Friday, November 10, 2006

On the wrong approaches to learning at HE level

A thoroughly worn-out Heavenly Sword rose from his disturbed sleep, and decided to spend the rest of the sleepless dawn pondering about some 'real issues' surrounding university education in Singapore.

What is 'university education'? I believe there is a reason why university education is called higher education: it's because it is pitched - and definitely meant to be pitched - at a much higher level of difficulty compared to the A-levels. If it wasn't more difficult than the A-levels, then there is no reason why graduates should be paid more than non-graduates, and no reason why people should invest 3-4 years of their short lives attending classes at the university campus, if the things that they are going to learn do not advance their intellectual abilities (e.g. coping with analytical complexity, distilling the essence of complex literatures, etc) in some ways. Let's face it: life is short, and 3-4 years is a significant length of time.

The problem I see in some of my younger friends (who are studying in various local universities) is that they are struggling to make the adjustment from JC to Uni. This adjustment has various components, and I'll briefly talk about the 'expectational' component, and the tactical component.

'Expectational adjustment' (my term) concerns expectations. Recently I communicated briefly with a friend who is an assistant professor at a university in Singapore, and he highlighted a very good point. Many students in Singapore find the first 1 or 2 semesters of university life extremely traumatic, because they have been so used to getting A's at the earlier stages of education that getting B's and C's end up amounting to a personal disaster (when it is in fact really common at university-level), and some of these students cannot deal emotionally with the perceived 'setback'. I feel that the real disaster is not in the receipt of B's and C's grades itself, but instead the loss of many Singaporeans' ability to cope with grades indicating academic imperfection. This problem, which is the problem of a 'straight-A's culture' in Singapore, is a real problem in Singapore which has hardly ever been problematized; in fact the problem has been packaged as something 'good' through frequent glamourization of 'perfect scores' by various institutional actors and the media. Singapore has a culture of perfection which needs to be replaced by a culture of imperfection that will be more in line with the atmosphere of creativity that the country badly needs.

To these institutional actors and individual actors who have always been singing praises of the straight A's culture, I'd like to say this. Let's not be overly proud of this straight A's culture and forget to look at the dysfunctions of it. What are some of these dysfunctions?

1) The pursuit of a blemish-free record becomes the sole purpose of learning. (Some) students are not interested in learning the subject, but simply want the A's. Because of this, the whole spirit of learning is wrong. The obsession is always with things which are so-called 'inside the 'syllabus"; some students treat the 'model answers' as literally 'models' (when these should be treated as 'indications of a general approach that lecturers hope they can display'), and they want lectures and tutorials to package the information in 'exam-usable' format. Anything falling short of the above-stated 'ideals' is then criticized as unfocused teaching, which will lead to condemnation of the university teacher. In some subjects, there is a trend of increasing 'interdisciplinarity', but some students think in narrow ways, along the lines of 'i am majoring in this subject, why do I have to read materials from another subject?' This is very sad. If Singapore really wants to train students as future 'knowledge producers' for a creative economy, then university-level socialization must get them to think more like creative knowledge producers rather than passive knowledge consumers.

2) The overly pragmatic and grade-driven approach to learning a subject will guarantee that the student can never achieve the highest level of understanding of that subject (the 'jui4 gao1 jing4 jie4'), due to the overly powerful socialization at undergraduate level that results in the wrong spirit of learning that is hard to change later on. Too much attention and effort will be spent on the readings that have been officially assigned, and there is usually no motivation to venture into the library to hunt for more interesting and more advanced books on particular concepts, theories, and topics. This in turn creates the problem of unskilful library users. The use of the library is itself an art and a science: it requires some practice and training.

There are two situations that might then result. First, the 'trained incapacity' of students, who will end up lacking the self-confidence to explore unbeaten paths or select their own sources of information due to excessive fear that they will be 'wrong'; and second, top students are satisfied to stop when they have mastered the 'official' readings, thinking that because they have satisfied the lecturer's demands, they know the subject 'oredi'. This results in a kind of complacency that hinders further intellectual advancement as far as that subject is concerned, due to premature extinguishment of the inquisitive spirit.

