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.



  1. I have read all the posts here and I believe the gradeless system for the first year students will be very problematic and risky. There are some alternatives provided by the posters which I agree with, and some not. The point I am making here is that, in whatever way the school wants to change, it has to be in a gradual manner. Any step that is too big will certainly cause unforeseen impacts and potential problems. Therefore, one of the simple way to improve without having any problem is to increase the number of S/U chances a student can have.

  2. I have to agree with Eason’s point that this initiative maybe too big a step for NUS. There should a gradual build up before implementing such a system. Furthermore, I think that I is wrong to assume that the grading system hinders one from trying out something new in their university life. As a hall resident, I have taken up 5ccas and the grading system itself lets me know where exactly i should balance my work/activities. Taking out this grading system may result in another extreme where one focuses purely on external activities and neglects work, making it even more difficult to adapt on the following years.
    Secondly, I would like to address the point of NS men needing time to catch up and ‘Warm up our brains”. I feel that the removal of the grading system will further encourage us to remain in our state of relaxation and carefree life’ It would be too positive to assume that everyone would use this opportunity to push their boundaries.
    Hence I feel that the Grading system should still remain as a check list on where our balance in life should be and instead the focus should be on changing the mentality of the students that life is more than just about grades. The increase in the number of S/us could be a better alternative as the students will still know where they stand while reducing the impact of the ‘regrets’ they made in their first year

    1. Sorry, I had some problems typing in my comments a day ago. Good to hear that you could balance your hall and academic activities. As mentioned earlier, the proposed system should retain the motivation to do well.

  3. What about students struggling in the 2nd onwards? The school should at least allow us to S/U a couple of our core modules; there are times where we struggle with our new, higher level core modules no matter how accustomed we are.

    And currently, the University environment is ridiculously fixated on grades. Everyone is heavily concerned about studying within the scope of exams and graded tasks; hardly anyone is passionate about learning deeper beyond examinable content.

    This is partially because our examinable content is too heavy and taking up too much time to prepare. Especially for science nature modules, exam is a memory game, testing who can remember the tiniest bits of details from the lecture notes. Top scorers are often the best memorisers; the exam and grading system is practically a flop.

    I can provide ideas to create a more passionate learning environment, but if this grading flop doesn’t change, nothing will, and I guess we’ll produce exam-oriented graduates.

  4. I like the option raised by Prof Tan in a previous comment:
    Option 1: “Keeping letter grades but not counting towards the CAP is another option which we are considering.”

    However, I have a further suggestion that should be implemented on top of the above:
    Option 2: The system automatically chooses the three worst subjects (but with grade >= C) to apply the S/U option on. Preferably, this is done across all letter-graded modules, but either way, this option is better than the current system. This should take effect on the CAP computation (whenever the modules’ results are released), but not the SAP computation.
    So of course, first year students will be happy to have a much higher CAP (out of the 5-6 modules taken, only the top 2-3 modules are counted in their CAP), but this is just a side-effect.

    1. Just option 1 alone would allow future employers to view the grades in detail (if there are important subjects that are not counted in the CAP). This would also solve the dilemma of students who did reasonably well (but below their usual CAP) for a module. If he applies S/U, he has no way to show his good achievement in that module. If he doesn’t apply S/U, he will pull down his CAP.

    2. With any of options 1/2, students will try their best for every module, and not think that the module is to be “S/U”ed in the end. However, option 1 only improves this situation a little. With option 2, there is always a chance that you will do worse for a future module, so you will take advantage of any opportunity to do well.

    3. With the current S/U system, students are forced to make an irrevokable declaration every semester. To be honest, I have not researched the reason for this, but I think this might be solely for administrative convenience and not for the benefit of students. With option 2, students will not be faced with the hard task of predicting the future in order to decide whether to S/U a module.

    1. Generally, a policy should be easily understood and hopefully easily implementable. Your option 2 is more of a grade-forgiving nature, and is not in line with our intention.

      1. I don’t see any reason to believe that it is “grade-forgiving”. I hope you could explain why you think so. For example, if one gets at least 6 modules of a C-grade, with option 2 at least 3 of the C-grade modules are counted in the CAP. In the original system, assuming these modules can be “S/U-ed”, it could be the same if one applies the S/U option judiciously. Moreover with option 1 also implemented, all the grades will be etched forever on the transcript. Furthermore, I think a grade-less 1st year is worse than this in “grade-forgiving”.

        This option 2 is not at all hard to implement. One just needs to keep track of the three worst grades. Moreover, it will save students the trouble of declaring their S/U intentions. Once the system is fixed, it is also convenient from the administration point of view because no one needs to record any declaration or anything (the CAP is completely dependent on the final module grades).

        Of course it’s best that option 1 is also implemented because students/employers might want to be transparent about the grades.

        As for being easy to understand, this is a short sentence to describe it: “The system gives you the best CAP as possible given a limit of 3 S/U options”. I don’t think it is hard to understand that.

        1. Lwzd’s suggested a method worth looking into. NUS High School of Math and Science exercised a similar system for Chinese language modules and electives.

