Should the Dean’s List Return?

By Shaun Loh (21A01A)

Feeling traumatised by the recent Promos or Prelims? Wondering how you fared in comparison to your peers? Fear not! At least you don’t need to know how your peers did if you don’t ask.

Yet, once upon a time, when a worldwide pandemic only existed in the realm of science-fiction books, there was a Dean’s List—an esteemed record of the top 5% of students in each subject for any test or examination. This list would be placed on the notice board outside the Students Affairs Centre after every examination for students to see. 

However, the List was abolished in 2018, with many perceiving the abolishment of the record as an effort to reduce excessive competition and pressure amongst students. Within the same year, many new measures were implemented by the Ministry of Education to shift emphasis from grades to a more broad-based education; for example, mid-year examinations were cancelled for Secondary 1 and 3 students, while all examinations for Lower Primary students were removed from their curricula. Apart from the abolishment of the Dean’s List, RI also removed the subject percentiles of students from their result slips. 

When asked about the school’s rationale for removing the Dean’s List, Ms Melissa Lim (Dean, Student Development) responded, “If I recall correctly, during our annual review of school programming and practices, we decided that putting up the Dean’s List  ran counter to the school’s priority of de-emphasizing peer-to-peer competition and comparisons, and also ran counter to recognising effort and demonstration of values.” 

There are some students who do believe in such a change. Sarah Goldman (21A01A) shared, “I’m glad it’s removed! Examination results are fundamentally markers of our learning, not ultimate benchmarks which we should be comparing ourselves to.” 

Indeed, our examination performances should be perceived as parts of a learning process to improve ourselves, and not end products for us to celebrate in self-indulgence. 

In contrast, other students find the Dean’s List to be an apt tool to push them even further in their determination to study. “It is an extrinsic source of motivation after all, which stimulates hard work,” remarked a graduated Year 7 from the Science stream, who wished to remain anonymous. She further explained, “The A Levels is the final goal. Things like the Dean’s List act as mini rewards!” 

Some also feel that the odd combination of excellence and envy resultant of competition is a healthy driving force. An ex-Rafflesian from the batch of 2016, who wanted only to be identified as Li, commented, “I was never on the Dean’s List, but I think that cancelling the Dean’s List just to assuage some people’s dissatisfaction wasn’t necessary. Firstly, back in my day, it only mattered to some people, and the rest of us weren’t too hung up about it. Secondly, the list promotes a culture of excellence, and the culture of competition is only a subset of it!” 

“Outside of exam season, it’s not very talked about, so I don’t know why it had to be abolished. I felt that nothing much changed after it was removed, because nobody studies just to get into the List. I thought that we should just have it to reward those who did well,” another alumnus from the Science stream who had actually experienced the Dean’s List in Year 5 (2017) but not in Year 6 (2018) voiced out. Clearly, the List has always acted as an additional reward, and not a final end in mind. 

unnamed (1)Mega Mugging Madness during A Level Season.

Other than the impacts of the Dean’s List on one’s perception of their JC study journey, it is important to acknowledge that the List has many other far-reaching implications. Take for example the terrifying prospect of college applications. Overseas universities, especially those in the UK and US, have very limited spots for international students. Many have a pre-existing quota set in place, such that even if all the Singaporeans applying to… let’s say, Harvard, are much more competent than the American applicants, not all of us will be preferentially accepted by the college. Essentially, we are competing against one another within our geographical regions. The Dean’s List can be a sign of achievement that can add a glow to our academic transcripts, and offer us an advantage over our friends from other junior colleges applying for the same universities. Hence, pragmatically, the List is a tool for us to better our portfolios. 

unnamedHarvard University.

Nevertheless, doesn’t this benefit only apply to the minority of students who can even enter the Dean’s List in the first place? Other Rafflesians beg to differ. “The ideal of getting to put another achievement on your transcript is a source of motivation for many. Even if you don’t get in, I’m sure you would have put in more effort as a result. That’s still something to pat yourself on the back for!” Adrienne Chew (21A01A) said. Perhaps the Dean’s List doesn’t always need to be considered as an end product, but it can be a milestone as part of a long process. 

Still, the welfare detriment of our school population is not to be casually ignored. Indubitably, the previous practice of pinning it onto the bulletin boards beside the Student Affairs Centre can cause undue stress and jealousy amongst peers. With reference to another Press article on this same issue way back from 2012, a Year 5 that year commented, “I felt physically nauseated when I looked at the Dean’s List, partly because of the people on it, and partly because I kind of wished I was on there.” Unfortunately, this sentiment still holds true even till now—it is difficult to shake off or suppress the envy of seeing your friend on the List, and you yourself not. 

Dean Ms Lim agrees with such a view. “It was just not necessary to make the lists public for tests which are ultimately formative in nature.” 

All in all, the dichotomy of the “top 5%” and the remaining is delineated and stratified by the List. Inevitably, the record is yet another manifestation of the labels of “winners”, and… for lack of a better term, “losers”, assigned by our ruthless grade-chasing system. 

As for Gemma Mollison (21A01A), she felt that the Dean’s List is suitable in the context of junior college. “We JC students should have the maturity to cope with these things. It’s absolutely vital for primary school kids to have no stress and competition at all, but is it really necessary for us? Competition only gets tougher in adulthood. I think the List offers us a better sense of reality and what to expect in future.” 

It seems as if these diametrical views on the competition promoted by the Dean’s List are irreconcilable. However, one possible solution is to notify students privately if they are on the List, via email, students can receive the good news if they have penetrated the realm of the ninety-fifth percentile for any subject tests. That way, on one hand, students can have this commendation of their efforts while also having another tangible achievement to add to their portfolios. On the other hand, those who may have unfortunately missed the mark will accord the List less emphasis and visibility. Out of sight, out of mind, isn’t it? 

“I think that’s a good idea! Honestly, I didn’t know about the Dean’s List when I entered Year 5. The email concept will help commend those who do well but also not cause too much discontent,” Tan Chien Hao (21S02A) commented. Indeed, by reducing the visibility of the List, the Dean’s List can be a side reward and not a sole concrete goal to work towards. 

Ultimately, it is tough to take away the hoo-ha of the Dean’s List without actually abolishing the List too. However, doing so would remove the sense of competition that can drive us towards improvement and success. After everything, perhaps what we can all agree on is that, fundamentally, academic results should not be perceived as an end, but always as a means to more enrichment and eruditeness instead.

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