So, the above two paragraphs dealt with the tactical adjustment aspect of university-level academic life. This is the paradox: tactical adjustment itself will have certain dysfunctional outcomes, precisely because the learning has become too tactical. Then two further problems will result: first, the students who are tactical enough to do well end up acquiring some problematic mindsets; and second, the students who don't do so well 'officially' in this kind of system ends up (a) losing their self-confidence (for they then think that they're 'lousy' simply because they did not get an A from a particular lecturer), or (b) being actually pushed down the hierarchical educational stratification system and have no chance of redeeming themselves (think of students who don't do well in the first years, they may not be able to 'recover' from the damage if the system is too 'unforgiving'). Point (b), it seems to me, is closely related to Singapore's unforgiving culture.

Since I cannot change the system (as I'm only an ikan-bilis, a non-elite in Singapore), I can only offer some words of advice.

1) Don't be too obsessed with grades. If you truly love the subject (or at least try to love it) and see the spirit underpinning a particular subject, you will master it, sooner or later, at your own pace. If you tell yourself, 'I'm going to try my best; if the lecturer gives me a 'C', so be it'. See it as a signal that you may need to read more books, rather than an indicator of your self-worth. Never ever think that you're BAD at a subject simply because of a single C. Singaporeans, it seems to me, are too easily defeated or intercepted by tiny little alphabets. Isn't that very sad, if you think about it? I mean, so what if you get a C in that subject? Do you then say, 'Eeee, I don't want to major in this subject 'oredi' (even though I thought I wanted to earlier)'. Or 'I don't want to be an accountant 'oredi', the lecturer gave me C for accounting, I'm not cut out to be an accountant'. That is not the hallmark of a mature person. View your lecturers/tutors as people of equal standing as far as humanity and intellect are concerned (of course!): they are not that much smarter than you are; they have only read more books than you have, maybe because they visit the library more often :)

2) Make use of the library and its resources (including online resources such as journal databases, etc). At the university level, it is not right to be a passive learner. Be an active learner, and take responsibility for your learning. If the readings and assigned books are hard to understand, there are many other books out there that will explain the same concept, theory, or topic in different ways, and some of these will definitely phrase the points in a way that you prefer and can understand better. You are not held hostage to the assigned readings (if you don't like them, feel confident enough to create your own reading packet). And most of all, university lecturers and tutors are there to help you, so make use of their services such as consultation hours, etc (they are not ferocious animals who will bite you, I firmly believe).

That's all I have to say....In short, Singapore's culture of perfection is not as good as the elites think. I am not a member of the elite, so this is my subjective view as an ikan-bilis in the system. I, too, have been severely punished by an unforgiving system before. But I am still alive....


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of us grow up chasing As and getting them. And when we can't sell ourselves with the As, we are the dullest, least interesting people because we know nothing else.

I knew a guy based in China, fresh out of school. We went out with a group of chinese national friends and he kept trying to drop little hints of the branded elite school he went to, the As he got in school. But the chinese didn't care or know about the schools he attended. And he couldn't keep up with the conversations on current affairs.

It was a pain watching him struggle to impress. Almost shameful.

Fri Nov 10, 11:27:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Molly said...

It's a bit hard to get people to stop caring about grades. And I'm not talking just about those who look as though their goal in life is to have a perfect academic record. There are many who are not that extreme, but become very daunted because they know how important grades are in this society--you can be really talented but it will likely go unnoticed unless you get good grades or something equivalent. It would take someone quite 'naive' to totally ignore this.

Fri Nov 10, 12:39:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Aaron said...

The problem in Singapore university is the bell curve. Period.

