Grade-free scheme for freshmen: Greater flexibility in shaping your transformative learning journey

In AY2014/15, NUS introduced a new grading system for modular degree programmes in the form of a revised S/U policy, where students may exercise the S/U option (i.e. students can decide whether to include or exclude the grades obtained for those modules in the computation of the Cumulative Average Point) for up to 20 modular credits (MCs) during the first semester of their candidature. In addition, students may exercise the S/U option for up to another 12 MCs at any time during the candidature.

The objectives of this grading system are to encourage a change in the way students think about grades and learning at university, and to help students make a smooth transition to the academic and social culture of university life. In so doing, a student’s anxiety about his or her academic performance should be alleviated during the first semester.

I had previously conveyed that we will be monitoring and evaluating how students and faculty members take to this new grading system.

Two cohorts of freshmen have since experienced the new grading system in their first semester and it is time to take stock. The usage patterns of the S/U options were similar for the first-year students of AY2014/15 and AY2015/16. Majority of students (about 80%) had exercised their S/U options for 3 or fewer modules; about 5% of students had exercised their S/U options fully.

We studied the student feedback carefully and an analysis of the qualitative comments received found that students took well to the new grading system. The new grading system also helped to reduce stress levels, and had encouraged them to take academic risks.

We have also noticed that students have become more adventurous in their choice of modules, and have ventured beyond their academic comfort zones. Nearly one-third of the modules read by first-year students in AY2015/16 were non-core modules (defined as modules not read as essential, programme essential, elective, programme elective or compulsory cross-faculty module). This is a significant increase compared to the modules read by the first-year students in AY2013/14. I see this as a positive development, that students are increasingly making good use of the opportunities of being in a comprehensive university, to broaden their perspectives and horizons by reading modules beyond their degree discipline.

To better analyse the effect of the grading system on student academic performance in the first semester, faculty members were asked not to vary their teaching and grading methods. It was found that there were no significant changes in the overall grade distributions before and after the revised S/U policy was introduced. This suggests that student academic performance was not compromised, even though they now have access to the S/U options for their first semester. NUS students were not complacent and continued to be academically engaged. With the S/U option, there remains a strong incentive to strive for good grades, while eliminating the anxiety and stress of poor grades. Having worked with two cohorts of freshmen, faculty members are convinced that NUS students are intrinsically motivated and in general, possess good learning habits.

To enable students to benefit from the S/U option more fully across the first year, NUS will be making further adjustments to the grading policy for first-year students. From AY2016/17, first-year students may exercise the S/U option for up to 32 MCs in their first year. If this is not fully utilised, the S/U option may then be saved for modules taken in subsequent semesters, for up to 12 MCs.

In essence, the total number of MCs available for S/U throughout one’s undergraduate candidature will remain unchanged, at 32 MCs. But students will now have the flexibility to exercise the S/U option for most modules in their first year, hence extending the opportunities for academic exploration across the first year, beyond the first semester.

The first-year grading policy must be seen in the context of a suite of educational initiatives that NUS has introduced progressively in recent years, to create a truly transformative educational experience that prepares students to take on the challenges of life and work in the 21st century. The new General Education curriculum, the Centre for Future-ready Graduates’ life skills programmes, expanding opportunities for students to participate in the NUS Overseas Colleges Programme as well as integrated living and learning at our Residential Colleges, are but some of the educational enhancements that enable students to maximise their learning experiences at NUS.

Students admitted into NUS are academically strong. We hope that this new first-year grading policy that will take effect in AY2016/17 will create even more time, space and opportunities to pursue adventurous and deep learning, and to move away from the over-emphasis on grades.

On a related note, MOE has recently announced that from 2021, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands. Under the new scoring system, PSLE grading will no longer be based on how students fare relative to their peers. This move will hopefully encourage students to go beyond being exam smart, and to focus on one’s own learning, rather than competing to do better than others. Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Mr Ng Chee Meng explained that the current PSLE scoring system is too precise, and differentiates students more finely than necessary.

I welcome this move. MOE recognises that education is not about training book smarts – the emphasis should be on learning. There is no need to grade, sort and differentiate students at every possible juncture.

