To All New University Students, Carpe Diem

In many Western societies, families regard going to university as a momentous coming-of-age event. It is often the first time sons and daughters will bid farewell to the comforts of home to spend an extended time away from their families, in a completely new and exciting environment, many miles away.

In Singapore, though many students continue to live at home with their families, the entrance into university also marks the beginning of a new adventure. I want to congratulate all freshmen and women who are matriculating into our local universities. They have worked hard to earn a place and there is much to look forward to. Singapore universities offer a world-class education and a transformative experience.

At NUS, students begin their academic journey with a grade-free first semester. NUS is a large and comprehensive university, comprising 16 Faculties and Schools which offer over 50 Bachelor disciplinary degrees. The grade-free semester presents a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in intellectual exploration. Beyond one’s chosen discipline, students can read and discover other subject areas of interest, acquaint themselves with perspectives and frameworks that other disciplines employ, and pursue intellectual inquiry in a broad range of subjects. This pursuit is encouraged in the nurturing yet rigorous scaffolds of a grade-free semester, where the university maintains high standards in grading, but students who score at least a C grade may choose to include or exclude their grade in their final grade. This policy allows for a gentler transition from pre-university to NUS and it encourages all new students to take a fresh approach and to pursue their curiosity and interests without fear of adversely affecting their grades.

Some freshmen and women may find the academic culture of university life very different from their earlier school years. The demands of university are different; one is expected to engage with a much greater degree of depth, independent thinking and learning. Professors will probe and question as part of the teaching and learning process; please do not feel intimidated or personally aggrieved. Students are expected to speak out and lay down their thoughts and ideas. We do not have ten-year series. It is also fairly difficult to get private tutors to help you. Instead, students will find themselves learning through active interaction with professors and peers, inside and outside class. The grade-free semester will help freshmen and women in transitioning to this new academic culture.

For many Singaporeans, university life is also the first time one is immersed in an international setting. Every year, NUS welcomes nearly 2,000 exchange students from abroad who spend a semester living and studying alongside NUS students. These interactions with international friends from different cultures, school systems and backgrounds, whether as hall mates, project mates or classmates, broaden everyone’s perspectives and outlook. This exposure gives us an appreciation of a global working environment and develops our cross-cultural competence.

There are many advantages of being part of a large campus community. There is much life, learning and enrichment beyond the classrooms. University life is about self-directed learning, where one is not compelled, but chooses how and what we want to be part of. I urge students to partake in the rich offerings of campus life, both in the varied academic curricular options and the wide range of co-curricular activities (CCA). At NUS, for instance, there are many performing arts groups, a wide range of competitive and recreational varsity sports groups, interest groups, and over 100 clubs and student societies. There are also many student-led activities at Residential Colleges and Halls of Residence. Students will thus have many avenues to try out new interests and activities. For students who have a specific interest, connect with others on campus who share the same passion. There are also avenues for students to lead and champion a cause, perhaps within the Residential College, Hall or Faculty, or even, to seed a business idea and/or establish a start-up. CCA experiences are often fun, rewarding and the memories and friendships forged will carry on for a lifetime.

In short, a university education is what we make it out to be. Alumni of NUS who visit our campus are often awed by the facilities and wide range of opportunities that undergraduates have today, from flexible degree pathways, to cross-disciplinary studies, entrepreneurial opportunities, overseas exchange, research and residential living and learning programmes – the possibilities are innumerable. Thus, to all freshmen and women, Carpe Diem! I wish them the very best as they embark on this exciting journey.

SU1101: The Science (and Art) of the S/U Option

Season’s Greetings!


As the year draws to a close, many people (myself included) are beginning to wind down and recharge, before gearing up for the new year. It also marks the end of the grade-free first semester which the University implemented for the new freshman cohort in August.


With the release of exam results, it will also be the very first time the freshmen are exercising the Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory (S/U) option on your modules. These are decisions you have to deliberate carefully within the three-day window after your results are released. Revocation or retrospective declaration is not allowed.


Some of you may turn to your seniors for guidance, seek advice at online forums, or try out different combinations with the CAP calculator. Let me also share my views about making sound S/U decisions.


(Disclaimer: this is NOT the Provost’s secret to attaining a perfect CAP, just a mathematics professor sharing the mechanisms of S/U 🙂 )


First of all, know the rules!


Modules taken in the first semester are eligible for the S/U option, with some exceptions. Do double check the eligibility of your modules before participating in the declaration exercise.