Lecturers cannot even reward the spirit of learning. They are beholden to giving a set number of As, Bs and Cs. In the very first place, our system is not even designed to reward the spirit of venturing into the unknown.

Grades may not be the most important in the pursuit of learning, but it is one of the most powerful tools to encourage learning. To rob the lecturer's perogative to reward deserving students simply kills the joy of learning.

Sat Nov 11, 01:16:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point on the unforgiving culture, which works into my conception of the arbitrary historiographical culture.

This came about while I was sitting in a daze trying to unravel the mystery of 'nationalism', and it all rounded down to the way we depict history. Of course this isn't in any books, so now i have a problem trying to write about it. In the end i tossed it out the window. That's waht our society is about: recording history in a certain way, getting so used to it, villainizing everything else that did not fit into the mediated history, and open the window for tossing.

Grades is the easiest form of judgment that can be performed on any person, like a passport. It's so easy to just look at a symbolic marker and believe the institutional authority behind its existence. It is thus recorded as THE way judge a person's learning curve in history, much like in the whole deal with 'nationalism', when seriously it only arises because each and every bit of our history jsut has to be laid out on the table when we introduce something/someone. Think of the last time a footballer in EPL isn't defined by his history. Now think of our whole foreign talent sportsmen situation. is it deliberate? probably hegemonic. Either ways, it reinforced 'nationalism' each and every time it happens.

The same kind of historiographical tendencies chosen by our society made sure prestige is a part of the game, and derived from the length and height of the historical archives uniting to form the person's identity. The silence is in the depths and the width of the same person. Who highlights the C-grade. I do: just so to make a point. I got my Cs along with my As, and I love to talk about my Cs. It shocks people, especially employers. Somtimes they don't fly, so? you end up knowing more about that person interviewing you and the institution he represents which placed him there.

And I got lucky too, some loved the emphasis on the archaelogy of silence. The same way I threw out the whole slab on nationalism because I can't find anything to support my ponderings makes the same point: ou over-dependence on the trend of listing out our history to justify our actions whatsoever is killing us. If we only look to the past every so often, with the few exceptional ones who manage to breakthrough on the counter-intuitive arena, then society will go into regression, which in my opinion is already happening.

History is important, the genealogy of knowledge is crucial for an understanding of construction both of now and hopefully for later on. But our reliance on history is pulling us back, and the root ideology behind the necessity of grades: grades IS history. Instead of seeing how insightful and purposeful a person can be, it measures essentially how insightful he/she APPEARED TO HAVE BEEN. Some say potential. Yeah, look at my grades. Sure sign of potential there. Yeah. Funny though, my grades now seem to suggest I have more potential than ever. Einstein versus Quantum Physics problem where: Two truths, so who's right? Maybe they both are. Maybe they are just imperfection made under historiographical arbitration to look like the positivitic truth.

We are all thinking deviant, and it till take some sheer counter-intuition and probably revolution to break out of it. The ideal-type is the norm, and we have not figured out the ideal-type yet. Hey, I dont' care so much about the ideal-type if we just do something about it. I'm waiting to pounce, that's all I can say, something has to be done. 'Cos i'm just pissed off.

here's the recorded history of my most recent motivations:

-friend gets stoned by dept essentially for being avant garde - friend is squeezed out of the system: all the better, greener pastures, and bubbling with potential based on the way information is processed, analyzed, acted upon;

-PTC survey highlights just how insane the political system is in singapore - it doesn't take a genius to realise something's wrong with the methodology of all the govt studies till date, and the simple fact that no one on that council really takes public transport;

-Parliament's gangster politics on counter-intuitive view points - so much for keeping an open mind and not regressing, who's practicing ganster politics here? We need George Bush to happen here, he can push revolution, as long as he does not intend to;

-friend/ex-teacher gave low-down on how rotten the education system here is, regression, grades, structural faults, no wonder we're reproducing history and killing ourselves - friend has since left MOE to continue teaching privately so as not to have teaching passion completely sterilized;