In the same spirit, the freshman year is an opportune time to immerse oneself in the social and academic culture of university life, to uncover, discover and pursue one’s intellectual curiosities and passions, setting you on course for lifelong learning. At NUS, we have created a first-year grading policy that allows for this self-development journey.

Please let me have your thoughts.


    1. As stated above, I believe the purpose of this scheme is not only to make students adjust easier to university life. I am an engineering student in the first cohort when this scheme was implemented and I personally think it will be better if this scheme is extended into 1 year as almost all of our modules (4 out of 5 for most engineering programmes) in the first semester were pre-allocated which limit the students to take other modules that they are interested in from other departments or faculties and thus, it defeated the one of the purposes of the scheme which is to encourage students in learning beyond their degree discipline. I believe with the extension of this scheme to 1 year, it will improve the learning experience for the students.

  1. I’m a B.Tech student myself at NUS , and I must say that this S/U option has really helped us part time students as well . We work during the day because we aren’t financially capable enough .

    So u have to imagine after going through an entire day of developing new processes while troubleshooting quality issues and chairing meetings , at 6pm you still have to drag yourself to class and listen to the prof or TA . Most of us can only absorb 30-40% of the prof’s teachings .

    This S/U options helped us to balance our CAP , which is a huge boost to our confidence . Through this we can also feel that the NUS do care about the student’s academic lives .

  2. I am a final year student soon graduating. I would like to share my thoughts on the transition to gradeless first year. In short, I am against the transition.

    My arguments are that:
    1) A university should uphold the integrity of its academic rigor. By extending gradeless first semester into gradeless first year, it is tantamount to grade inflation. Even though we shall not over-emphasize on the grades and cultivate book smarts, we also cannot downplay the importance of grades in measuring students’ ability and hardwork they put in. Grade inflation could potentially paint negative pictures on the university’s academic rigor to outsiders. In my opinion, world renowned schools are respected because of their academic rigor, not (and never) because of grade inflation. For me, a graduating student soon becoming an alumnus, I hope my alma mater could continue to excel, not deliver negative pictures and undermine our qualifications.

    2) The whole purpose of gradeless first semester is to encourage students to take up academic risk and help them adjust to university life. For the purpose of adjusting to university life, I believe the gradeless first semester suffices. As for encouraging students to take up academic risk and broaden their academic exposure, I believe there is better alternative. For instance, school could consider the practice of auditing a course. I personally audit one module in this semester for my sheer academic interest. However, I find the practice of auditing module is not well known across the cohort. I personally only get to know the practice in Year 3. If university really wants to encourage students to pursue their academic interest outside their major studies, the university should consider promoting the practice of auditing. Auditing on the other hand won’t inflate the grades.

    These are my own opinions and thank you for reading.

    1. Thanks, Jason. NUS, and perhaps most of Singapore, is too grade-oriented. This is a small step to help change the mindset of students. Of course, some would game it. But I hope that when this settles, more would capitalize on the benefits of taking academic risks and get in the mode of real learning.

  3. This is really bad news for existing students. Years of hard work poured into a university’s curricula, only to know someone else gets a free ride.

    How are we going to find jobs like that when in a couple of years juniors with first class come (and better CV as they have more time to explore outside stuff) and outcompete us? This is going to lead to CAP inflation.. If I did not count my first year’s grades, I would have jumped a class.

    At the same time employers may start viewing NUS’s CAP as heavily inflated. It’s already competitive enough out there with the upcoming recession, don’t make it harder for us.

    1. what a selfish way of thinking. This system in the first place is to improve students’ learning experience; not to make the juniors taking your jobs or some other excuses people are trying to come up with. Well-known universities in the world such as MIT has also implemented this system long ago and it turns out that the students’ learning experience is massively improved.

      You are not going to compete with them anyway in finding jobs unless you graduate together with them. Your CAP will only useful when you are finding your first job. Employers would also know about this news and have their expectations higher when they encounter the cohorts that which are affected by this scheme, not your cohort. Besides, the employers wont know the the juniors’ CAP since they havent graduated and looked for their first jobs.

      and its only 20 MCs, it wont really affect the overall CAP that badly i believe, unless you do really worse in some subjects (but again I feel if you have put enough hard work, you will get better results).

        1. The topic of job competition aside, do you really think that implementing the gradeless first year scheme will help students adapt to the university curricular?

