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posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Report on the Special Programme in Science

June 1998


Last summer, early in discussions about my returning to Singapore for an extended stay, the Singaporean Ministry of Education announced national policy to emphasize creativity and problem-solving skills at all levels. Working in the Special Programme in Science (SPS) was appealing in itself, but the opportunity to witness the genesis of that new policy and participate in its application crystallized my interest and made it certain that I would come. Throughout my stay, this large scale context of cultural transformation remained the framework within which I experienced everything, and my comments below reflect that.

My terms of reference at the National University of Singapore (NUS) were simply to teach in and advise on the SPS, on which I consulted during its planning two years ago. Quickly, however, I realized that events occuring elsewhere in the Faculty, the University, and the country as a whole either influenced or were (or could be) influenced by the Special Programme, and so my scope broadened. I will comment on the SPS, and also make more general comments about broader issues.

The Special Programme in Science
The SPS is a wonderful programme in many ways. In principle, it melds the best of several similar programmes elsewhere with some unique features to produce an excellent introduction to university science for high-achieving students. Many features of the SPS work well now, and to that extent the Faculty is to be congratulated. Other features work less well, and for that reason the SPS has not yet realized its full potential. This report will concentrate on those features whose improvement would make the most difference, in my opinion.

In my experience, surprisingly few NUS science faculty or students know about the programme. Of those who do, few know much about it and most of those ‘know’ things that are inaccurate. One consequence of this ignorance is that some faculty claim that it is a waste of money and some students claim that it is an unfair opportunity for an elite few. This is similar to our early experience with Science One at UBC. Ignorance and gossip reigned, and we neither enjoyed the broad support that we needed nor felt that we contributed much to how others viewed teaching and learning. The programme suffered for this, but fortunately we quickly began to use Science One as a communication tool to foster other changes in the faculty and the university. Science One became a Trojan Horse for deep, structural change at UBC, and I think the SPS is well-placed to function this way in Singapore.

Why does the SPS appear to be a secret?
In my view, the SPS is an important experiment, not only in the Faculty of Science, but in NUS, Singapore, and the world. It is an experiment in every sense of the word, and although it would be difficult to evaluate its results in a rigorous scientific sense, it does produce results. Most of those results are excellent, and they can be taken advantage of in other programmes. The programme is one of the best things about the Faculty and should be celebrated openly and in a sustained way that fosters broad discussion of the principles on which it is based. There are several important reasons for doing this.

For investment in educational innovation to be returned maximally, there must be ways to transfer insights about teaching and learning from experimental to normal programmes. Without such mechanisms, innovations must rest on their direct benefits to special students and older programs cannot benefit from them. In both of these cases, the return is much smaller than would be realized otherwise.

Some argue that only gifted students are bright enough to benefit from special teaching, but I see no good theoretical or practical reason to believe this. On the contrary, improved teaching methods and better support networks probably benefit normal students at least as much as they benefit gifted ones. However, unless faculty know which students are which and have an accurate notion of what results programmes are intended to produce, there will be no way to transfer knowledge. (We speak often of “transferrable knowledge and skills” in referring to students, but the concept applies as well to faculty.)

The Singaporean Ministry of Education is conducting its vast experiment to produce a new generation of creative problem solvers in the most public of ways. This strategy includes almost daily television announcements of policy, with careful explanations for parents. One particularly important example, aired in late March, was the announcement that schools would de-emphasize the idea that questions have “one right answer”.

The Ministry official who explained this did a great job of showing how applying a different concept of knowledge will help children think. She also explained that this change would have many consequences for evaluation. Wisely, rather than trying to explain them then, she just promised to explain them later. In the case of the Ministry, Singaporean parents and taxpayers are the stakeholders, and they deserve to understand policy.

Who are the stakeholders of the SPS? You do have stakeholders, and I suggest that you will discover that their ranks are broader than you are now aware. In my view, NUS, the Faculty of Science, and the SPS can learn from the Ministry’s example and vice versa; first by identifying stakeholders and determining what they need to understand about what you are doing. Indeed, to the extent that the experiment in the school system works (and the materials and approaches I have examined to date all seem solid and likely to succeed), NUS must change if it is to serve those new students. Those students will not be limited to the brightest young people in the country, but will include everyone who is admitted to the university. Because deep, structural change takes time, especially in such tradition-bound institutions as universities, now is the time to begin.

