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National University of Singapore tackles nation-wide obsession with grades

National University of Singapore to introduce new pass-fail system for first years


The National University of Singapore has made a move to abolish the grading system for its first year students.

Hot on the heels of top universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this new ‘gradeless’ system intends to encourage students to branch out and experience types of learning not restricted or measured by grades.

‘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,’ NUS president Professor Tan Chorh Chaun told The Straits Times.

‘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.’  The initiative also seeks to reduce competition between students and encourage greater degrees of collaboration between them.

The system is already in place at the NUS medical school, and will be introduced in phases to other faculties such as law and engineering from as early as next year. Pilot schemes are being planned for the coming academic year starting in August, but may take up to years to implement successfully.

First year NUS students will receive a ‘pass’ or ‘no record’ in their first semester, and an A, B, C or ‘no record’ in their second. Only passing grades however will be used to calculate their GPA.

The initiative follows the Singapore Ministry of Education’s push for a less grade-driven academic culture, notably seeing the repeal of the nation’s secondary school banding policy. Many schools have implemented new strategies and programmes that encourage character-based learning and communication between students.

Whilst some progress is being made, teachers have said that the pace of change is slow as schools are working against the long-ingrained social value of academic achievement.

It is similarly difficult to completely compromise the value of grades: grades remain a universal indication of achievement and are used both to secure tertiary entrance and even a well-paying job. Without the indicative value of a grade, students may also feel insecure about the nature of their progress.

There are also concerns that students will be less motivated to study without the premise of a good grade as a reward. Impact of the system pilot at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in 2012 however has proved otherwise.

‘Students are more collaborative, and there is a greater focus on actual learning,’ Tan told The Straits Times. NUS medical students now complete their first two years of study on a pass-fail basis. A 2006 study by the US National Library of Medicine similarly found that medical students graded via the pass-fail system had less perceived stress and greater degrees of group cohesion. 

General Education modules at NUS may also be up for re-evaluation in order to better provide students with a well-rounded education. Current students are required to take two of these modules, as well as two ‘breadth’ subjects that are in an area other than their specialisation.


Takeaway for students...

Remember, courses abroad are assessed through a number of ways: written assignments and essays, coursework, exams, presentations etc. So when researching courses, look at how they are assessed to best fit your abilities. It might even be something you ask by contacting a university or college through our site.


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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.