Each freshman may exercise up to 20 MCs worth of S/U options within the first semester only. Unless otherwise approved, unused S/U options may not be carried forward to the next semester.


Next, do the math!


Remember that a Satisfactory (S) grade is the equivalent of a C grade and above, while an Unsatisfactory (U) grade is the equivalent of a D+ grade and below.


You have been told that S and U grades are not computed into the CAP. Let me explain how this works with the formula used to derive the CAP:



Suppose a student obtains 4 Bs and 1 C for 5 modules read this semester, and each module carries 4 modular credits (MCs).



Assuming he keeps his grades, his CAP will be

(4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 2.0) = 3.20

4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4


If he chooses to exercise S/U on the C graded module, his CAP will be

(4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 2.0) = 3.50

4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4


Every time S/U is exercised, the module is removed from both the numerator and the denominator in the formula. Ideally, you should aim to exercise the S/U options in a way that would improve your CAP. (For instance, in the above example I wouldn’t S/U a B!)


Note that with each S/U option exercised, your remaining modules will influence the CAP more significantly. For instance, if a student pursuing a four-year programme converts four modules (out of 40 modules) as Satisfactory, the CAP will be calculated based on 36 modules.


This can work for or against you depending on your academic performance in subsequent semesters, so think carefully about how many S/U options you wish to exercise.


Now, which grades should you keep?


If you obtained A or A+, well done and keep the grade!


If you obtained B+ or A-, I would generally encourage you to keep the grade as well. For those who may be thinking of exercising S/U on a B+ to qualify for the Dean’s List, do note that there will NOT be Dean’s Lists for the first two semesters.


If you obtained Bs and Cs, it is a little tricky. In theory, you should exercise S/U on your worst grades. However, the challenge is to do so without foresight of the grades that you will get for subsequent semesters. You should base your decisions on your academic goals and your self-assessment of your expected academic performance for the rest of your candidature. If you do not have a goal right now, your first semester CAP (before any S/U options are exercised) may be a good guide.


In general, it would be helpful to S/U modules whose grade points fall below your desired CAP. Let me illustrate with two examples.


Student X from the School of Design and Environment obtained the following exam results for the first semester:


AR1101 B

AR1121 B-

GEK1016 C+

LAF1201 B+

PF2102 C+


Without S/U, Student X’s CAP will be 3.10 – this is an important number to keep in mind. Presumably, Student X is still adapting to the university academic environment. Now order the grades in descending order: B+, B, B-, C+, C+. Obviously, one would consider applying S/U from the modules with C+. If Student X applies S/U to the two modules with C+ grades, then his/her CAP becomes 3.50. Suppose he/she thinks that he/she could maintain a CAP of 3.50 and above, then that’s it. However, if he/she is more optimistic on his/her future performance, it may make sense to keep the grades for LAF1201 and AR1101, and exercise S/U on the rest, thereby giving him/her a CAP of 3.75. A word of caution here: if his/her eventual CAP (i.e., after 4 years) is less than 3.00, then he/she may regret applying S/U to the module AR1121 with the B- grade. Generally, it would be wise to consider applying S/U to the modules with grade points below 3.10, i.e., you S/U the modules with B- and C+ grades to give a CAP of 3.75. It is also possible, if one is confident of an average of 3.50 in future, to S/U the modules with the C+ grades, leading to a CAP of 3.50.


Now, consider Student Y from the Faculty of Science, with the following exam results:


CM1101 C+  

EN1101E B

FST1101 B+

GEK1505 B+    

LSM1101 A-


Without S/U, Student Y’s CAP would be a commendable 3.70. It is useful to order the grades as follows: A-, B+, B+, B, C+. Suppose Student Y is confident of maintaining a CAP of above 4.00, he/she can get closer to his/her goal in two ways: solely retain the grade for LSM1101 but exercise S/U on the rest (which gives a CAP of 4.50, but I would think is too risky!), or keep the grades for his/her three best modules, LSM1101, FST1101 and GEK1505 (giving him/her a CAP of 4.17). Generally, if he/she assumes that the first semester is a good reflection of future grades, then he/she should just S/U the modules with grade point less than 3.70, i.e., the modules CM1101 and EN1101E.


Remember that what matters is not the impact of S/U on your first semester CAP, but its impact on your expected CAP for the remaining semesters.