Arguments about the benefits of public experimentation apply especially under conditions of financial exigency, such as we have experienced continuously at UBC for more than a decade. We have used those arguments repeatedly to squeeze blood from a stone, in competing for funds originating not only from within the Faculty but from the University, and not only for Science One but for other new programmes as well. Perhaps money is not the most valuable resource the SPS could gain from using this strategy, but that is not my point. Whatever the currency you wish to optimize, I strongly recommend that you make the SPS much more public than it is at present, at least within Science, and advertise its experimental nature. The first and most important indication that you are beginning to succeed in this campaign will be for non-SPS faculty to notice that SPS students are indeed special learners, and ask what you did to promote this. When this occurs, an important revolution will have begun to bear fruit.

Because most Science One students take no other science courses in their first year and our second year courses are still predominantly large, impersonal, and foster rather passive learning, we had to wait for 2 years to feel this benefit (and it is a big one). Not so for SPS. First year SPS students take a full load of other courses and would be quite visible to faculty if you promoted that. In addition, three year classes of students overlap in your programme (juniors, seniors, and mentors), which should compound the benefits.

An added benefit of visibility would accrue to non-SPS students. Even during first year, many Science One students function informally as unpaid tutor/mentors for students outside the programme, who widely recognize the special learning (and teaching) skills that our students quickly acquire. This mentoring function accelerates in later years. Indeed, some faculty have come to rely on it as an essential component of their teaching strategies. You feel some of this benefit already within the SPS because of overlapping year classes. I suggest that the idea has more potential than you have yet seen.

The SPS newsletter is a good start. How many other ways exist in principle? Count them. The Dean and the Deanery are key; the Faculty must learn to claim credit for its educational innovations, both within and beyond its ranks; to use the success of programmes as a way to encourage shifts in attitude about the importance of quality in undergraduate education at NUS. My suggestion about SPS faculty teaching loads, outlined in the next section, could send a strong message to everyone and encourage their imagination and more active participation.

I also recommend another kind of visibility, on another level. If someone of the calibre of Ian Smith (A/P, National Institute of Education) consulted with you on the structure and operation of the SPS, then even more benefits would follow; especially if that person or an NIE PhD student studied the programme formally. The issues such a study could illuminate are too numerous to list here, but our experience in Science One has been that we simply do not know many important things about our own programme. One obvious example is how much and in what ways we contribute to the subsequent success of our students. Given carte blanche to spend money on students whom we consider elite, this would not matter; even so, however, we could modify the programme more effectively if we knew what we accomplished, but we don’t know as much as we should. The difficulties of performing such evaluations are legion, and scientists are generally ill-prepared to think about them. Even talking about these problems with people whose business is to address them helped us inordinately.

Another kind of benefit that could follow through links to NIE is coordination of the NUS and school components of the larger mission. I believe that it would benefit all of your programmes if you explicitly thought of them as part of the national effort. I mentioned Smith rather than several others at NIE only because he is new to Singapore and is free of the political baggage that so sadly characterizes attitudes in both institutions, and because he is impressively bright, experienced, and interested. Besides this, he contributed greatly this past term to the research of Tom Bird, the UBC undergraduate on exchange in the SPS. In general, I see only benefits to both institutions of greater communication, cooperation, and collaboration between NUS and NIE, and no real liabilities.

Phasing of SPS year-class activities
The current proposal to phase SPS activities differently is excellent. Under this plan, first year students would spend their first term developing skills in writing, planning, analyzing, and communicating research-related ideas, and honing various other research and library skills. Lectures would serve different objectives than at present. Initiation of serious research efforts would be postponed one term.

However, and here I may differ with the thrust of the proposal, I think SPS students must begin writing, discussing, and evaluating proposals early in the first term. Your students are so accustomed to thinking about achievement in terms of examinations that they need lots of structured practice doing science. This is so important that it would be worthwhile even if it were at the total expense of all normal course “content”. Major research presentations would occur in the first term of the second year.

Important advantages of this plan include that a) first year students could witness and participate in the research development of second year students, which would give them a head start on their own research, b) second year students could help junior students in their early efforts, c) all students would be more prepared to do research, would do better research, and would be more aware of what it is to do scientific research, and d) research teams would have more calendar time in which to grow as scientists.  This point rests on my assumption that you would not postpone the beginning of research, but begin it in a different way.

