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.


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!

My Visit to the School of Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London

King’s College London is one of the leading universities in the UK. In early April 2013, I was at King’s College London to sign an agreement on two concurrent degrees. With this new agreement, each year, six students will have the opportunity to participate in one of two concurrent degree programmes. The first is a BSc (Hons) in Life Sciences and an MRes in Molecular Biophysics; the second is a BSc (Hons) in Life Sciences or Chemistry, and MSc in Forensic Science or Analytical Toxicology. Students reading these concurrent degrees will spend the first three years at NUS to earn their Honours degree, and the fourth year at King’s College London to read their Master’s degree. During the course of the undergraduate degree, students may also spend a semester or two at King’s College London under the Student Exchange Programme (SEP).


NUS is mindful that there are costs associated with these overseas learning opportunities. For students participating in these concurrent degree programmes with King’s College London, the NUS Faculty of Science has worked out arrangements with various parties to help mitigate the higher costs of living in London. NUS students going on SEP and other overseas learning programmes may also apply for NUS Awards for Study Abroad (NASA) Scholarships. In addition, students from needy Singaporean families may apply for NASA Bursaries.


This agreement between King’s College London and NUS represents yet another effort in our endeavour to enhance opportunities for NUS students to partake in global learning. A lot of effort goes on (often behind the scenes) to ink an SEP agreement. The latest agreement for example, was mooted in 2008. It took six years of hard work and negotiations by the NUS Faculty of Science and the School of Biomedical Sciences, King’s College London, to reach this positive outcome. 


Today, about 1,700 NUS students will go abroad each year on SEP with one of our 300 partners overseas. At the same time, as part of the exchange agreements, NUS will host a similar number of foreign students from our partner universities. Managing such a large number of student movements is no trivial task – each of these 3,400 incoming and outgoing students has his or her specific issues which we need to help address. These include, amongst others, selection of host university, courses to read, mapping courses back to fulfill degree requirements, accommodation, travel arrangements, food, insurance and financial aid.


I recall, when I was a Sub-Dean at the NUS Faculty of Science in the mid 1990s, I did not have to deal with such issues, simply because we did not have any exchange programmes then! The system has since evolved rapidly. We now have many more academic programmes and pathways that students can choose from, according to their interests and inclinations. With these choices and options, the system has become far more complex, and the range of issues and administrative tedium to contend with has also increased in tandem.


Nevertheless, NUS will press on. There is much value in an overseas stint, to broaden one’s perspectives and to hone one’s global awareness and cross-cultural skills. NUS will continue to expand the opportunities for our students to spend time abroad. We hope that in the next few years, at least 70%  of NUS students will have gone for at least one overseas learning programme. In the years ahead, we expect to send about 2,000 NUS students overseas on SEP and other semester-long programmes, and receive a similar number of incoming students every year.


One interesting opportunity that I would like to encourage our students to explore is the STEER Programme (Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment). The STEER programme is a rare opportunity for students to gain exposure to less conventional, yet rapidly emerging regions. The programme combines classroom-based learning which is augmented with site visits to personally experience the social, cultural, economic, political and business environments of these thriving regions. Under the STEER programme, NUS students have visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India (Hyderabad, Mumbai) and China. Two more new programmes to Myanmar and Brazil have been planned for 2013. Do check out the International Relations Office website for more information on the STEER programme.