If you obtained D or D+, it is generally advantageous to convert it to a U in the first semester. Your CAP should improve (unless you get all Fs in subsequent semesters!), and you will have the opportunity to retake the module (or take another module) for a better grade. However, do note that this comes at the cost of a heavier workload in one of your remaining semesters, as you have to make up for the missing MCs. It could also lead to additional financial costs, if you choose to read a module in Special Term. Such a move may not be too wise if you are approaching your final semester.


If you obtained an F grade, please exercise the S/U and try again next semester.


Last word of advice: remember the C in CAP…


The S/U option offers a second chance to those who may take a while to adjust to university life, be it in the academic setting or the overall campus experience. However, it is not a quick fix for a lack of effort or complacency. CAP is still a cumulative measurement, and ultimately, it is consistent hard work that will determine your overall academic performance.


While this will hopefully serve as a guide to optimise your CAP (after you have sat for the exams), I am not advocating that you prioritise CAP optimisation over all other goals. There are many other things you can get out of university life. Even after the first semester, I hope you can continue to read modules of intellectual interest (remember that you still have 12 MCs of S/U options!), try out different study-life combinations by taking part in different co-curricular activities, or simply spend time to bond with your friends.


For now, know the rules, do the math, and use your S/U options wisely. All the best.



Welcoming Ridge View Residential College

The University is no longer a place just for purely academic pursuits – it must also equip its students with the necessary competencies (such as intellectual liveliness, inquisitiveness, inner resilience, etc.) to ensure that they are well prepared for the global community and workplace.

This is the opportune time for me to welcome the ‘newest kid on the block’ among the Residential Colleges at NUS – Ridge View Residential College (RVRC). One of the key aims of RVRC is to conceptualise and implement a well-integrated programme to nurture future-ready graduates. The College welcomed its pioneer batch of 100 first-year undergraduates last month and along with 14 peer mentors; they have all settled into the Tower Block of the Ridge View Residences. The students come from five Faculties, namely Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, School of Computing, School of Design and Environment, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Science. They will spend their freshmen year in this unique living-learning programme, which we hope will help them make a smooth transition into university life.

The residential colleges, halls and residences are indeed a good setting to help students discover the special qualities in each of them, while concurrently developing their intellectual capabilities. RVRC believes in harnessing its inter-disciplinary approach to curriculum to give students wide exposure to different approaches, perspectives and ideas. The modules which the College offers, along with the communal living that comes with on-campus housing, will ensure that students have a well-rounded experience in the very crucial first year at NUS.

Each student enrolled in this one-year residency programme reads three core modules – GEM1917, an inter-disciplinary as well as the anchor module focusing on sustainability; ES1601, which emphasises professional and academic communication required in the University and the workplace; and WR1401, which weaves in sports, career readiness, and experiential activities for team and personal effectiveness.  These three modules are year-long and are designed to fit into each student’s core modules read within their own scope of work at their respective Faculties/Schools.

Our approach gives students the time and space to understand, dialogue with various audiences including their peers, and internalise the concepts discussed. It also allows students to develop a comprehensive appreciation of and an enriched discussion on the challenges of specific topics. Each module is taught by dedicated instructors from an extensive pool both within and outside the NUS community. GEM1917 is particularly appealing, which I suspect is partly due to the strong interest generated by ongoing debates on sustainability.  Senior undergraduates have written to the College to ask if they can sign up for the module!

One of the objectives of creating residential colleges is to ‘purposefully create settings that maximise peer-to-peer learning’[i]. RVRC students can also be rest assured, knowing that the Peer Mentors (senior undergraduates who have been carefully selected to be part of the RVRC community to provide peer support to the freshmen residents) will be on-hand to guide them during the courses. Peer learning has proven to be very effective on university campuses globally and I am confident it would be useful at RVRC. Early indicators are already proving to be positive.

The other exciting development at RVRC, which I am confident will become a pull factor for RVRC, is how graduate readiness is interwoven into the RVRC programme.  The RVRC team led by Professor Adekunle Adeyeye, Master of the College, firmly believes that it is never too soon to expose students to the workplace. He is hard at work, engaging industry representatives from various disciplines and fields in the College’s industry mentorship scheme and dialogue cum networking series. These individuals and firms will be important partners who will provide opportunities for the RVRC students to learn about the various industries that they can aspire to work in or consider when internships or industrial attachments places come around. This squares well with the University’s goal to intensify strategic partnerships in the long term across industry and other educational and research institutions.