  5. With the introduction of the S/U policy in NUS, the institution decided to position it as a strategy for students to take more risk than they otherwise would have. With its somewhat successful implementation, this policy has been further implemented at the Utown Residences and will be rolled out to various faculties.

    With the potential for S/Us to be applied to more than just 3 modules on a forced basis, perhaps the institution should seriously consider certain criticisms of this strategy. Particularly the strategy’s inability to get students to take classes that can be S/Ued seriously. Perhaps this is because while NUS has tried to change the way its students view classes, it has not done the same with the other side of the equation, its professors – who still view classes as a prelude to examinations when exams no longer matter.

    I argue that it is the mismatch of expectations between student and professor brought on by a contradiction in the university’s policy that leaves such criticism unanswered. A possible way of resolving this would be to get the professors to alter their method of instruction/syllabus such that exams no longer matter or to alter the exams themselves such that Pass/Fail/A/B/C doesn’t matter. With regards to the latter, perhaps NUS could take a note from its own book and conduct a student feedback session, similar to the conduct grade and description that teachers give students at the pre-tertiary level where professors could perhaps tell students what they think of their student’s strengths and weaknesses.

    1. Professors should adapt their teaching in response to the gradeless feature. We need some time for professors and students to respond to these changes. In your comments, you are implicitly referring to the competency model of assessment which is possible for small programmes, but more challenging in a society that thrives on meritocracy.

  6. Dear Provost,

    I am a RNS student currently taking the iMOOCs module and will be starting school this Aug and intend to apply for ST.
    Would the gradeless year take into effect this coming Aug?
    If yes, will it extend to modules in the iMOOCs and ST?

    To be honest I rather get the modules graded in the first year.
    At least it will let me find out if I am getting back to the “studying” mood and it will motivate to do better if the grades are not as decent.

    I agree with the comments that suggest having more S/U options. Alternatively, it can be a choice for first-years to have the modules graded or not. Being an adult, we should be able to decide for ourselves the best option.

    1. Yes, the gradeless feature will be extended to the modules currently offered to RNSmen. (It is called the iBLOC (instead of iMOOC), and stands for “internal-Blended Learning Online Courses”.

  7. I prefer that the grading system to be tweaked more in the way how grades are given, rather than whether to grade a subject/module or not. A bell curve system does not reflect one’s true ability, but only reflects one’s ability relative to his/her peers. I suggest that student’s percentage score be also disclosed along with the grades, which is what is done in some if not most other universities. This way us students have a better idea of how we are coping with the subject contents, by looking at the scores, rather than the grades. Hence students can judge oneself by looking at the score not the grade, since score and grade are different guidelines altogether This may also make students stress less on grades.

  8. I think students will become too complacent without the grading system and when they go to second year, it becomes the same – they struggle with the grade.
    Since these students are being selected to study in NUS, I’d like to believe that they can actually cope with it. Perhaps NUS should have more faith in the students they selected. There will definitely be some of them who can’t do well, but I think the grade-less system will make it even worse.
    If the purpose is to improve the overall performance of the students (of course, including the eventual knowledge that the students acquired from those courses) I would think that revisiting the curriculum of the first year courses in which students tend not to do well is more practical.

  9. One of the reason for implement this system is to help incoming students to adjust to the culture of university life. However, removing the grading system and hence, the competitiveness is akin to removing the core element of the academic culture in NUS. While you cited Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine as a successful example, does it extrapolate to the general student population in NUS? These future doctors are after all, a group of ‘academic elites’ who went in with more than just straight A’s.

    Why don’t the university consider reducing the MCs for (selected) modules taken in first year instead? In that way, competitiveness is retained, allowing the student to gauge where they stand and at the same time, these modules will have a lesser impact on the CAP for students who needs a longer time to adjust to the university environment.

  10. Hi Provost,

    I think this is a very good system for the University. I am very happy for NUS and prospective students. We are bold to take this big change so reflects our NUS slogan about ‘change’.

    Not so sure for my female friends, but coming back from NS to studies was not a very smooth journey for me during my freshmen year. Although some may argue that the true competitiveness is not reflected, the many benefits triumph the pure academic results which is in fact not the most important in a student’s life.

    I am on NUS Overseas College Shanghai now and it is on this trip that I came to understand the importance of learning for passion and knowledge rather than just for grades. I am totally convinced and believe that broadening one’s perspective and getting more exposure is what all of us should look forward to. The reading of cross faculty modules do help or initiate such a effect.

  11. Hi Prof,
    I would just like to mention a few things.
    1. A graceless first year would remove the stress in the first year, but it will come at the cost of extra stress the 2nd to 3rd (4th) years, since it is cumulative. If you add in the semester on exchange, it effectively becomes 1.5(2.5) semesters of graded results. Something to take note, especially about the stress part. It might encourage more active school participation in the first year, but less in the subsequent years.
    2. I personally believe that the problem does not come from the grading, it comes from the bell curve. I am aware that the bell curve is to ensure proportionality, but would rather have a higher absolute standard as a form of grading, which, if works well, will actually normalise without any need to tinker the grades.
    3. Students might choose to overload many modules in their first year to “escape” from the grading.

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