-my grades sucked, and then i caught a break - till date I'm still using the same strategy: understanding what's passed on to me, USE them, exercise the brains, my grades don't suck that much now, but everyone thinks I am cap 5.0 calibre (I'm not). You see, that's the system I'm essentially reinforcing, though to my horror that I am. I don't know much, and I don't need to know much. I jsut need to sound like I know a lot. People don't have to care about history. It's possible. Why? They are intelligent people who can think, but dumbed down a culture of referrals to the non-silent historical records. Take that away, and the minds start moving again. I make sense, I fight for them, they believe me, they stand by me. Best part: I mentioned my grades...they don't believe me. Crap, it's actually turning into a conundrum... but a fun one, torturing people with such dissonance

And so: history should remain, historiography is essential too. THey should be learnt from, but not depended upon. History is to be remembered, not re-lived. History is skewed, and my very hiding my history is testament to the use of history as a myth, the alibi to justify the hegemony
(I have not mentioned my grades now have I? now, go think: did what I've said make sense? if yes, great, if no, jsut think of why, and think hard, think deep, use what you've learnt in all your 1.5decades of education, including the failures you wish to silence as part of your statements of history, don't jsut keep them as that piece of record. USE the knowledge, understand it. Anyway, just to avoid the wrath of interpreted history, here are the citations of methodological philsophies used above: Foucault, Weber, Barthe. Ways to look at things, if only we all can use them, and not just quote them)

Sat Nov 11, 12:47:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, everyone, for popping by :)

Anonymous: That's very interesting observation....I'm not surprised...There's hardly time to read anything other than things in the 'syllabus' these days...

Molly: I would say that it's important not to be so 'obssessed' with the grades, although one could care about them. I feel that if one approaches learning with the right spirit, the grades will come...

Sun Nov 12, 07:59:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Aaron, the opposite of a 'curve' (i.e. no curve) can also be problematic. E.g. grade inflation, sadistic lecturers who give a nothing but C's and D's and an occasional B (I have encountered these before).

Since there's already a curve, how might students work around that constraint? Is the only response to play the game with the tactical spirit, or to play with the game with the right spirit? Assuming we can NEVER change this system, then do we just continue with the wrong spirit of learning? Note that the presence of a curve means that there will be people who CAN get the good grades - but these people who DO get those good grades should ideally be those who have the right spirit of learning (and there ARE such students, which therefore means that it can be done...

Sun Nov 12, 08:06:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Anonymous 2, wow, thanks for such a long post! Hm...let me see...

I don't know what to say...too cheem! :) I don't think things are not THAT bad lah...It's not that good, not THAT bad lah.... :]

I just hope all the talk about improving the creative culture in Singapore amounts to some observable changes while I am still alive to see them.

Sun Nov 12, 08:23:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Aaron said...

Well Master Heavenly-Sword,

I think that as in all normal distributions, you cannot avoid having sadistic lecturers or lecturers who inflate grades. The tails will always exist.

My bone of contention here is that university students are not representative of the population. These people are supposed to the the 'elite' of the society. How can we force a normal distribution curve of judgement on people whose capabilities are not normally distributed in the first place?

The way I see it, lecturers should have the discretion to give grades. To impose a bell curve also means to question either the integrity and ability of the lecturer. In that case, why even bother hiring the lecturers if you can't even trust them?

Sun Nov 12, 07:55:00 PM 2006  
Blogger trisha said...

Aaron: " How can we force a normal distribution curve of judgement on people whose capabilities are not normally distributed in the first place?"

I think we should not be under the illusion that university undergrads have "capabilities that are not normally distributed". The normal distribution assumes that once you have a sufficiently large sample, you will see a bell curve phenomenon. Hence you can apply the bell curve on Gifted Students, Normal Tech students..etc because the scores you are comparing are all relative to the scores within the sample.

