A Different Grading System in the First Year for Undergraduates

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

Why are we embarking on this change?

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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