          The freshmen that I’ve met this semester have all talked about how they went out having fun and enjoying themselves in the first semester and ended up having to S/U some or most of their modules. How is this improving their learning experience?

          Although in the first semester this is understandable as all freshmen are still adapting to the system and getting used to hall activities and such. However, most of them should have adjusted by the start of the second semester, they should know what to expect and do in most modules and they should also know that the real university experience involves not having a gradeless whatever to safeguard them in case they fail.

          In the end, this gradeless year scheme is merely providing them with an illusion of security. Rather than exposing them to the rigor of the university curricular, delaying this for another semester might even be harmful to them.

          1. I agree with you. There seems to be too many “Jasons” here. To clarify, I wrote the first and third post, not the one replying Jane. Not sure why the person chose the same name just to create confusion.

            In essence, I am against the gradeless first year.

          2. Let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly. Our study, through surveys and focus group discussions, have given good indications that the grade-free semester scheme is helpful.

      1. I would like to defend Jane for a little bit because there is a legitimate concern here.

        While the motivations for a grade-less first year are good and sound, existing students are necessarily placed at a disadvantage because we have no access to such privileges. There is a need to acknowledge this (even if it is believed that it is not important when implementing such a policy) simply because it tends to create a sense of unfairness among existing students when employers (for the most part) still look to the CAP for a quick indication of a student’s abilities

        It was also mentioned that employers “will know about this news and have their expectations higher” for the affected cohorts. There are a number loopholes in this argument. Firstly, given the vast number of resumes and job applications employers receive from various cohorts of students, it is difficult to believe that they take note of the cohort NUS applicants are from to correct their expectations for the grade-less first year scheme. Secondly, given the recent change in the naming of the honors classifications, it creates even more difficulty in distinguishing between cohorts. Lastly, students graduate at different times during their candidature with NUS due to LOAs and/or other extensions. So, there is a good change that these students “graduate together with them”. Besides, you do not have to graduate with the grade-less first year students to be at a disadvantage. They can apply to similar internships. As such, it is a challenge to presume that employers will simply adjust their expectations when students who benefited from this scheme graduate.

        Finally, every semester counts in the run up to graduation. 32MCs is a lot and as Jane mentioned, can push a student up an honors classification. It should not be ignored.

        Honestly, I do not have a good solution to balance the ideals of a more vibrant academic experience while cushioning the disadvantages faced by existing students. However, in my opinion, the grade-less first semester is already very generous and there is no need to extend it to a year.

        Perhaps the cost to existing students is too small relative to the benefits to forgo the scheme entirely and these students should just shrug their shoulders and say “too bad”.

  4. In lieu of the new first year free S/U system, I think in order to truly encourage the students to go beyond, they should come up with another system, not just the grade free first year that seems to cater to the incoming freshmen only.

    Here’s the suggestion: Students should be allowed to take up extra modules outside of their core modules, such as languages without the penalties of affecting their cap if they do badly.

    Basically, the students should declare what “extra” modules they want to take up before the start of the semester and these modules are either a S or an U regardless of the grade they get and would not count towards their graduation requirements.
    My motivation for this system is that I would like to take up another language in NUS but am afraid of it affecting my cap. Currently, there are no UEs left for me, so taking extra modules would not only not count towards my graduation but due to the lack of SUs, I would hesitate to take an extra module that could potentially affect my CAP. With this system, I’ll definitely be more adventurous to try out more modules and it would benefit those who are year 3 or 4 as well.

    Would like to hear from everyone as well!

    1. Taking more modules than the usual 40 (or 30 for a basic degree) is already possible, and some (though not too many) students have done so. With the grade-free scheme, a student would be free to take any level 1000 module and not have its grade affect his/her CAP.

  5. Dear Provost,
    I welcome the transition to the grade-free scheme for freshmen, as it brings the focus to learning rather than being stressed out by grades.

    May I bring your attention to another issue (at the graduate level) that I believe needs to be addressed, namely the Qualifying Exam for PhD students.

    For many faculties, the PhD Qualifying Exam (QE) is kind of redundant as it overlaps module content. For instance, the QE for Math comprises of Algebra (which overlaps with the module Graduate Algebra I), and Analysis (which overlaps with the module Graduate Analysis I). In essence, students are being tested twice where one examination should suffice. The time spent preparing for the QE can be better utilized to start research. Furthermore, there is a trend whereby even students getting “A”s for the relevant modules (e.g. Algebra I, Analysis I) can fail the QE, which brings doubt into whether the QE is being set at an appropriate level.