Incidentally, MOE applies a sort of bell curve thinking when they grade teachers. In every school, there WILL be a few teachers who are graded D and A, while the bulk of the teachers will fall under C, regardless of how superior our teacher training & development is. Go figure.

Anyway, Heavenly Sword's post is not about the validity of the bell curve phenomenon. I agree with him totally about the importance of the spirit of learning. But the sad fact is we live in a society that judges you on your exam performance. Scholars are given fast track careers in the civil service, not because they have actually proven themsevles yet (some are quite mediocre when it comes to work performance). Many, I suspect, will flounder when thrown to survive in the cut-throat private sector.

Tue Nov 14, 08:03:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wed Nov 15, 10:09:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Aaron said...

Well Master Heavenly Sword,

I agree with you that the right to reward comes with the right to penalize. I am for such a system because who else but the examiner is the best judge over his students? The bell curve isn't a good judge.

As for the spirit of learning, I think it is the innate nature of people to require some form of motivation in order to learn. Some people are motivated by grades. Others are motivated by curiousity. Different people have different motivations. One motivation is not superior over another.

Even in academe, not every academic is motivated by pure curiousity and a passion for seeking information. Why do some academics churn out publication after publication in record time? I may be a cynic, but I don't think that people are that hungry to for research. I think it's more to get a promotion.

Even academics, who are supposedly the people who are interested in seeking knowledge are not immune to being motivated for reasons other than the seeking of knowledge. I think that grades, career advancement or other forms of material motivation for the pursuit of knowledge is totally normal.

But, I will agree that over-emphasis on grades is not healthy. However, we have to bear in mind that students do not live in isolation. This is the culture that has been built up in Singapore, and what we are witnessing is merely the fruit of the seeds sown. In order for things to change, it has to start to change at the root, that's at the start of one's education as a kid.

Wed Nov 15, 11:53:00 PM 2006  
Blogger waterchild said...

Hi, Master Heavenly Sword,

It's been a LOOOONG break.
I missed you.

Absolutely agree with your observation about our obssession with grades.

Our lives revolve around that - parents pay for tuition to ensure children do well; children try to meet parental and societal expectations to do well. When they become parents, these values are passed on...

I think this obssession is in part due to the fact that investments in education had paid off so far. I came across some research recently which showed that private returns on education in Singapore is amongst the highest in the world. So, the higher qualified you are, the higher income you will earn, more so in Singapore than in any other country.

I guess our current obssession with education and grades will only change when higher education does not equate to higher income.

Will that day come?

Thu Nov 16, 12:11:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous jun said...

This is pretty off topic, but I was wondering why Heavenly Sword and not Dragon Sabre (but yeah the sword seems to be everyone's favourite weapon)?

Anyway HSDS is my favorite Jin Yong novel. :)

Thu Nov 16, 12:39:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

[Heavenly Sword deleted his own comment directly above Aaron's comment, and re-posted it here, with some modifications...]

Hi Aaron, thanks and please see my responses below :)

1) If you say that lecturers should have the discretion to give grades, then you must also accept the situation of having lots of modules with mostly B and C grades. That will happen if the lecturers feel that most students' performance in the modules concerned are, in fact, really of B and C standard. My point is: the right to reward comes with the right to penalize...

2) My original post was written in the hope that Singaporeans will move away from two tendencies (even if the curve continues to exist and operate):

(a) The first is the tendency for students to link their confidence in a discipline to their grade(s) for particular modules, especially the very first module that they take (usually called the 'exposure module').

(b) The second is the tendency for students to approach learning in the wrong way, so even when they are 'officially' rewarded by the system, there might be dysfunctional outcomes (as I've illustrated). In your two comments above, I can still detect this psychological need to want to be rewarded by the system and the system only...

Could self-confidence not be independent of what the 'system' says about one?

Of course, we can then link the problem to other wider societal forces, such as the narrow-mindedness/prejudice of employers, etc....