The overlapping of year classes already provides a major opportunity to facilitate learning. The proposal to change the phasing of year class activities represents a significant additional step toward realizing that potential, but accomplishing that easy step will not guarantee anything. Surely, to embrace in a single integrated vision the dynamics of two compound growth trajectories (first and second year) must be a complex thing. Certainly it is more complex than to envision either trajectory alone.

Therefore I must caution you that you must embrace not only the simple bureaucratic components of this shift, but a multitude of subtle pedagogical ones as well. By no means do I recommend that you be timid here, however. Quite the contrary; I recommend that you jump completely into this important change and do it right. You may need outside help in thinking about how to do it well.

I believe that unless second-year SPS students receive substantial credit for their work, re-phasing will accomplish little. This point is important in general (people should gain tangible benefits from their efforts). It is particularly important in Singapore, where student engagement is more closely linked to credit than in other places I’ve seen. Embracing second year students more fully will be a key factor in developing a stronger community of scholars in the SPS. See related comments in the last section.

Organization of SPS course content: the process
Coordination of teaching efforts in the SPS follows what I call the “serial monogamy model” of team teaching, which is not team teaching at all. A succession of lecturers independently represent their disciplines, with little effort to coordinate beyond the initial agreement to address a common theme; last term the theme was neurobiology. In a system such as yours, in which faculty are overworked already and teach in the SPS in addition to their other obligations, this is not surprising. But it is also ineffective. The students rightly criticized it last term, and most faculty rightly complained that we achieved less than we could have.

I offer one small example to illustrate this ineffectiveness. In the first SPS meeting that I attended (and the only planning meeting the entire team), held a few hours after I arrived in the country, we divided up the calendar, discipline by discipline. Perhaps because I was a visitor, it was suggested that I begin the course with several lectures on topics of my choosing. The next day the three biologists met briefly to divide up our own slice of the pie, and then we were on our own (Lim Saw Hoon and I did collaborate in the classroom to some extent). Although I believe that my own and all other lectures were worthwhile to some extent, I also believe that they could have been superb as components of a more integrated package.

But it is difficult to imagine any theme that could be taught effectively as a convenient sequence of disciplines.  Neurobiology certainly did not come across as an integrated them that way because the only thing the lectures had in common was that they all related in one way or another, arbitrarily, to neurobiology.

An example from the Neurobiology course will illustrate. Early in the term we heard two fascinating lectures from a chemical point of view on neural membrane function and nerve impulse transmission. Late in the term we heard two equally fascinating lectures about the same thing, but from a physical point of view.

Those treatments were separated by several weeks for no better reason than that one scientist is paid through one department and another is paid through another. Fundamentally, those differences are arbitrary. The two treatments addressed nearly identical issues, yet the two lecturers did not consult with each other in planning, did not work together in the classroom, and did not explicitly use similarities and differences in their approaches to deepen student understanding.

Because of the long separation in time, the lack of explicitly common language, and the generally weak engagement of students during lectures, I believe that the students largely failed to see any of these things. The general point is that in a mature vision of cooperative interdisciplinary education, union of disciplinary knowledge and approaches is forged by recognition of common issues and common questions about them. In turn, these similarities serve as the ground for exploration, development, and discurrion of similarities and differences. To my mind, this kind of opportunity is the greatest potential of the SPS, and of cooperative education in general.

Some SPS faculty argued that we did in fact accomplish this kind of integration through our independent efforts, and in a trivial sense I agree. Given the benefit of vastly more knowledge and experience and a longer perspective than any of our students possessed, each faculty member who attended could appreciate a rich web of connections that most students could not even see until we made them explicit (when we did, which was rare). But only a small minority of faculty attended more than their own lectures (some did not even attend all of their own!). In general, only the Director and I attended lectures.

While I agree that students “should” be able to perform this integration for themselves, the fact is that few of them can, even in the SPS. Few of them have ever been asked to do this kind of thinking before. Consequently they have developed neither the required attitudes nor the required skills by the time they reach us. A more important question is whether our students acquire these things by the time they leave us, and most of them do not. In various parts of this report I address what we could do to redress this lack.

