Responding to students’ midterm feedback

Disruption, difficulty, and the meaning of it all

Daniel PS Goh
9 min readOct 1, 2021
A snapshot of the wonderful effort put in by students to give us their feedback to improve our teaching

So we ran a midterm feedback survey for students taking the HSS1000 Understanding Social Complexity module to give the teaching team their comments and opinions. Students answered the survey over their one-week recess break. The five lecturers on the team met to discuss the feedback. We actually met for the first time for a meal and drinks, after working together online for over a year! Such is team-teaching in this pandemic. It was a window of opportunity which soon closed, as restrictions have tightened as COVID-19 cases surge in Singapore.

I wrote the response to the midterm feedback and emailed it to the students. I share the text below, as is, except to explain some terms in brackets. It is all part of the experiment in teaching interdisciplinary social science and we are all learning a lot from it.

Welcome back to HSS1000! Hope you had a good break and a big thank you to the nearly 800 who completed the midterm feedback to help us improve the design of the module and our teaching. I just want to say at the start that we will not be making major changes midway, but the feedback is very important and has already helped us with some time-sensitive improvements we are making to Semester 2’s teaching.

First off, descriptive statistics. “Regardless of what I may find difficult or challenging, I believe that the content and module structure contain value”, 51 of you disagreed or strongly disagreed (7.8%), 135 stayed neutral (17.2%), and 576 agreed or strongly agreed (73.5%). We are happy most of you see value in the module, because providing value in learning is the heart and soul of our purpose. We will strive to improve so that more students will find value in the learning here, cohort after cohort. If we do it right, we will hit a high of over 90% appreciating the value from the module a few years down the road, and then we will have to revise the module thoroughly to update it for the changing world.

Because disruption

Because disruption. There are some of you who pleaded, “please stop forcing us to take mods we are not interested in”, “I apologise but I really do not see how this module is applicable to my course of study … I think this is a good foundation to have only if I were to pursue humanities”. There is really no need to say sorry if you are unhappy with this module. I would be too if I signed up to study science two years ago, did my national service, and then find myself forced to do modules alien to my paradigm and have no interest in. Some of you decided to try to make the best of the situation, take this bull by the horns and learn something.

So did we in the teaching team. Not many of us were happy with the speed of the implementation of the CHS (College of Humanities and Sciences), but we do understand the rationale and urgency. The world is disrupting fast, and the pandemic brought this home in a visceral way, so NUS (National University of Singapore) had to move fast to equip you with the right aptitude and skills. I wish we had more time to design the module, to teach students who actually opted for CHS and not feel like they got a “bait-and-switch” deal. NUS could have waited two years, but this will mean 4,500 undergraduates missing out. On my end, I volunteered to do this, so did the rest in the HSS1000 team, because we also wanted to make the best of the situation and learn something ourselves. And it has been incredibly rewarding, very much thanks to you, our very first batch of engaging HSS1000 students.

We are not the humanities though; that would be HSH1000 (the integrated humanities module, HSH1000 The Human Condition, led by my colleague, Loy Hui Chieh, who is a constant pedagogical inspiration for me), which would be what you will be taking next semester, and you will find it is a different kettle of fish. Social science is indeed difficult for many of you from the science stream.

It is also difficult for those of you schooled in a particular specialisation like economics or geography, because this is interdisciplinary social science. That’s why some complained about the mathematics in Dr Georgios’ lecture and reading components, and the history in mine (one would find both mathematics and history figuring prominently in both sociology and economics, and political science too, now wait for the second half!). The social sciences are very diverse, many of them with over a hundred years of independent development as individual disciplines. Interdisciplinary learning is new and recent, and we make no bones about the difficulty.

On difficulty

Is the module so difficult that you are not understanding enough? Some of you mention you seem to be able to follow the lectures, the tutorials and even the readings, but you are not able to express yourself, to articulate your thoughts. This will take time, and you may not need to anyway.

A broad understanding is useful because it helps you to listen in a team of co-workers from different disciplines, to understand where they are coming from so that you can then meet them in the middle of the knowledge exchange. You will not be merely applying your knowledge in your work situations when you graduate and commence in the “real” world. Increasingly, we work in interdisciplinary teams where we have to learn how to apply our different knowledges in conversation with each other, in person through speech and in writing through teamwork apps. Our tutorials are designed to reflect this, which is why in-class participation and post-class postings are each worth a substantial 15% of the grade.

Many of you are doing very well in the quizzes and this shows that you are understanding the module more than enough. The median is around 4.7 out of 6 for each quiz, this is A- in the grading schema of NUS. I have been tracking some of you who did not do well in the first quiz, and you are improving a lot over the weeks. You will have to unlearn the pre-university desire to score over 90%, for an A in university is 80% and B+ is considered a very good honours grade. This schema factors in not only the curve, which would be more liberal for first year modules, but also the appreciation that errors and failures are very much part of the learning process and we should not be afraid to make them.