Thu Nov 16, 09:08:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Master Waterchild, haha, thanks! Miss you too! :) I am still very caught up with work and other stuff, and some personal matters....Hardly have time to even do housework...! (Yes, in case readers are surprised, Heavenly Sword needs to do housework too - like vacuum the floor, wash the toilet bowl, etc...*sigh* poor me.)

In response to your comment, I think I will write a sequel to this post ('Thoughts on Education, Part II') (forthcoming, 2007) :)

Hi Jun: Hm....good question! It's because my ex-girlfriend (who's a very important person in my life) is a 'dragon' (she was born in the year of the Dragon).

I also like the name 'Heavenly Sword' cos 'heavenly' sounds really happy, ecstatic, no worries, paradise-like, relaxed, etc... :-)

Thu Nov 16, 09:20:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, Trisha, and Aaron for the comments. I will post another essay to deal with these 'real issues' once I have the time... :)


Thu Nov 16, 09:24:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous ah huat said...

waterchild said:
I think this obssession is in part due to the fact that investments in education had paid off so far. I came across some research recently which showed that private returns on education in Singapore is amongst the highest in the world. So, the higher qualified you are, the higher income you will earn, more so in Singapore than in any other country.

I have not read the research that you cited but I think the report is very misleading. From what you described, it gives the impression that Singapore schools add more value to students compared to schools in other countries. The only conclusion I can draw from the report is that income level in Singapore is very strongly correlated to educational level.

The income disparity in Singapore could be due to one (or both) of these reasons:

1) Employers in Singapore pay lower-educated people peanuts (REAL peanuts; not Mrs Goh-type peanuts).

2) Employers in Singapore pay higher-educated (especially elite) people king's ransoms. The ridiculously-high salaries of scholars might skew the results even further.

In the US, the nature of the job and the individual's experience determines the pay; not so much educational level. Of course, some professions require specialized education (e.g. doctors, lawyers). A mailman, truck driver or construction worker in the US can earn as much as a graduate, depending on experience.

Maybe that is why Americans are not as obsessed about grades as Singaporeans. They pursue their interests instead of just focusing on grades.

Sat Nov 18, 03:17:00 AM 2006  
Blogger waterchild said...

Hi, Master Heavenly Sword,

I respectfully await your sequel.

May I post a quick response to ah huat on my comment about higher-educated Singaporeans getting more returns from education than in other countries?

Apparently, the returns being higher in Singapore than in other countries had been attributed to the fact that our economy had industrialised and gone hi-tech quick enough to create that demand for higher-skilled manpower. In contrast, eg in Europe and the US over the past 20-30 years, its economic re-structuring had led to higher unemployment, eg middle managers, etc.

I agree absolutely with your observation that as a society, we place great emphasis on education. And this had not been helped by the govt's pegging of pay to the top earners in the economy. As a society, we have pretty narrow definitions of 'success'.

Sat Nov 18, 07:12:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Aaron said...

Dear Master Heavely Sword,

Soon, I will be vacuuming the floor and washing the toilet bowl too. It's part and parcel of married life in Singapore, especially in a dual income household. Maybe you would like to ponder about this sometime?

I shall await your sequel, although I would like to add one more point for your consideration. Why do you think Singaporeans want to enter university? Is the motivation to learn, or something else? If the motivation is not to learn, then I don't think we can fault undergraduates for taking the wrong approach. In the very first place, their goal was not to learn.

Mon Nov 20, 09:15:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Xin said...

even at the mba level, my coursemates are still chasing the distinctions...every module done in 4 days, crammed with the facilitator's "lectures" to target nothing, but the exam paper.

as the facilitator said, "lets deal with the exam first. anything outside the exam questions, read at ur own free time after the exam".

even as several of us do not look at grades as everything (since not all employees bother to look at transcripts anyway), we cant change the system. may b u can..hehe.. :)

and oh, i still remember that B- from governance.