Contrary to the naive contentions of some SPS faculty, who apparently believe that they themselves were born doing it, complex synthesis is a skill that must be learned, even by the brightest of us. Most people who ultimately become professors learn it early and well, but few of us remember how we did that. This naivete leads us to vastly underestimate the difficulties with synthesis that most students face, even in the SPS, and underestimate the importance of our own actions as teachers.

We must learn to think of our students’ ability to perform such high-level synthesis as a result of our efforts, and not as a necessary prerequisite. Blaming the victim never works in education, and doing this is ludicrous when levelled at the brightest students in an entire country. Sadly, though, it is traditional at NUS and many other universities to blame them.

More thoughtful coordination would be very much worthwhile, in my opinion. Reasonable thought and effort directed to this, both before and during courses, will yield great benefits for SPS students, for faculty who teach in the programme, and for faculty and students in other courses. And coordination within the SPS is just the beginning; remember that the larger context of the SPS is the Talent Development Programme, and that the vision underlying the TDP is revolutionary.

Please do not underestimate the import of what I suggest here.  If the rationale of the Ministry of Education is to be believed (and I do believe it), the very future of your country hinges on this. There is no question that our efforts to coordinate Science One contributes directly to our programme’s most successful features, both across disciplines and across the personalities of participating faculty. Nor is there any question that those same efforts contribute indirectly to other programmes.

Caveat. In referring to coordination I mean to imply a certain degree of planning and preparation. However, I do not believe that to be prepared for class and to know the details of what will happen in class are the same. On the contrary, detailed planning of events far in advance of when they actually occur can detract from the effectiveness of experimental teaching programmes. Therefore I do not recommend a planning process that determines most details of curriculum more than a week or two in advance.  That would rob the experiment of essential flexibility, spontaneity, and opportunity to recognize and develop synergistic potential. But I strongly recommend weekly briefing and debriefing sessions. It helps if these discussions are less about what content to teach and more about objectives, methods, and “what worked and didn’t work“.

To our great surprise, all faculty loved the weekly Science One meetings, as much for the comraderie as for the plans that we made. And I strongly recommend that more than one professor at a time work with students whenever feasible. Lim Saw Hoon can describe doing this with me in the class we taught together, and most others can comment on our interactions in tutorials (I attended and participated fully in most tutorials all term). Note that regular coordination meetings increase in importance to the extent that the team functions as a team; indeed they become essential because coordination cannot occur without them.

The SPS team
It would be unreasonable to expect SPS professors to spend more time than they do now under the present administrative structure. They work as hard as faculty anywhere, and already have more to do than they can do well.  The programme will suffer if individuals are asked to add new functions without freeing them up to do that.

How to achieve the cohesiveness and coordination that I envision? In my view, these cannot be supplied from above, by a Director or anyone else.  They must emerge through the interaction of committed individuals. One way to facilitate this interaction would be to allow faculty to devote more time to the SPS by reducing their other teaching to a minimum. To do this for seven or more faculty from all Science departments would be expensive. But I suspect that a smaller, more intimate, and more flexible team could guide a deeper and more powerful first experience of university science than the present large, unwieldy, and uncoordinated one. Integration is much more than a numerical exercise in assigning bodies.

A smaller team is appealing in at least two ways, in addition to its economy. I see no compelling pedagogical reasons to represent all science disciplines formally each term, in the form of assigned professors, although I can think of many political reasons. (The weakest political reason would be to “represent” all departments.) A light, tight team of 3 or 4 who could devote more time and creative energy could avoid the worst of the difficulties with the present large team and still accomplish nearly the same breadth of integration. More important, though, is that their efforts could develop ties between disciplines that were missed altogether the way we did it last term, thereby deepening the integration. Thus I am arguing to emphasize depth of connections among disciplines rather than the more superficial breadth that results from simply surveying them one at a time.

Having said this, I will also suggest that a small team could afford to ask other professors to visit SPS for special lectures in which they would contribute to the integration. Ideally, these guests would talk about their research, and not attempt to teach the students any content. A good example is the special lecture by John Steeves of UBC.  He was not part of the SPS team, but contributed something important to our efforts. Preparing guest lecturers to present “research seminars” rather than “lectures about content” requires that someone spend time with them in preparation. Professors rarely feel comfortable with this idea for several kinds of reasons.  Those reasons must be addressed in careful conversation, or professors relapse into “professor mode“.