As in other halls and colleges, co-academic activities are grown organically. The RVRC family is made up of a wide spread of students from accomplished musicians and creative artists to dedicated community leaders and athletes. The students have banded together to form interest groups amongst themselves to plan and organise the co-academic activities that they would be interested in. The main facilitators are the Peer Mentors. Our first-year residents have been most responsive, enthusiastic and competent in organising themselves quickly and systematically. This is heartening for the RVRC administration as these are the exact values which they had hoped to see in the students when the programme was initially mooted.

I am pleased that the College has gotten off on a positive and exciting start. Plans are in place for a major refurbishment of Ridge View Residences to further enhance the living and learning environment. In the meantime, a budding community is forming and taking root, and we look forward to seeing RVRC as a vibrant and valued Residential College at NUS.


RVRC mentors and team bonding through pottery workshop at the historic Dragon Kilns
RVRC mentors and team bonding through pottery workshop at the historic Dragon Kilns

Career Preparation Programmes – An Update

Two years ago, I shared about the importance of career preparation workshops, and making them as accessible and convenient for students to attend them. I thought it would be good for me to give an update on how these workshops have been progressing.


The NUS Career Centre (NCC) introduced the HeadStart Module in AY2012/13. This is a 5-week tutorial module specially designed for freshmen, and it aims to guide students in thinking and preparing for their future careers. Students can then start to plan their education journey and projects, hone their expertise and cultivate experiences to develop a portfolio in line with their career goals. The topics covered include maximising student life, winning resumes and cover letters, effective interview skills, and mastering the art of networking. HeadStart was piloted in AY2012/13 for Faculty of Science (FOS) freshmen; the module was extended to Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) freshmen in AY2013/14, and from AY2014/15, freshmen from the School of Computing (SOC), School of Design and Environment (SDE), and the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) will get to read this module. At steady state, we hope that all 5,300 freshmen from these 5 Faculties will complete the HeadStart module.

Classroom 2Classroom1

For the pilot run, nearly 1,300 FOS read the HeadStart module in AY2012/13. Participants shared honestly that they could not initially reckon why the HeadStart module was pre-allocated in their timetables. Deanery members had to prod and encourage students to attend, convince them of the benefits, and urged students to give the module a chance. Some students were sceptical; others were apprehensive. Certainly, the onus was on NCC to deliver an outstanding module, so that students can see the value of the experience.


The NCC rose well to the challenging task of organising career workshops on a large scale. The feedback received to date from course participants has been overwhelmingly positive. Participants felt that the HeadStart module has been effective (score of 5.02 out of a 6-point scale), and they are satisfied with the module (score of 4.97 out of a 6-point scale).  On hindsight, having gone through the module, many understood the need for such courses; some have asked for more sessions, and some even suggested for career preparation courses to be made compulsory! NCC will continually review and improve on the HeadStart course content. NCC is also exploring how certain segments of the HeadStart programme can be put online, perhaps on IVLE, so that students beyond the 5 Faculties can also access them.



Apart from the HeadStart module for freshmen, NCC also launched the StepUp module, which is designed to help graduating students identify the careers that best align with their profiles and interests, and to equip them with essential skills to differentiate themselves in a successful transition to their first jobs. StepUp was introduced in AY2012/13 to graduating students from the 5 Faculties in their 3rd or 4th years. StepUp is an opt-in programme and about 30% of graduating students attended StepUp in the last two academic years. Students’ feedback for the StepUp module has also been highly positive. The StepUp module will be phased out after AY2016/17 in tandem with the expansion of HeadStart programme.


The support from NCC does not end with the HeadStart and StepUp programmes. NCC offers a suite of other more purposeful and targeted programmes and advisory support that students can attend and consult for their career preparation, throughout their time at NUS. In addition to offering career preparation and development programmes, the NCC also provides Faculty-based Career Advisors at FASS, FOE, FOS, SOC, SDE and Faculty of Law. There is also a dedicated Career Advisor for postgraduate students. Career Advisors engage students at a personal level to work out customised career action plans; they also advise students on how best to present themselves and to acquire soft skills and practical work experiences. In AY2013/14, more than 3,000 students consulted their Career Advisors for mock interviews, career advice, resume critique and job search strategies; more students are coming forward to consult with Career Advisors. If you have any questions about your CV, or about careers, feel free to make an appointment with your Career Advisors.


