Saturday, 26 July 2014

NUS makes it easier for students in four faculties to qualify for honours

By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2014

MORE than eight in 10 students on the four-year direct honours degree courses at public universities here graduate with honours or the equivalent.

But only six in 10 of those in the three-year arts and social sciences, business, science and nursing bachelor's courses at National University of Singapore (NUS) get to the fourth year of study, which allows them to graduate with honours.

To close the gap, NUS is lowering the grade to allow another 10 per cent to 15 per cent of students to qualify for the honours year in these four schools.

This means 400 to 500 more students from these faculties, which take in 3,700 students a year, can move on to the fourth year to study for their honours.

Previously, students in these faculties required a Cumulative Average Point (CAP) of 3.5 and above for honours study. With the change, they need only 3.2.

NUS will keep the three plus one structure, where students do honours in the fourth year if they qualify. Those who qualify but choose not to do honours can opt to graduate with a pass with merit, instead. Every year, some with good job offers do that.

NUS is also renaming the different categories of honours degrees. Like Stanford University in California, NUS is renaming First Class Honours as Honours (Highest Distinction), Second Class (Upper) Honours as Honours (Distinction), Second Class (Lower) Honours as Honours (Merit), and Third Class Honours as Honours.

NUS provost Tan Eng Chye said the university is lowering the requirement for honours year as the quality of its students is high.

Last year, for example, those entering the arts and social sciences course needed grades of A, B, B while those entering business needed triple As. "We have very good students and they should be eligible for honours," he said.

He also explained why NUS was keeping to the system of requiring or allowing students to exit at the end of the third year, calling it "much more efficient".

"For some students, giving them this flexibility, especially if they are not too academically inclined, is a better option."

Those in the direct honours programme have to continue even if their grades show they are unlikely to get a CAP of at least 3 to graduate with honours.

On renaming the honours degrees, Professor Tan said: "The current terms 'second lower' and 'third class' do not give due recognition to the academic accomplishments of the students who are our better students."

NUS students interviewed were all for the change. Many said an honours degree matters in a more crowded graduate job market. Ms Vivien Tan, 19, who is entering the arts and social sciences faculty, said: "When applying for universities, one of the considerations for my peers was the proportion of students who graduate with honours."

NUS second-year science student Chen Wei Wei, 21, said: "Now I stand a better chance of qualifying for honours. I want that as I hope to focus on biostatistics in my fourth year and go on to work in the health sector."

More leeway to excel at universities here
Educators confident quality of graduates will not suffer as varsities ease norms
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2014

DROPPING poor grades, lower criteria for the honours' track and doing away with names like "third class".

Universities here are getting kindler and gentler. But life on campus will not become easier, said experts.

Amid concerns of lower standards after recent changes by Singapore's two biggest varsities, educators are confident that the quality of graduates will not suffer.

"It's a message to students that they can relax a little and enjoy learning," said Dr Timothy Chan from private institution SIM Global Education. "But there are still exams and assessment, and they need to do well in the next few years."

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) announced last week that it will allow its freshmen to "remove" F grades in their first year.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) announced a similar change in May. The school also made it easier to qualify for its honours programme and renamed its degrees, tweaking the stigmatised "third class honours", among others.

The changes led to criticisms of lower standards. Some readers who weighed in on The Straits Times' Facebook page asked if these moves are "tactics" to woo students.

But both experts and students believe there are more pros than cons.

An NUS spokesman said its quality of student intake has risen over the years, and its revision of the honours criteria is to allow more deserving students to graduate with honours.

Last year, for instance, students needed grades of ABB to enter its arts and social sciences faculty, compared to Bs and Cs in the late 1990s.

On "grade-free" freshmen policies, analysts say it has been effective elsewhere in the United States, Britain and Australia. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) freshmen get a "Pass" or, if not, there is no record that they took the subject.

Educators abroad said not penalising freshmen for their poor grades is a right step. Students' performance in the first year may not be a good indicator of their abilities, as many are still deciding on their specialisation. "I have had students that had disastrous freshman experiences only to find their pace in later years to place them among the best upon graduation," said MIT professor John Brisson.

Dr Keith Sharp from London School of Economics and Political Science agreed: "We are interested in what a student can achieve when they complete their course, not what they could manage at the start of it."

The slower pace also provides a more complete picture of a student. Said Professor Stephen Naylor, campus dean at James Cook University Singapore: "You actually get a more accurate grade point average (GPA) because students take time to figure out their strengths."

NUS first-year arts and social science student Alina Chia, 19, said: "Personally, I would study just as hard, because we'd have to work even harder after the first year to catch up."

Some like NTU freshman Tricia Cheong are also exploring unfamiliar courses they are interested in. Said Ms Cheong, 20: "It definitely helps to have second chances as I can try new things I'm not so confident about."

Honeymoon year for freshmen


Freshmen can drop any "F" grade in up to six courses in the first year. They must retake the course or take another with the same academic weightage.


Freshmen can exclude grades in up to five modules in their first semester.

Other changes
- The grade to qualify for the honours year in four schools in NUS has been lowered from a cumulative average point of 3.5 to 3.2. Applies to students who enrolled from 2012.
- From next year, NUS degrees will be renamed, to give better recognition to students. Second lower honours, for instance, will be known as honours with merit.