It is puzzling to me that attendance at SPS lectures was chronically modest at best and late arrival was the norm for both students and faculty. An important consequence of low registration and low attendance is that teaching in the programme is less effective than it would be if the room were more full (this is something fundamental about people and architecture). If the pool of NUS applicants would support it, I recommend allowing more students into the SPS. This could help to justify the expense of relieving faculty from other teaching.

The problem of attendance would disappear by itself if students perceived all activities to bring significant direct benefits. Currently SPS students tend not to believe this.  They speak eloquently about that and I agree with them. Your students are worth listening to on this subject. I suggest that this problem is symptomatic of something deep and important which, if my reading of faculty complaints is accurate, is by no means restricted to the SPS. The issue would be a worthwhile focus for a SPS faculty retreat.

The SPS student body
I understand that the SPS is now required to accept students entirely on the basis of examination marks. I recommend that this policy be reexamined seriously. Ideally, it would be reviewed not only by high-level administrators, but by a committee including those responsible for delivery of TDP programmes, and probably Ministry representatives as well.

I do not believe that students who score highest on centralized examinations necessarily become the best scientists. Indeed, some high-achievers in both Canada and Singapore are ill-prepared for creative activity, precisely because of their strong commitment to excel by external standards. Worse, those students embody attitudes to learning that block them from learning well in the way that the SPS philosophy envisions. Many of those students, both here and in Canada, are shocked to learn that graduate schools and professional schools often select on other criteria in addition to academic marks, as I think the SPS should do.  The Ministry of Education has acknowledged serious problems with the school examination system, and promises to change it fundamentally. Meanwhile, experimental programmes in the University must continue to accept students on that basis. This is not rational.

I believe that serious reexamination of criteria for entrance to TDP programmes will identify other criteria that could be included to great advantage in combination with traditional ones. For example, evidence of creativity, evidence of breadth of interest, and evidence of teamwork could go a long way to make SPS students more able to benefit from the programme.

A closely related issue is that SPS students are strongly driven to graduate after 3 years’ work, to carry very heavy loads, and to succeed in multiple majors. They are quite articulate in their claim that future opportunities go to those who have demonstrated an ability to survive under impossible loads. For them, for example, graduating in 2.5 years is better than graduating in 3 years, 2 majors are better than 1, etc.

Those students are also quite aware of their assumption that people who evaluate them in future will not care about the depth or power of their education – – only its quantity. This phenomenon fascinated me so greatly that I spent many hours interviewing SPS students about it. With one or two exceptions, I found the students fairly strongly jaded about education: “Why should I learn something because it fascinates me? It will only hurt me in future!” More than this, they have overgeneralized this “rule” to mean that to become fascinated in anything is counterproductive.

I see no way for programs like the TDP to function maximally within the current framework. The problem is deep, systemic, and Singaporean. I cannot imagine how to address it fundamentally without addressing it at the level of the entire culture at once. Perhaps the Ministry’s long-term plans will succeed. For now, though, selecting students more capable of guiding their education by other lights would help. The most important of those lights for the SPS are willingness to learn for the love of learning, and willingness to risk imagining what might exist beyond what they know at the moment.

Phasing of SPS writing assignments
At the planning meeting at the beginning of the term, we agreed that the three writing assignments would train students to produce successively higher quality work, which would culminate in their final research reports. With this in mind, I argued that those assignments must be timed to allow students to receive and apply feedback on their writing, and that faculty and mentors must be organized to provide it. I also suggested an innovative but well-tested way for students to learn from each other as well as from us. [This refers to an article about writing that I published in Singapore.]

We agreed on all of this, but we did not keep our agreement and the students suffered for it. We returned the short essays after the long essays were due, and students’ final work on their research reports had begun before we returned the long essays. Two aspects of the problem of phasing student work to maximize benefits deserve comment.

  • The logistics of our assignments were organized by student mentors. It is an excellent idea in principle for mentors to be responsible for complex operations like these, but they need much more studied guidance than they received last term. Mentors and students negotiated logistical details iteratively by email. Mentors issued a succession of what looked like final directives in grand top-down style, none of which could have worked in practice. Each time, students complained, mentors issued corrected but equally final directives and the same thing happened again.