We certainly welcome all feedback from students who have attended the HeadStart and StepUp programmes. May I also encourage graduating students to attend the StepUp programmes. To the freshmen from the 5 Faculties, I wish you a fun and fruitful learning experience for this year’s run of the HeadStart programme.


More Opportunities for Honours

AY2014/15 will be an exciting year for NUS. We have in the pipeline several new initiatives to deliver a comprehensive and well-rounded education that equips NUS graduates with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes for life and work in the 21st century.


I have already shared extensively on my blog about the grade-free first semester which is to be implemented next month for the incoming students. Integrated industry attachments, an enhanced Career Centre and the launch of the Ridge View Residential College (RVRC) are some of the other initiatives that our new students can look forward to. RVRC will offer a unique experience which combines the benefits of residential college learning with career preparation and student exposure to industry. I hope to write about these initiatives later.


In conjunction with these new initiatives, I am pleased to share that from the new academic year, NUS will be introducing two further changes to the undergraduate education system.


These changes will apply to new cohorts of students who are admitted from AY2014/15 onwards. The good news is that it will also be retroactively extended to two existing cohorts (i.e., the AY2012/13 and AY2013/14 cohorts) as no students in these cohorts have graduated prior to 30 June 2014.


First, we will be increasing the opportunities for undergraduate students to pursue the Honours degree. This is in line with the increasing number of academically qualified undergraduates at NUS, as reflected in the University Admission Scores of applicants admitted into NUS. Indeed, we are proud that many good students see the strengths and quality of an NUS education, and choose to pursue their university education at NUS. (This year, we are happy to record a significant increase in the acceptance rate, and we look forward to welcoming the freshmen of AY2014/15.)


NUS currently offers two types of Honours programmes in the modular system (i.e., excluding Law, Medicine, Dentistry and Yale-NUS). Some students may enrol directly into Honours programmes at the point of admission into the University (as is the case for Engineering, Computing, Design and Environment, Music and some programmes like Environmental Studies and Pharmacy). For such programmes, students study a four-year curriculum after which the conferment of an Honours degree is based on merit.


We have, for historical reasons, allowed an exit at the end of the third year for Arts and Social Sciences, Business and Science. In addition, for these three Faculties we reserve the Honours degree for our higher performing students, i.e., those who attain a B average at the end of their third year.


The Honours programme provides important added value in preparing our graduates for a rapidly changing work environment. The University has therefore reviewed the CAP requirements, and will give more students from Arts and Social Sciences, Business, Science, and Nursing, the opportunity to proceed on to the Honours track.


With this change, more academically strong students from Arts and Social Sciences, Business, Science and Nursing who wish to pursue the Honours programme can choose to do so. At the same time, they continue to enjoy the flexibility of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree if they so prefer.


It is useful to point out that whether students enrol directly into Honours programmes or are admitted at the end of their third year, the conferment of an Honours degree is not automatic but merit-based. For cohorts AY2012/13 and after, NUS will award Honours degrees to students who have completed a four-year curriculum and have achieved a CAP of 3.00 and above.


Second, we will adopt a new nomenclature for our degree classification, similar to that used by major US universities, to more accurately reflect the academic accomplishments of our deserving graduates, who are amongst the top students of each birth cohort. The same high academic standards will be maintained for all our undergraduate programmes.


We are renaming First Class Honours as “Honours (Highest Distinction)”, Second Class (Upper) Honours as “Honours (Distinction)”, Second Class (Lower) Honours as “Honours (Merit)” and Third Class Honours as “Honours”. The CAP requirements for each class of Honours remain largely unchanged from the current requirements.


Here is the new nomenclature with the corresponding CAP cut-offs at a glance:


Honours Degree Classification Criteria (New)
Honours   (Highest Distinction) CAP   4.50 and above
Honours   (Distinction) CAP   4.00 – 4.49
Honours   (Merit) CAP   3.50 – 3.99
Honours CAP   3.00 – 3.49
Pass CAP   2.00 – 2.99
Bachelor’s Degree Classification
Pass   with Merit CAP   3.00 and above
Pass CAP   2.00 – 2.99



As the Faculty of Law’s class of Honours nomenclature are specifically referenced in legislation, the Faculty of Law’s Honours nomenclature will remain status quo for now.


High standards and quality have and will always be the hallmarks of an NUS education. Our high standards will continue to be upheld even as we consistently admit the majority of top students in each birth cohort.


I am confident that these are positive changes in NUS’ education system for our students, and I hope you can join me in looking forward to all these exciting new initiatives.