A Different Grading System in the First Year for Undergraduates – Part II


Thank you for your hearty responses to my earlier blog post on the proposed grade-free system for first year undergraduates. I have read through and given thought to each of them. Concurrently, we have had many constructive discussions with Deans, Vice Deans, Department Heads, faculty members, the Board of Undergraduate Studies, the University Committee on Educational Policy and the University Senate.


There is broad consensus on the rationale and intended objectives of a grade-free system. There are, however, a range of views on how this can be implemented at NUS, and the appropriate options to adopt, given the current curriculum structure and the need to ensure compatibility with existing educational policies. While many recognised the merits of encouraging students to optimise their learning experience and build a positive and conducive learning culture, there were valid concerns with student motivation and calls to ensure that students develop strong disciplinary foundations in their freshman year.


Many stakeholders have taken a keen interest in this issue, and the proposals have been sharpened and refined in the course of this iterative consultation process.


I am pleased to share that we are now ready to present the details of a new grading system for modular degree programmes that will be applied to the cohort of freshmen matriculating in AY2014/15.


NUS will be introducing a new S/U policy, where students may exercise the S/U option for up to 20 MCs during the first semester of their candidature. This new policy will apply to all Level 1000 modules and Level 2000 modules offered without other NUS modules as pre-requisites as these are the modules that freshmen read in the first semester. (The non-credit-bearing English Language proficiency modules offered by the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) are not included.) The fine details of the new S/U policy are being worked out by the Board of Undergraduate Studies, and these will be communicated to students through their respective Faculties.


Unused S/U MCs from the first semester may generally not be carried forward to subsequent semesters. The current S/U option for up to 12 MCs at any time during the candidature will remain unchanged as this encourages students to learn broadly via cross-faculty electives during the senior years. However, it will be broadened to include Major, Faculty and USP requirements read in subsequent semesters, so long as they are Level 1000 modules or Level 2000 modules without NUS modules as prerequisites.


In essence, students can exercise the S/U option for up to 32 MCs during their candidature, of which up to 5 modules or 20 MCs may be exercised during the first semester. This is effectively an expansion of the current S/U policy to allow for a grade-free first semester for freshmen.


As you know, under the S/U mechanism, letter grades are assigned to modules. However, students can decide whether to have these grades counted towards their Cumulative Average Point (CAP). When students exercise the S/U option on a module, the letter grade will not be shown on the transcript nor computed towards the CAP. An ‘S’ grade will be assigned if the student obtains a grade of C or above; a ‘U’ grade will be assigned if the student obtains a grade of D+ or below. Alternatively, a student may choose to retain the letter grade and have it factored towards the computation of his or her CAP. The S/U declaration exercise is conducted upon the release of examination results, and will end by the stipulated deadline, which will be announced each semester.


The S/U mechanism encourages students to put in effort for the modules they read, as good grades can be recognised and contribute to their CAPs. Students will also avoid being penalised for experimenting with modules they are less familiar with; they are thus free to pursue and widen their academic horizons without having to worry about the repercussions of poor grades.


Concomitantly, to prevent students from deliberately overloading in the first semester and thereby missing out on the spirit and benefits of a grade-free semester, NUS will limit the workload in the first semester: students may only read up to a maximum of 20 MCs during the first semester. Exceptions may be granted for students on special programmes such as the Double Degree Programmes and the Global Engineering Programme.


We will be monitoring and evaluating how students and faculty members take to this new grading system. If it turns out to be a highly positive and beneficial initiative, we may eventually move towards a full grade-free first year.


I am glad that education at NUS has been evolving and maturing, and that as a community, we are now ready to take this bold step that will hopefully lead to an even more transformative educational experience for our students. Our end vision is to seed and imbue a strong culture of inquiry, exploration and discovery at NUS.


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.


Improving the Online Student Feedback System

In my previous post, I shared about how student feedback on modules are important in shaping the way we teach and learn at NUS.


Some time ago, the NUS Teaching Academy initiated a few projects to review existing processes pertaining to teaching and learning in the university. A sub-committee was convened to reflect on and review the current student feedback system. For those who are not familiar with the Academy, it is a unit established in 2009 to foster a culture of teaching excellence and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the University, among other objectives.


