A+ for move to reduce uni grade stress

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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