NUS takes bold move to curb obsession with grades

NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan says "it is important to reduce some of the over-focus on grades as the most important thing to go for, as opposed to actual learning".

SINGAPORE - In A bold move by the National University of Singapore (NUS) to reduce the obsession with grades, how its freshmen perform in exams may no longer count in their final mark.

The initiative, already in place at its medical school, will be rolled out in phases to other faculties, which could include law and engineering, from as early as this year, revealed NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan.

Details are still being worked out for what NUS has called its "grade-free" system, which will be extended to the whole school over the next few years. But while there will still be tests and exams, first-year students will no longer get A to F grades.

Instead they will just be given a distinction, pass, or fail in their modules - and these will not form part of their Cumulative Average Point, which determines the quality of the degree awarded at the end of their course.

"We think that it is important to reduce some of the over-focus on grades as the most important thing to go for, as opposed to actual learning," Professor Tan told The Straits Times last Friday. "Grading - in terms of Pass or Fail - will still occur. But this is really to help students know where they are in relation to a subject."

NUS, which has the biggest intake of freshmen among universities here, currently has about 6,900 full-time first-year students.

The move to take some pressure off freshmen, who typically take on 10 modules, and help them cope with university life, comes amid a broader shift towards an education system less fixated on grades. Top universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have already gone "gradeless", Prof Tan pointed out.

At the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which partners MIT and took in its first cohort in 2012, Term 1 students get a "pass" or "no record" in each subject and there is no Grade Point Average (GPA) given. In Term 2, students receive A, B, C or "no record", but only passing grades are used to calculate their GPA.

While the Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University do not have a similar policy for first-year students, several courses are graded on a pass-fail basis.

By doing away with grades, Prof Tan hopes that freshmen can venture out of their comfort zone and take on more "exploratory" type of courses.

This would also free students to go beyond books and "spend time to develop their personal qualities which are not so easy to grade".

While there are concerns that students may be less motivated to study if they are not graded, the experience at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, which piloted the grade-free scheme in 2010, showed otherwise, said Prof Tan.

"Students are more collaborative, and there is a greater focus on actual learning," he said.

NUS' medical students now go "grade-less" for their first two years.

"You gain a degree of freedom to explore non-academic pursuits... It also helps to reduce unhealthy competition," said 20-year-old second-year medical student Nicole Lee, who has time for co-curricular activities and community work.

But she admitted that some of her peers may feel insecure without a letter grade to show how well, or poorly, they are doing.

"Some may ask: What does it mean if I get a 'pass'? Is it a comfortable or borderline pass?"

NUS is also looking at revamping its General Education modules to provide a more well-rounded education.

Currently, students must take two of these modules, which include topics like Globalisation and New Media, as well as two "breadth" subjects which are outside their area of specialisation.

But some ended up choosing subjects they were already good in or feel confident of scoring in.

One way to address the problem, Prof Tan suggested, is to "repackage" these subjects into categories, and make it compulsory for students to choose from each of these.

Pilot schemes are being planned for the new academic year starting August, but the revamp will take years to complete.

Said Prof Tan: "It may be helpful for a student who is very good in literature to learn some quantitative techniques like statistics.

"The question is how do we encourage or ensure that students really learn in areas in which they are not so strong in but would be quite essential to them."

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