    Certain schools (e.g. Cornell have stopped the practice of qualifying exams. Instead it is replaced by basic modules that have to be taken.

    Perhaps it is time for NUS to revise/relook into whether Qualifying Exams are still relevant. The effects of the Qualifying Exams are potentially more serious than Grade-free semester, as students who fail the qualifying exam are being booted out of the programme, whereas with or without the grade-free semester it is (merely) a difference in CAP for the freshmen.

    Particularly of concern is whether the Qualifying Exam is being used as a “weed out tool” to weed out students whose background are weak. The “weeding out” process should have been done right at admission, and not after 1-2 years where the student have made significantly investments (time/money/opportunity costs) into the program?

    I believe with your background in Mathematics at Yale, you do have a view on the purpose of Qualifying Exams in Graduate School (especially in the sciences), will be interested to hear what are your views on it, be it for or against.

    Thanks Provost.

    1. We take in a spectrum of PhD students from top universities in the Southeast Asian, Chinese and Indian universities. The competency of these PhD students are not usually apparent in their transcripts, and hence the need for a qualifying exam. Once our PhD programmes are more established, and we have more information in calibrating different qualifications across universities, we could perhaps dispense with this exam.

  6. Honestly, I feel that 1 semester is more than enough for everyone to get used to the university’s curriculum. Although there are faculties like engineering (which I’ve read above) whereby most modules are pre-allocated to them in their first year, other faculties do not have such restrictions and are allowed to choose what kind of modules they want to take from the first semester.

    Therefore, instead of generalizing this scheme to the whole of NUS, it could be better if this ‘gradeless year’ scheme could be implemented to faculties which pre-allocates modules to their students instead of letting them decide which modules to take themselves.

    Secondly, as Jane mentioned, this scheme puts us existing students in a disadvantage when it comes to looking for jobs in the future. No doubt, CAP inflation will occur. Unless there is some sort of countermeasure that can solve this problem, I don’t think this should be implemented at all.

    Having said that, these are just my opinions, if there are others who feel differently, I would like to hear from you too.

    P.S. Please change it back to a gradeless semester, this is too unfair for me to ignore.

  7. I feel like many people misread the new system. The MCs given for this ‘gradeless year’ is the exact same as MCs given for ‘gradeless semester’ at 32 MCs. Probably because NUS already realises the possibility of CAP inflation. True, there will be an amount of CAP inflation, but only a slight increase from the gradeless semester simply because the total number of modules you can SU is the same. If the freshies choose to SU 8 modules in their year 1, they will be left with no more SUs at all for their next 3 years. Meaning, in effect under a ‘gradeless year’ on average a freshie can SU 2 more modules assuming he decided to SU 3 previously in sem 1 (which was the norm). These 2 modules i mean can arguably change a lot, or change little in terms of giving a more holistic experience for students vs changes in CAP.

    In fact, I am worried that this system might seem elusive for freshies because they allow freshies to use up the extra 12 SUs (typically allowed for year 2 and 3) to spend within their first year. This i believe is a mechanism to reduce CAP inflation too even though its legit quite bad for freshies, they won’t know what hit them lol when they reach year 2 and 3.

    But overall, I still think that this is a good move taken by NUS to continue with the same number of MCs and extend it to a year instead. Science had already did it and it is well received there.

    As for the effects on students on the ground, I believe that all our sample sizes are different? The commenter above argued that freshies took more time to play and join more activities. But from what i saw from freshies is that they still studied very hard. Judging from the increase in students studying at clb from previous years, not much different from seniors (not accurate i know). My friends who are freshies still do study hard, after all NUS is made up of people who are more book smart and fighting against the bell curve helps us kill each other lol.

    For the effects on immediate seniors who have a lower cap, it is legit quite sad and need to suck thumb. But you have to understand that NUS as a top school, needs to think holistically long term for future batches. They cannot allow the 1/2 immediate batches to stop the changes they want to make in the school in their future years. I mean at that rate, if we are too fixated on short term, there will never be any forms of changes or improvements under any institution, whether good or bad.

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