After scrutinising the system we are currently using to collate and analyse feedback on our modules on a semestral basis, the Teaching Academy Fellows in the sub-committee highlighted two key discernible trends:


1. Student feedback response rates have been on the decline in recent years, especially for advanced level modules. The sub-committee noticed that while Year 1 students have generally been quite enthusiastic about providing feedback, the response rate for undergraduates typically decreases sharply after the second year, and dips to about 40% by the final year. A high student response rate is generally desired because it helps the University to enhance the quality of teaching and learning.


As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we constantly encourage our Departments to reflect on the student feedback received. We are now asking our colleagues to actively communicate to students, the changes and enhancements that have resulted from student feedback. Through this, I hope that students can see the value of their participation in the Online Student Feedback Exercise. Notwithstanding, I welcome ideas on how we can motivate students to participate in the Student Feedback Exercise.


2. Comments provided by students could be more informative about the quality of teaching and quality of modules. While the majority of comments have been constructive, some comments are too vague while others leave remarks that are irrelevant to the content, design or delivery of the module concerned.


Some examples of feedback that are less helpful but might make interesting reading tend to be along the following lines:

  • “the lecturer dresses really well for a small class”
  • “the lecturer needs to cut down on his intake of Coke”, and
  • “the lecturer’s jokes are not funny”.

We certainly would not want to prescribe or conscribe student’s expressions and feedback. At the same time, we hope that students can give constructive feedback and suggestions that directly address teaching and the curriculum, so that Departments and lecturers can take action to act on the feedback received, to deliver a better learning experience when the module is next conducted.


Taking these issues into consideration, the Teaching Academy has made several recommendations to improve the Student Feedback system. In consultation with a student team, they have also redesigned the questions to make them more comprehensive, and made the user interface more intuitive, streamlined and attractive to students.


Screenshot of the current interface


Screenshot of the new interface


The refinements to the Online Student Feedback Exercise are a continual process. Another feature that we hope to introduce, possibly from AY2014/15, is the addition of a section on teacher attributes, where students can select multiple descriptors that most appropriately describes the learning outcomes facilitated by the teacher.


My colleagues and I are always on the lookout for better ways of imparting knowledge to our students – this is at the heart of what we do as educators. A more efficient and effective student feedback system would go a long way towards achieving this aim. Your feedback is important to us, and my colleagues and I look forward to receiving your comments in the upcoming Online Student Feedback Exercise.


Student Feedback

Your Feedback Matters

NUS gathers feedback from our 37,000-strong student population via the Online Student Feedback Exercise, which is carried out at the end of every semester.

Why do we go through the Student Feedback Exercise, time and again, semester after semester? Simply put, we want to improve on the teaching and educational experience delivered. Good feedback helps us to learn and to better ourselves. Likewise, student feedback helps faculty members to take stock, reflect, consolidate, and hopefully, improve.

Let me take this opportunity to share more about the Student Feedback Exercise at NUS.

Your Feedback is Anonymous

First, I would like to assure all students that when you submit your feedback via the online system, your identities are not made known to the teaching staff. Each semester, our lecturers and tutors receive an aggregated report for their modules with quantitative teaching scores and qualitative comments. Scores are presented as an average, and comments are not attributable to any individual. For readers who are interested, here is a report with names and identities suitably withheld.  

Sometimes, a student may (whether purposely or inadvertently) make a remark that gives his or her identity away. This is fairly uncommon, and should it occur, students should not worry about possible ramifications on one’s grades. The Student Feedback report is released to Departments, and onward to lecturers and tutors, only after exam results have been finalised.

Improving Teaching and Learning at NUS

Students’ feedback on modules provides important input about the way we teach and learn at NUS. We have always encouraged our Departments to reflect on the student feedback collected and channel it back into improving the delivery of the modules in subsequent semesters.

Through the Student Feedback Exercise, we are able to identify faculty members who are stronger in teaching, and their pedagogical strengths that others can learn from. NUS recognises and rewards faculty members who teach well; Teaching Excellence Awards are based on, amongst other criteria, positive student feedback. (The Online Student Feedback Exercise contains a section for students to nominate their lecturers for Teaching Excellence Awards, which the University gives out every year.)

The Student Feedback Exercise also allows us to identify faculty members who are weaker in teaching. Deans and the Department Heads will mentor these faculty members personally, and leverage on available university resources to help them improve their pedagogical techniques and communication skills. This is a quality enhancement measure that NUS has put in place since two years ago, and I am heartened that so far, the faculty members concerned have found the additional mentoring and guidance useful, and have since improved on their teaching.