    Although it must have been embarrassing, this complex, pseudo-top-down, error-driven procedure may have taught mentors a lot about teaching and other things. But the assignments were intended to help students, not mentors.This reveals a general principle that should guide all actions in education: to benefit students maximally, the details of procedures must facilitate educational and not just logistical objectives. The first mentor directives last term may have facilitated the bureaucratic function of handling pieces of paper, but they failed to address the more important need of the students for clear direction and timely feedback. I raise this issue not to criticise the student mentors.

    Far from it; I am now exploring ways to include something like your mentors in several programmes at UBC. Rather, I raise it to suggest that the SPS and all other courses in your Faculty would benefit from careful framing of learning objectives and rigorous consideration of how to achieve them. It is good that mentors attempted to orchestrate the most important and most complex activities of the term. But it would also help to remember that mentors are also students. They cannot be expected to be as aware as faculty of the difficulties of facilitating learning by others, but faculty might not be much better. University faculty everywhere tend to be unaccustomed to this way of thinking about what they ask their students to do.This is one of many kinds of reasons for my recommendation to develop links to NIE. Even without outside help, however, professors can learn to invent interventions that effectively express educational objectives. See Appendix 1 for examples.

  • The second problem with phasing of student work is that even after negotiation generated procedures that might have succeeded, faculty markers failed to deliver marked papers when they said they would. This occurred with both essays. Evidently, the same professor’s papers were “lost” both times. I don’t know who lost them or how, but it is clear that everyone lost a great opportunity for students to improve their thinking and writing.

Student research projects
Whether student research is the primary cornerstone of the SPS is unclear at present. One example is that there was no clear relationship between the lecture/tutorial and research components of the Neurobiology course last term, in terms of either process or content. I see nothing wrong with offering two courses concurrently under the same name as long as the rationale for this is clear to the students, although that would not be ideal. This is what we tried to do in the Neurobiology course, in effect, but the rationale was unclear.

The following comments assume that the objective is to develop a single integrated treatment organized around research. They would have to be modified somewhat if this assumption were inaccurate. In this view, all activities would support student research efforts directly. For example,

  • Both essays could easily develop general library and writing skills, as at present, and allow students to read, organize, and present information they will need in their own research.
  • Science Update presentations could require teams to find and report on hot topics in the general domain of their research but outside the specifics of their own work. This would broaden presenters’ and other students’ background and empower them to do better research.
  • Lectures and tutorials could serve various research methodological needs and more general issues of approaches to experimentation and interpretation rather than disciplinary subject matter.
  • Research teams could report on various phases of their progress in tutorials, and tutorial discussion could address problems they were having. Thus, tutorials would be more like workshops.
  • The Poster Session we instituted last term marked a key turning point for most teams. Having to organize their thoughts for communication to others organized them for themselves as well.

Whether or not the SPS is reorganized more tightly around research, much more could be done with coordination to facilitate growth of competence in performing operations essential to research.  A seemingly trivial shift in terminology could help a lot: stop calling research ‘projects‘ and call them ‘research. Reinforce this shift in the students’ language by helping them to understand the difference. The point is fundamental: projects are about completing assignments and research is about finding out.

When I began working with your students in January, none of those I supervised understood this, and until they understood it their reasearch could not progress. They did not understand, for example, that effective research rests on effective questioning. They didn’t understand that questioning is a tool to clarify ignorance, thereby clarifying what methods must accomplish. It did not surprise me that first year university students would not understand these fundamentals when they began, but it led me to wonder how much more they might have accomplished had the course done more to help them understand it. Then I smiled, remembering that it is no accident that PhDs are literally doctors of philosophy!

I recommend a rigorously-enforced protocol in which research teams meet regular deadlines for written and/or oral “products” over a long period of time (1.5 years under the new proposal, which will be excellent):

  • several stages of development of formal proposals
  • tuning of research methodology through pilot studies
  • drafts (several) of final reports, etc., with all drafts returned promtly with thoughtful feedback.

