For their first two years at National University of Singapore's (NUS) medical school, students did not have to worry about their grades. But the only drop that came was in stress levels, not in standards.
No less than 95 per cent of students passed their exams on the first try, said a spokesman, since the school began its "grade-free" scheme in 2010 in a bid to move away from the obsession over marks.
Not only was there no "significant difference" from before, students performed even better in their continual assessments, suggesting that the scheme is helping them enjoy learning instead of revising for the sake of grades.
Through psychological testing, the school also found that students were less stressed now that they no longer had to focus on scoring well in tests and having to outdo each other. "The difference is that there is a lot more sharing of notes, and we are not so competitive. You feel closer to your peers," said second-year medical student Ke Yu He, 20.
In the past, they were given A to F grades which counted towards their final assessment. Now, they are awarded either a fail, pass or distinction for each subject in the first two years.
There are now plans to adopt a similar grades-free scheme for freshmen at other faculties, which could include law and engineering, in the next few years, NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan said recently.
Other schools here, including the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which partners the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Yale-NUS College, also have their own "gradeless" schemes. And these have met with success.
SUTD students get only a "pass" or "no record" in the first term of their first year. Associate provost Pey Kin Leong said all of its over 600 students so far eventually passed the first term, which he described as an "adjustment period" for them to get used to the university's academic requirements.
MIT itself has a gradeless scheme. MIT professor John Brisson, director of the MIT-SUTD collaboration office, said: "The first year of college is generally a very stressful year... If their grades aren't quite so good, we don't want the student to suffer."
For Yale-NUS freshmen, their first semester does not end with exams, and any grades they get during the period are not recorded. Instead, they are assessed through projects and presentations.
A spokesman for the school, which took in its pioneer cohort of 155 last year, said the scheme helps fresh students see education as "not merely as the acquisition of facts, but also as the development of abilities, insights and perspectives".
Undergraduates from these schools believe doing away with grades is a positive thing.
First-year SUTD student Ng Zi Kai, 21, said having no grades gave him more room to understand concepts, instead of just memorising facts for tests.
Third-year NUS law student Angela Teng, 21, added: "Better students may not be too happy as they know they can do better than just a pass. But no grades is good as students have time to settle down and get used to the style of learning and writing that law school requires. I would have wanted my first year to be a pass or fail."