Tue Nov 21, 04:18:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous twasher said...


I disagree strongly that the bell curve is the cause of the problem. You only have to look at the myriad top US universities that grade on bell curves and still retain students' intellectual curiosities. The fact is that if you are really interested in the subject, what you value most from the university experience is the opportunity to mix with other minds (professors and students) who share your intellectual interests.

Incidentally, my experience in a US university is that the Singaporeans are the ones who lack a spirit of learning. They purposely pick easy classes instead of classes that interest them. They rarely ask interesting questions in class and find homework and discussions onerous rather than stimulating. Americans tend to be much less affected by the pressure of grades than Singaporeans. This to me is strong evidence against the idea that grading negatively affects the spirit of learning. In my opinion, if you let it affect you, then there is already something wrong with your intellectual curiosity. I'd much rather get a mediocre grade and learn a lot rather than copy homework and learn nothing. If you have never experienced, and do not understand, the pleasure of grinding through challenging problem sets or essays that occasionally open your mind to stunning new vistas of thought, of staying up all night to finish an assignment because it was so riveting (and not because you need to finish it to get an A), then you are already on the wrong road. Changing the grading system is not going to make you change.

The lack of intellectual curiosity starts way before university education. When I was in secondary school I was often struck unpleasantly by the grade-centric attitude that pervaded the vast majority of students, even though not all exams were graded on a curve. One nice exception were the GEP students, who were much more interested in the subjects themselves rather than simply grubbing for grades (there was some grubbing, but proportionately less). And I can assure you that it not at all the case that there is less of a pressure to get good grades in GEP -- if anything parents of GEP students tend to be the most anal about their children's grades. Grade grubbing is something that is nurtured by the culture that Singaporean children grow up in. Parents don't encourage children to follow their interests; even when learning something like music the idea is to pass exams in order to "prove" to other people that they have acquired a prestigious skill. My relatives were aghast that I chose not to study anything "practical" like engineering or law or medicine. My parents tussled with me interminably in JC when they found me reading outside the curriculum during the exam periods. In the "top" JC I went to I was mocked for reading "intellectual" books during recess. And so on.

Thu Nov 23, 12:11:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous twasher said...

And yes, Aaron is spot on that undergrads don't go to university to learn. They go to university because they can get better paying jobs after that. Granted, this is ultimately the motivation of most university students in the world. But Singaporean students are more severely narrow-minded in their valuation of what education can offer them. And this is because all their life they've been told that education is just for one thing -- to get a good job which will give them certain material comforts etc. And those who want to follow their interests are actively discouraged.

Thu Nov 23, 12:20:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, everyone...good points raised and interesting observations by all.

Twasher, i agree with you :)

Xin, erm...i can change the system? But i'm only an ikan-bilis... :)

Sat Nov 25, 03:17:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Aaron said...

Hi twasher,

May I know which top American university grades on a curve? As far as I know of most American universities, whether there is a curve or not is decided by the individual professor, and not like NUS where there is a pre-determined university wide quota to meet.

Wed Nov 29, 07:49:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous twasher said...


For reasons of anonymity I do not wish to reveal my univerisity, but I can tell you , from speaking with friend who have studied at these places as well, that Berkeley, Cornell, Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin-Madison grade on curves. Basically I have not heard of anywhere where curve-grading is not common, except at MIT where it is explicitly forbidden. You are right that the decision to curve is the discretion of the professor. However for some reason the general trend is that most science/engineering classes (and 'social sciences' like economics) grade on curves. Humanities classes usually don't and this leads to serious grade inflation and a perception that they are 'easy'.

I don't quite see how it matters whether the curve is university-wide or on a class-by-class basis. But Berkeley has a university-wide policy of only allowing 15% As. I believe Princeton also imposed a limit on the percentage of As in order to combat grade inflation, but I can't recall what it is.

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