Seemingly-trivial exercises often make an important difference in the rate and kind of progress students make. Many possibilities exist (see Appendix 2 for examples). These kinds of assignments work best if their exact form and timing are tuned to the needs of the particular class of students.  This requires clear vision of the objectives of the course and keen ears of supervisors. Note that each of the listed examples focuses on one component of the overall research process.

My own approach to evaluation of such assignments is to uphold high standards, to mark hard (but not record the mark), and require everyone to obtain the highest mark. That is, I return work that does not meet my standard, with no penalty other than lost time and effort, and require resubmission. Everyone must meet the standard on every assignment. In general, I am happy to award high marks in the end to anyone willing to cooperate in this system.  The number of iterations they take to reach the standard is irrelevant to me in grading them. Until the end, students receive only a checkmark for their efforts in my records, but they understand that the payoff is in the quality of the final product and don’t complain.

Obviously, it is essential to give timely, constructive feedback. It is worth mentioning that under this model both students and faculty adhere to standards and procedures similar to those we use in the peer-review process for publication, and it is very useful for students to understand that we are all in the same boat in that way. The process respects students as scientists and insists that they behave as such. It also supports them in learning to do that.

How to foster effective teamwork by students is another issue. I generally require most research-related documents be written jointly, and award the same mark to all team members (only a checkmark until the final report). This approach requires failsafe mechanisms to guard against slackers and cheaters within teams. Two mechanisms usually suffice.

First, each student on each team must submit an evaluation of the relative contributions of each member, including themselves, at the end, with the understanding that the set of evaluations will modify but not supplant my assumption of equal contribution. In general, students tend to underestimate their own contributions and forgive minor transgressions by team members. Overall, team members’ reports agree remarkably.

Second, I allow (and even encourage) teams to ‘fire’ team members who don’t contribute, leaving them alone with no team and facing the prospect of begging their way back in. In the SPS, when I suggested this possibility to one team, they chose instead to warn the transigent student and help him/her improve, and it worked. In practice, this is what usually happens when students realize that it is their own responsibility for their teams to function effectively. I remember only two examples in about 15 years of students being fired permanently from their teams. That is a good thing, because a research team member without a team is as doomed as a Serengeti antelope without a herd, and herds need individual antelope.

Here is one tested plan for final reports of research in which different members study different aspects of the same problem. The team writes a “book”, with title page, table of contents, acknowledgements, and chapters bound together:

  • Chapter 1:       General introduction, written jointly.
  • Chapters 2 to n: Written by individuals, each with introduction and discussion.
  • Chapter n+1:   General discussion, written jointly.

All researchers know that writing by committee is difficult. Don’t underestimate the difficulty (or the benefits) when students try it, and help them learn how to do it.

Administrative support for the SPS
If the SPS evolves along the lines that I suggest, it will need more administrative support than it enjoys at present. To appreciate this, just consider the difficulty of coordinating activities as I have recommended. A secretary assigned to the Director would be a great help. While my experience was surely atypical, I found it difficult to accomplish things in the Dean’s office. The secretaries genuinely wanted to help accomplish SPS tasks, but it was never clear to me who to ask for help (and I don’t think it was clear to them either). At UBC, we quickly grew to recognize the Science One secretary as an indispensable member of our team. Whether or not the SPS warrants a full-time secretary, I believe that the programme needs more help than it got last term.

Teaching infrastructure
Several problems with the physical organization of the SPS area and other rooms the program uses make teaching in them much less effective than it could be.  The most serious relates to visibility of whiteboards.

  • The recessed ceiling lights cast no light on the board, making it impossible to see what lecturers write. This was compounded by the invariably worn-out pens available in the room, which made boardwork less than useful.
  • In general, maintenance of AV equipment for teaching should have much higher priority than it now has. One example of the importance of maintenance is that the SPS projector malfunctioned during a talk by a visiting scientist from overseas. That problem resulted from an accident just before the talk, and it has been corrected. But in a public talk I gave in the large lecture hall near the SPS room, we went through four 35 mm projectors mounted in the high-tech projection booth before finally getting a fifth one to work. After that, the remote controller worked so poorly that I had to abandon all notion of proper timing for my talk and went about 10 minutes overtime. Apart from this kind of problem being frustrating for anyone with reasonable standards of presentation, in this case it was embarrassing; guests from Singapore General Hospital and the Canadian High Commission commented privately later about the poor support for teaching at NUS.