I want to add that NUS is not on a ‘witch-hunt’ for poor teachers through the Student Feedback Exercise. In reviewing Student Feedback, we look beyond the scores to consider carefully the qualitative feedback, as well as circumstances surrounding the module. For example, some faculty members may suffer a ‘dip’ in their Student Feedback Score when they introduce new teaching pedagogies for a particular module.

We Welcome Feedback

Having read this far, I hope the Student Feedback Exercise has become less of a ‘black box’. Your feedback matters to the University, to the Department, and to the faculty member. There is follow up, and follow through. Your feedback goes a long way in shaping teaching and the standards of teaching at NUS. I would like to encourage all students to take time to leave constructive feedback for the modules you have read.

At the macro-level, the Student Feedback scores indicate a high level of satisfaction with teaching at NUS. Take AY2012/2013 for example, of the 5350 teaching activities, over 98.6% of modules achieved an average score of at least 3.0, and over 62.7% of modules achieved an average score of at least 4.0. (This is using a 5-point Likert scale.)

In the next post, I will share with you the NUS Teaching Academy’s Review on Student Feedback, and my responses to their recommended measures.


NUS Partners Coursera

The phenomenon of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has taken off rapidly. Many leading universities are exploring and leveraging on MOOC platforms. Coursera, an educational technology company based at Stanford University, is one of the major providers of free online learning. Formed in January 2012, Coursera has more than 3 million registered students, and has garnered 62 university partners. NUS joined Coursera as a partner university in February 2013.


Why did NUS join Coursera?


First, the partnership with Coursera will provide NUS with a global presence and online visibility, adding significantly to our international outreach efforts. It is not unusual for a Coursera course to draw an enrolment of more than 100,000 students. (In fact, currently, nearly 16,000 students enrolled in Coursera courses are from Singapore.) This gives an idea of the university’s potential reach through Coursera.


Secondly and more pertinently, the partnership with Coursera will allow NUS to leverage on the Coursera platform for our own modules. Through Coursera, NUS professors will be able to deliver new and better forms of technology-enhanced education that will augment our students’ learning experiences.


Let me explain.


The Coursera platform is well-developed, intuitive to use and very adaptable. It has the capacity and capability to host online courses at a level of sophistication beyond that of other existing platforms. Apart from the ease of uploading material and the plug-and-play features, Coursera also integrates peer assessments, guided exercises, learning checklists and data analytics, which allow course instructors to continually ascertain their students’ learning, and to calibrate accordingly.


Apart from sharing and showcasing NUS courses online to the world at large, the Coursera platform will allow us to expand the enrolment of heavily-subscribed modules at NUS. We are aware that there is a strong demand for some modules and they attract high bid points, year after year. We have erstwhile been constrained by various factors, such as the capacity of lecture theatres and availability of lecturers. Through Coursera, we will be able to circumvent some of these constraints, to enable more NUS students to have access to the modules they want to read.


In terms of infrastructure, NUS is the largest educational wireless setup in Southeast Asia and we are well-equipped to support online learning and other forms of technology-enhanced education. In collaboration with infocomm providers NCS and Cisco, NUS has successfully implemented a flexible, scalable and high-speed wireless network across its Kent Ridge and Bukit Timah campuses. To allow our users to enjoy seamless wireless access, even the internal shuttle buses on campus are equipped with mobile wireless access points via 3G routers. As such, our students and staff can watch a video or surf the Internet uninterrupted.


Coursera is an exciting development as we strive to build our own technology-enhanced education culture on campus. That said, students should not worry that we are planning to rely on MOOCs to replace face-to-face teaching. We remain focused on our top priority, that is, to enhance our students’ learning experience. Coursera is a tool; it however cannot replicate the campus experience; neither can it replace face-to-face interactions with the course instructor or with classmates. We expect to continue with face-to-face sessions while leveraging on the Coursera platform; internal NUS modules that utilise the Coursera platform will have tutorial sessions that focus on higher order skills and deeper engagement.


I will share more details in the following months. In the meantime, interested students can preview the NUS-Coursera page here. The first two public courses that NUS will be launching on the Coursera platform are ‘Write like Mozart: An Introduction to Classical Music Composition’ by Associate Professor Peter Edwards of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music; and ‘Unpredictable? Randomness, Chance and Free Will’ by Professor Valerio Scarani of the Centre for Quantum Technologies and the Department of Physics. Both courses will commence in January 2014. Feel free to sign up for these courses, or to explore the other courses offered on Coursera. Happy learning!