NUS to allow first-year undergrads to set aside bad grades

SINGAPORE — To ease the obsession with grades — at least, for the first semester — the National University of Singapore (NUS) will allow all first-year students to set aside lacklustre grades, so they do not affect overall academic performance.

This will begin with the estimated 6,000 students who will enter the school in August. NUS plans to eventually extend the scheme to the whole of the freshman year.

It is also reintroducing industry attachments for all engineering and computing students and revamping the general education (GE) curriculum, as part of efforts to enhance the education experience.

“One of the key things that drives all these initiatives is our focus to optimise student experience and learning outcomes in NUS,” said Professor Tan Eng Chye, deputy president of academic affairs and provost. “The working environment has been changing and it is much more challenging for our graduates. The ability of our students and graduates to be able to adapt is going to be critical.”

Under the new scheme, students can set aside up to five grades, so they do not affect their overall cumulative average point. Professor Tan said students would still receive grades to maintain a healthy balance of academic pressure.

“We’re trying to make sure our students, at least in the very first semester, are free to read what they like to read and we protect (them in) the event they (get) bad grades. If they put in the effort and do well, I think they should be rewarded and they should keep their grade,” he said. “This is quite different from a system in which every subject is pass or fail. Then you could have the tendency where everyone will do just enough to pass.”

He added that the scheme would also help full-time National Servicemen (NSF) ease back into the academic system after two years of military service.

Mr Jeremy Wee, 21, who just finished NS and will enter the Faculty of Engineering at NUS in August, agreed, saying: “The minimum requirement still is that we have to pass everything; our attendance is taken into account, so I’m sure everyone will still work quite hard for it, myself included.”

A set-aside module will be marked Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory depending on the grade originally awarded and students will not receive credit for it if they are marked Unsatisfactory.

Currently, students in their first semester at the Singapore University of Technology and Design get a pass or no record in each subject and no grade point average (GPA) is given. The Nanyang Technological University said it offers several courses on a pass-fail basis and students can opt for non-letter grade assessments for several general electives, so they do not affect their GPA.

The Singapore Management University said it has no plans to roll out a scheme similar to NUS’. “However, there are some modules, such as the overseas studies mission, which is a pass/fail module,” a SMU spokesperson said.

NUS Law School will also roll out the option to set aside grades for freshmen from this year, while Yale-NUS College began with its inaugural intake last year.

A pass-fail system has been in place at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine since 2010 and researchers found that students’ stress level was lowered, while their performance remained unchanged. First-year medicine undergraduate Darren Tan said the professors’ learning-centred approach has helped keep students motivated and the less competitive and stressful environment also makes it easier to study.

The compulsory third-year industry attachments for engineering and computing students will start for those entering NUS in August and the university plans to extend compulsory attachments to other faculties. Starting next year, the revamped GE curriculum will also require students to take five modules outside their major, instead of three.

Mr Gerrard Lai, a fourth-year political science major, was sceptical of the impact of a grade-free system and suggested removing the bell curve system instead.

“The bell curve is actually the one that determines the psyche of students,” he said. “It is this competitiveness that drives students to study for the sake of studying, instead of studying what they love.”

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