University degree still has value despite changes: Heng Swee Keat
By Faris Mokhtar, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Aug 2014

Minister for Education Mr Heng Swee Keat said on Saturday (Aug 16) recent changes made by two universities to their honours programme and grading system will not dilute the importance of a degree. Instead, it is the "right thing" to do to reflect more accurately students' abilities as their educational achievements have been going up.

Mr Heng was responding to questions from the media on recent changes made by the National University of Singapore (NUS) to lower the qualifying requirement for its Honours Programme and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to change its grading system for incoming graduates.

For NUS, the change is only applicable to three of its faculties - Arts and Social Sciences, Business and Science. The change means that between 400 and 500 more students in these three faculties will qualify for Honours each year.

And under NTU's new system, freshmen can automatically exclude up to six courses for Grade Point Average computation, if they do not attain a pass for their first attempt in year one. They will retake the exams for those exempted courses and the grade for the second attempt will then be used to compute the student's GPA.

Mr Heng was speaking on Saturday at the NTU Fest held at the Padang - a mega orientation event comprising a public carnival, fun run and a star-studded evening concert. He said the value of a degree comes from the impact students are able to make in society and the workplace.

The next step is to focus on building deep skills and knowledge, as well as have the ability to solve problems. "What we should do is to prepare our students for a future that is more complex, more uncertain and less predictable. To be able to solve problems and to be able to come out with innovative ideas - that is what I hope that our university students and indeed all our students would be able to do," said Mr Heng.

Meanwhile, celebrations for the NTU Fest continued into the evening - with a star-studded concert at the Padang. It is all fun before mugging for the new academic year begins.

Over eight thousand people attended the inaugural event, which was also opened to the public. It comprised a carnival, a 4.8-kilometre fun run and a concert featuring MediaCorp artistes such as Desmond Tan and Final 1 champion Farisha Ishakand popular Korean artistes Kang Gary and Jung-in.

Proceeds from the event will go towards the ITE Endowment Fund to help students in need of financial assistance. It has raised around S$200,000 so far.

A+ for move to reduce uni grade stress
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2014

I WAS envious when I read about Singapore's two biggest universities saying they would let freshmen drop poor grades from their final-year scores.

When I was at the National University of Singapore (NUS) seven years ago, I fumbled during my earlier semesters. I took modules I had no real interest in or aptitude for. I signed up for Japanese studies and Thai language. Predictably, I did badly in them.

Unfortunately for me, those grades stuck with me through my four-year course. And as final grades are based on the scores for courses taken throughout university, those first-year flops dragged down the overall grades that I graduated with.

If I had been allowed to pick courses freely, knowing that the grades need not "count" towards my final scores, I think I would have been more adventurous. I would have picked modules I was keen on - like forensic science and the science of music - but which I had avoided because of grade pressure looming over my head.

Many students have cheered the moves of NUS and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to let freshmen drop the grades for five to six of their first-year courses from their final grades.

But critics such as former students and parents have asked if the universities are going soft on undergraduates and letting them slacken.

No, say both NUS and NTU.

They point out that these moves were not implemented to lower the standards of graduates, or make life easier for them.

Rather they are meant to help students ease into the demands of university life, and encourage them to enjoy learning and discover what they are good at.

Most freshmen do not arrive at university certain of what they want to pursue, so it would not be fair to evaluate them based on the grades of modules they are still experimenting with, say academics.

Professor Stephen Naylor, campus dean at James Cook University Singapore, said that relieving students of some stress in the first year "gives them a chance to see how university works".

"There is more self-instruction and self-motivation involved, and it's a different learning model from the years of primary to junior college education," he added.

This is also in line with freshmen grading schemes in countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.

Institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of London use some form of "grade discounting" for first-year students. Methods include ignoring all first-year grades, giving higher weighting to courses taken in the later years and using pass/fail systems.

Foreign academics say these systems have been effective in showing where students' real strengths lie.

MIT professor John Brisson, director of the MIT-Singapore University of Technology and Design collaboration office, said he has come across cases of students who did badly in their freshmen year, only to emerge among the best in their cohort when they graduated. MIT freshmen who pass get a "Pass". If they fail, there is no record that they took the subject.

Professor Brisson said: "I do not view this policy as a lowering of the MIT standards, but rather a recognition that the performance in the first term of the freshman year is often not a good indicator of the future performance of a student."

Dr Keith Sharp from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) agreed, adding: "We are interested in what a student can achieve when they complete their university course, not what they could manage at the start of it."

Dr Sharp noted that allowing students to graduate with one or more failed courses is not the same as letting them fail core first-year courses and still progress to the second year. "For example... it would not be sensible to allow a student to sit a second-year course in sociological theory without first passing a first-year introduction to the principles of sociology. They would simply not have the background knowledge to succeed," he said.

The University of London, of which LSE is a part, uses a weighting formula that does not completely discount first-year marks, but gives them a lower weight in classifying degrees than the scores for later courses.

In the case of local universities, one could argue that the bar has already been set high from the start, as the quality of student intake has risen in the last decade.

There is no need to "dumb down" the system for undergraduates, as more students who are admitted these days have even better grades than those in the past.

Students entering the NUS arts and social sciences faculty last year needed A-level grades of ABB, compared with Bs and Cs in the 1990s. Those entering business needed triple As last year.

So is it a kinder, gentler university life? Probably, at the start.

But what's wrong with that?

Society needs to recognise that education is about learning. Sure, education is also about striving for good scores and a high grade point average. But it shouldn't be about penalising students for every bad grade.

After all, one can argue that taking a risk on getting a bad grade is good for education.

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