps “Office Hours” could be officiated and publisized so as to facilitate face-to-face meet ups with students as well as to make it easier for the professors to schedule their own research.

    I understand that from the point of view of a professor, it is really difficult to keep up with current research world view, be a PI, and then coming up with new/numerous questions for the module when current research knowledge might be limited. Correct me if I’m wrong, some questions are repeated yearly due to limited knowledge on the topics, which is why examination papers are not returned. Examinations usually serve as a closure to a module, and I hear cheers from students once the paper is finished, and I’m not sure how receptive are silent majority of NUS students, who have not been posting on this blog, to sacrifice part of their time to come to NUS to get back their scripts. I’m not sure if there is a practise right now that allows for an arrangement of a one-on-one feedback session with the module coordinator after the exams, and if there is, this platform should really be publicized (or maybe a timeframe set for this sort of feedback) so that those students that really want to learn from their mistakes can do so.

    My learning style uses questions to test my understanding of concepts, perhaps because of my frequent use of assessment books in the past, I will read questions and thereafter read up on the concepts to “tighten” and link up various concepts , and I guess that is why past year papers are usually requested for experiential learners like me. However, NUS does not provide experiential learners with enough of these platforms to learn without having an impact on our grades. I was just wondering, throughout the years of the module there would definitely have been numerous emails/IVLE posts from students to clarify concepts. Perhaps these “FAQs” could be published instead of our exam papers so that we could learn from the questions that have been posted by our fellow students?

    On a side note, I was wondering if service learning modules could be created together with NGOs, NUS offices or even student groups to improve our learning experience. Not sure if this would overlap the programmes available at college3.

    Prof, Thank you so much for reading through these my thoughts and my suggestions, and my apologies if they may sound naïve or might not have considered other factor.

    1. Dear Calvin

      So you realise that good assessments will invariably incur more work on the part of the professos and students. The traditional exam system without CA is probably the easiest way for both students and professors, but the learning outcome is low.

      I support your involvement in activities outside class, but learning is a gradual process and not a “stepped” one (uness one is very intelligent). Learning is not simply absorbing the contents; one must allow for reflection. Proper time management is thus crucial – have the discipline to make time for both learning and other activities.

      I like your ideas on sharing the FAQs of previous modules and the after-exam consultations. By the way, we will be requesting professors to provide an after-exam review summary which can be posted on the IVLE.

  23. Dear Prof Tan,

    I think that the UROPS program is an excellent idea. It allows students to participate in undergraduate research which allows us to learn more than examinations.

    However, I would like to comment on the lack of UROPS projects for some departments. For instance, Mathematics has very few UROPS projects: https://neon.science.nus.edu.sg/intranet/public/urops/list_project.html?dept_c=146&task=Project Registration&dept_t=Mathematics (none in fact, at this time)

    Compare this with chemistry (https://neon.science.nus.edu.sg/intranet/public/urops/list_project.html?dept_c=143&task=Project Registration&dept_t=Chemistry) (more projects)

    May I suggest increasing the number of UROPS projects available across all departments of science?

    Also, at most one Mathematics UROPS module may be used to fulfil the requirements of Major in Mathematics. (http://ww1.math.nus.edu.sg/course%20structure/ma11-12.htm) May I suggest increasing the cap to two?

    I am making the above suggestions for altruistic purposes to benefit the future batch – I am already in my third year and graduating soon.

    Anyway I must say that NUS is a great place to study and I have enjoyed my time here.

    Best regards.

    1. Dear Douglas

      I will convey your suggestion to the Department. We have been trying to encourage students to take up UROPS projects, but the proportion rarely exceeds 20%. Universities such as MIT have almost 100% of their students doing a UROPS project.

  24. While most people here oppose exams in favor of project works and such… I feel different. School is already so short and if we are to occupy ourselves significantly with projects then how would we then be able to mug enough in order to be educated with the content required in our respective fields? I am from civil engineering and I dislike project works as they consume alot of time, the amount of things that I have to learn in my trait is already so much therefore if I want to be a competent engineer I should dedicate at least 90% of my time to studying instead of going for project meetings…

    1. Dear Vance,

      I do agree with you on the amount of content, not just yourself, but everyone needs to undertake and learn. your concerns about the high workload, i believe is felt not just by yourself, but many other undergrads in Singapore as well. Of course it is crucial that we have and need time to sit down to consolidate and revise what we have learnt and think through on its application.

      However, i feel you are missing the point about project work. In the future when you work, you will definitely work in groups, with different kinds of people(i have friends working in LTA as enginners and they tell me the same thing that they will and have to work in groups). It is inevitable that project meetings do take up some time and can be draining at times due to the nature of a project, which is a collaboration with other people. Similar to the ones in the workplace, it will require time to coordinate, consolidate, liaise and firm up before the final product. If you do not learn it now, i am like 80% sure that you will pay a price for that.

      Project meetings and coming together to accomplish a project, if done properly, will help you to learn more, be it content-wise or soft-skills wise. If you commit yourself to the projects, just like your project mates, you will be able to find out more about your content, and you can also learn how the real world apply them and the constraints they face.
      Soft-skills wise, you can learn how to communicate what you have learnt to others and see if people can accept those ideas. if yes, good for you, if not, learn why they do not accept. Also, it gives you an opportunity to know how to work with people who are different from you. There is no 1 person that is the same as you and your interpersonal skills, character and attitude are skills critical in you doing well, more than just academic ability. If you have read earlier posts, a third-class honours student got a job in Shell ahead of some of the brightest minds, which i believe largely due his or her soft skill sets.

      Content and results are important to be a competent engineer, but nothing beats the need of soft skills such as communication and ability to work as a group. Knowledge to be a competent engineer is more than just knowing the academic engineering knowledge, it also requires you to be able to apply it practically in the workplace. If you have a bright idea, but ur lack of soft skills prevents you from communicating ideas across, your employers will not be convinced(they have the knowledge too) and your competencies go to watse just like that, which is sad.
      Even employers are looking more into such skill sets that the content from the modules can never teach.

      Do encourage you to take such projects with an open heart and i believe you will reap the long term benefits.


  25. Hi Prof Tan,

    for FASS–specifically the applied sciences, e.g. social work, perhaps more weigh can be given to projects instead of the final exams. Applied sciences are learnt better hands-on (i feel) and what’s the point of knowing theories very thoroughly but yet, you cannot apply them?

  26. Dear Readers,

    The Provost’s Office (PVO) is issuing a friendly call to a student who left his name as Mark, and contributed a comment on the Managerial Economics paper and the lecturer at 5.30pm today. Unfotunately we are unable to reach Mark with the email address he used. We’ll be happy if Mark could get in touch with us at racheltanwy@nus.edu.sg for a chat. Cheers and we hope you write to us soon!

    Mod, Rachel

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