NUS eases pressure on grades for freshmen

The National University of Singapore has reduced the focus on grades for its freshmen.

Currently, students can choose to "remove" less-than-stellar grades from their records in three modules any time during their undergraduate years.

However, provost Tan Eng Chye has said that from August some 6,000 first-year students will be able to exercise this option in five modules during the first semester, on top of the existing three in the remaining terms.

The new initiative applies to nearly all NUS faculties and schools: arts and social sciences, business, computing, design and environment, engineering, music, nursing and science.

Known as the satisfactory/ unsatisfactory option, grades are still given, but students do not have to count them towards the computation of their overall scores unless they want to.

However, students still have to be graded "satisfactory" or they will have to retake the module or take another.

It is hoped the scheme will remove the pressure of having to score well and encourage students to explore subjects outside their specialisation - even those they may not be confident in.

Professor Tan said university life can be quite different from the years of education most students will have gone through.

"You're expected to be more independent learners; you're expected to come forth with your own ideas," he said, adding that not counting their grades initially will help students ease into school.

But those who do well will still be rewarded as they can keep their grades. "It's good to have some pressure," he said. "If there's no pressure, there's no urge to strive for excellence."

Prof Tan said NUS hopes to put in place a full grade-free first year eventually, but is taking a "measured approach" to gauge the response.

The law faculty is introducing a grade-free system for its 230 freshmen in August, similar to that operated by the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and Yale-NUS College. The dentistry faculty is also planning its own "gradeless" scheme.

At Singapore University of Technology and Design, first-year students get only a "pass" or "no record" in the first term.

Institutions abroad, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University in the US, also have gradeless policies.

Mr Jeremy Wee, 21, who will start his mechanical engineering course at NUS in August, said: "We can try out modules from different faculties first before finally deciding which major we take for the rest of the three or four years we are at NUS."

Students, he added, will not necessarily work less hard because they can choose to keep their grades.

The institution is also ramping up work experience to prepare undergraduates for the working world. Industry stints will be compulsory for 1,800 engineering and computing students entering in August. These attachments will be worth the equivalent of taking three modules.

Internships will be extended to the other faculties in stages, said Prof Tan, adding that NUS will work closely with companies to come up with meaningful internships for students, instead of them being "free labour".

Prof Tan said the university's career centre will add to its 30 staff, bringing in counsellors, human resource experts and consultants to help students.

"The working environment has been changing," he said. "It is much more challenging for our young grads and the career life span is going to be longer. The ability of our students and graduates to adapt - that's the critical thing to look at."

General education modules to be 'more focused' from next year

Freshmen starting school at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in August next year will undergo a revamped general education curriculum.

Currently, students must take two general education modules, which include topics such as logic, global environmental issues and reporting statistics in the media, plus another course in Singapore studies.

These modules, which fall outside of a student's chosen specialisation, were introduced to provide students with a broader understanding of issues around them and to help them make connections across disciplines.

NUS provost Tan Eng Chye said there is currently "too much choice for students" which is why the university is putting in place a more "focused curriculum".

Starting next year, students must take four compulsory general education modules, one each from "pillars" such as thinking and expression, quantitative reasoning, human cultures and endeavours, and Singapore studies. What the students learn in these four modules will then be integrated into a further course which will be taught in small groups.

The "pillars" are aspects that are essential for a broad-based education, said Professor Tan, adding: "We are a Singapore university, so it's important to have a good grounding of the local context."

NUS is currently reviewing the list of general education modules available for students.

This article was published on May 15 in The Straits Times.

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