I understand from discussions with Science students and professors and from deliberations of the STAR Committee that this and related problems of infrastructural support for teaching are widespread on campus. It is unclear in many cases who is responsible for teaching rooms and the equipment therein. Some rooms are managed by a central campus authority, some are “owned” by departments, etc. I met no one who was clear about any of this, but many faculty are frustrated by it.

I suggest that it become a high priority for the Science Faculty to lead the campus in providing adequate AV and other support for teaching; the STAR committee is recommending something similar. Especially on a campus so well endowed with capital improvements as NUS, it should be possible to keep in good order all current teaching equipment and discard the rest. It is unacceptable for an institution that has invested as much as NUS has in capital equipment, and that aspires to greatness, not to maintain it. Nor is it acceptable to expect teachers to teach well without matching their efforts with reasonable support.

The SPS as a community of scholars
The opportunity exists to transform the SPS into a true community of scholars. All members (student, mentor, faculty, and visitor) are and are seen to be active, self-regulating learners whose activities empower all other members’ learning. We all recognize this as an ideal to be achieved in our research groups, although not all of us achieve it. I believe that you can achieve it in the SPS. By enriching links among year classes, re-phasing of activities can accomplish a great deal, as can more strongly emphasizing student research. Granting more credit to second year students and expecting full participation will help motivate them to contribute. Accepting students whose qualities better prepare them to benefit from the SPS will help a lot.

But the greatest opportunities relate to faculty. Anything to de-emphasize the traditional polarity between professors-who-know and students-who-need-to-know will help. Faculty are valuable resources, not only as repositories of knowledge but as reservoirs of experience confronting the unknown and sources of enthusiasm for doing that. The SPS can do this easily and I think it should take much greater advantage of this opportunity. Once faculty are free to contribute more to the program, they will quickly discover ways to develop it.

Examples of teaching interventions in NUS science courses designed to facilitate learning objectives.

Navjot Sodhi’s 4th year behavioural ecology course.
Objective: For students to develop analytical, synthetic, and communication skills while learning course content.
Method: Each week, all students read two research publications selected by Sodhi on various criteria including theoretical perspectives, study species, geographical location, and research methods. Small teams of students gave short talks on the papers and facilitated class discussion. The method requires not only that the students responsible know the material, but that they develop objectives for the discussion and strategies to meet them. Sodhi gave only one lecture during the course: an example of how to do what the students would be doing all term. Thereafter, he only helped students plan their sessions and participated in the discussions (carefully, without dominating).

This is an excellent example of educational principle in action: students learn best by doing, and teachers teach best by facilitating student action.

Lim Tit Meng’s 3rd year developmental biology course.
Objective: To achieve greater student buy-in to a loose lecture style that was more spontaneous than the students found comfortable. As in the other example, the professor wanted his students to interact more actively in class than they were accustomed to.
Method: After several weeks, Lim wrote a long letter to the class, in which he explained his teaching philosophy and each of the attitudes and actions that he wanted students to develop. He reported good results, and two of his students explained to me at length later how the letter helped them to develop a “vision” by which they could direct their own education.

K.P. Mohanan (English; Linguistics) independently did essentially the same thing in his course on phonetics and phonological analysis, and I have done it several times.

Writing tasks designed to support research efforts.

  • A one-page list of  ‘your 5 best titles so far’. Students usually postpone writing titles until the end. Their perfectionism about titles confuses how they think and write about introductions and discussions. This exercise, which should be performed much earlier than any student will think appropriate, frees them to think more creatively about the overall process and accelerates it. A rule of thumb is that it is easier to think of five tentative titles than to think of one perfect one (and one of the five is usually perfect).
  • A one-paragraph summary of ‘your current vision of the take home lesson of your final report’. How do you imagine your work may change your readers’ view of the world? Again, this must happen early to be useful, and repeating it several times cannot hurt.
  • An annotated list of ‘the 5 most useful references’ you have found so far. For each, write a paragraph summarizing what makes that reference useful. Do not simply summarize the work; this is about how the work influenced how you think.
  • Five problems you are currently having in your research. For each problem, discuss your three best ideas about how to proceed.
  • Five changes we’ve made in our project. What, how, and why.
  • Timetable of tasks; what, when, where, how, with what, etc.

Edited May 2022

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