Don’t learn with the grading rubrics, learning outcomes, teacher expectations in the foreground. We have kept them in the background for a reason and we do not want to frame each week, each lecture, each reading, each quiz, each tutorial with these. We want you to focus on the learning process and not be performance or goal-oriented, as you are already well trained to be so in our national schools.

Our mission is to reskill you as adaptable knowledge workers, not able instructional manual readers; for you to design the best Ikea and Lego sets with manuals for others to build them well, not how to read these manuals efficiently; for you to found the Ikea and Lego in your own fields if you would! We want you to be “kaypoh” (busybody in local slang) learners curious to absorb new knowledges you are not interested in and you do not relate to, not “KPI” (Key Performance Indicators) workers interested in only fulfilling the tasks for the rewards.

Some of you remarked the quizzes are tricky and sometimes dependent on semantics. Indeed, they are, as they are designed to challenge you and make you think about social science theories and concepts, which do not have the same level of certainty and universality like scientific theories. That’s why most of our quiz questions call for “best answers”. Social science concepts tend to be ambiguous at the margins, especially because our theories also flow back into policy and practice, which then change reality, so that we need to rethink our theories and concepts to understand the changed social complexity. This is what happened to modernisation theory as well as the idea of meritocracy. In the social sciences, Schrodinger’s cat has multiplied into community cats making their homes in void decks, attracting both love and abuse.

The readings are meant to be difficult. You will not understand them 100% in the first read through, if you can even put a percentage to your understanding. My most read book is a relatively thin one written by sociologist Max Weber in 1904 called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, about the relationship between religion and economy, Christianity and capitalism in Western modernity. I have read it at least 20 times and I am still learning from it. Do not seek to master the readings and reduce it to summaries and takeaways. Seek to understand the deeper logics about social life that runs through the readings and throw away the highlighter in joyous frustration.

It is true that the more we know, the more we realise what we don’t know. The readings are meant to do this, to open up these frontiers of understanding so you can peer over the horizons and wonder with some fear of the uncertain. We debated having a textbook for this module and decided against it for this reason. Not only are textbooks prohibitively expensive, they box you into a comfort zone of the already known. We want to open up brave new worlds of yet-to-be-knowns instead.

The meaning of it all

Some of you have asked for transcripts of the lectures or more comprehensive slides with lots of text, which we are wary of because we do not want to turn our lectures into textbooks. However, we do understand that transcripts may be useful for revision, so we will look into it, especially if the transcription software improves to better capture our diverse accents.

There is one feedback point that came up quite a bit which I’m very grateful for, and that is the concern the lectures don’t seem to link to each other, topically and conceptually, so the transition from one to the next is jarring and abrupt. This undermines the coherence of the themes. We will consider seriously to curate the lectures and topics better for next semester’s HSS1000. We are thinking of giving it a narrative hook starting from the individual and the micro-social in the theme of “freedom” in the first half and then proceeding to the more macro-social topics of meritocracy, inequalities, migration and then development in the second half. This should anchor the topics and improve general understanding, so that you can see better what the great Richard Feynman asked is “the meaning of it all”.

There are many other smaller improvements we will be making. Dr Nina Powell will be leading the charge for the changes based on the feedback for next semester’s HSS1000, as I’ll be stepping back to become the module chair overseeing administration while she takes over as module coordinator. I have a lot on my plate as a recently appointed associate provost of undergraduate education and, thanks to you all, I’m satisfied that the module is built on solid foundations. I need to focus on other initiatives in undergraduate research, upgrading the libraries, promoting performing arts and establishing the New College.

Drs Nina, Georgios and Elaine are seasoned educators at the top of the game in the social science departments in FASS (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences). Dr Rebecca was one of the best TAs (Teaching Assistants) around, and when she got her PhD, we grabbed her to teach this module, the only one from a long list of applicants. We were equally choosy about our TAs. Our guest webinar lecturers are top interdisciplinary scholars in FASS. We’ll continue to make sure this is the best team possible to teach this module.

There is one major concrete improvement you have already helped us achieve. Based on the midterm feedback, even before the survey closed, I went to the President to ask to hire three more TAs so as to lower the tutorial class size to maximum 20, so that more of you can participate better in tutorials. He agreed readily and we have already started the hiring process to be in time to achieve this by next semester.

And so many kind words and positive encouragements in the midterm feedback; we really appreciate them. Thank you everyone, hope you all enjoy the learning in the second half of HSS1000!



Daniel PS Goh

Sociologist and associate provost at the National University of Singapore sharing stories of higher learning and education