FTEA 2020 Winner Jonathan Sim Puts Students in Charge of Their Learning

09 November 2020


In homage to children's educational TV series Sesame Street, Mr Sim made sock puppets to explain loops as a concept for GET1050 Computational Reasoning, which moved to virtual learning in Semester 1, Academic Year 2020/2021. (Video screengrab courtesy of Mr Jonathan Sim)

IN BRIEF | 3 min read

  • Educators must help students alleviate the fear and anxiety that impede their learning
  • Support systems such as a Telegram Helpline help students easily reach out to their instructors and peers, and encourage active learning and peer teaching
  • Hands-on learning during physical tutorials aids students to internalise their understanding of abstract concepts

For students to learn well, educators must first help to mitigate the fear and anxiety that impede their learning, said Mr Jonathan Sim, National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of Philosophy instructor, when outlining his teaching philosophy.

He was one of 36 Faculty Teaching Excellence Award (FTEA) recipients, awarded to outstanding Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) faculty in recognition of their high level of commitment in Academic Year 2019/2020.

According to Mr Sim, students often experience anxiety and the fear of failure, especially when they pursue interdisciplinary modules incorporating subject areas outside of their major..

“I encountered many students who failed to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing,” explained Mr Sim, who has been teaching at NUS since 2017. He began as a part-time Teaching Assistant (TA) for two interdisciplinary modules and is now Module Coordinator and Instructor for GET1050 Computational Reasoning, a mandatory module for all FASS undergraduates since Academic Year 2019/2020.

“There’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really give themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words,” he added.

To help alleviate his students' anxieties and empower them, Mr Sim created a variety of support systems, such as a 'Helpline' chat group on messaging platform, Telegram, for students to reach out to their instructors and peers. He also engages them with humour; and introduces simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they learn to evaluate and recover from failures.

Mr Jonathan Sim looks on as his Teaching Assistants play the ‘Al-GORI-thm Card Game’, which he developed with his undergraduate TAs Talia Vilaire, Daryn Wong and Siti Nur Iman for his module, GET1050 Computational Reasoning. The game helps students learn the basics of conditionals and loops, requiring them to develop algorithms in order to defeat enemy gorillas and win coveted bananas. (Photo courtesy of Mr Jonathan Sim. Note: this photo was taken before Covid-19 safe management measures were put in place)

“It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, so they feel more empowered to take risks in their learning, and thus learn more effectively as they discover how to apply what they learnt,” he said.

Mr Sim’s former GET1050 student Audrina Tan, currently a Psychology major and has progressed to becoming one of his TAs, attests to how effective the Telegram Helpline was.

“The Helpline really helped alleviate my anxieties, and made me feel a part of the learning community, seeing that everyone was so willing to ask questions without reservation,” said Audrina, adding that she has learnt numerous learning techniques as Mr Sim’s TA. In turn, she now applies effective scaffolding to help her students learn better.

“Mr Sim places a huge emphasis on the value of active learning and peer teaching. He taught us that as TAs, our role is less to provide answers, but more to facilitate, guide and encourage self-learning,” she explained.

Mr Sim’s Faculty Teaching Excellence Committee (FTEC) award citation states: “He was firmly aware that students’ anxiety can be impediments to their learning, limiting their ability to fully realise their potential. His challenge is especially acute, given that he teaches data analysis and coding to students from the Arts and Social Sciences. The blended-learning format of his high enrolment module introduces other challenges as well, as online learning can be cold and impersonal given the diminished opportunities for social interaction, leading students to think that they are faring worse than their peers, which further affect their confidence and motivation to learn.”

The FASS FTEC is chaired by Vice Dean (External Relations and Student Life) Associate Professor Loy Hui Chieh and comprises of Associate Professors Christopher Michael McMorran (Japanese Studies) and Stephen Lim (Psychology); and Senior Lecturers Gilbert Yeoh (English Language and Literature) and Chen Ingru (Centre for Language Studies).

Mr Sim is a strong believer of hands-on learning and quite literally too. For physical tutorials, the teaching team designed games where students used cards and blocks, and moved them around to facilitate internalising abstract concepts, such as algorithms.

When he had to abruptly move his lessons online during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Semester 2, Academic Year 2019/2020, Mr Sim filmed lessons in Ikea to make classes more interesting. (Video screengrab courtesy of Mr Jonathan Sim)

Describing his “traumatising experience” of shifting tutorials onto the teleconferencing platform Zoom at the height of last semester’s global health pandemic, Mr Sim related he spent the entire summer break rethinking his approach in preparation for going fully virtual.

There were two major revamps to his lessons, one was modifying the tutorial participation grading rubric to emphasise helping or seeking help from peers rather than a student’s contribution to classroom discussion.

“This was necessary to encourage fast learners to engage in discussion with peers rather than just completing all the learning exercises on their own,” he explained. In the process, fast learners are motivated to apply their learning through peer teaching while struggling students are incentivised to seek help from their group members.

The other change Mr Sim introduced was the creation and use of very detailed and structured Google Docs worksheets for discussion, allowing each group to progress through various learning activities at their own pace. The tutor does not need to wait for every group to be on the same page, but instead attends to groups at their pace and unique learning needs. This way, each group receives a very personalised and intimate learning experience.

“When students are more positive, less focused on grades, and more interested in learning, they bounce that energy off each other,” Mr Sim said. “Once that is set in motion, I don’t have to do very much to keep it going. Students become self-motivated and naturally and actively engage in peer learning despite the constraints of learning online from home.”

This story is the first of three highlighting the pedagogical approaches of selected FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award 2020 recipients.

Award Citation

"Mr Jonathan Sim came to his task firmly aware that students’ anxiety can be impediments to their learning, limiting their ability to fully realize their potential. This challenge is especially acute in his case, given that he teaches data analysis and coding to students from the Arts and Social Sciences. The blended-learning format of his high enrolment module introduces other challenges as well, as online learning can be cold and impersonal given the diminished opportunities for social interaction, leading students to think that they are faring worse than their peers, which further affect their confidence and motivation to learn."

—FASS FTEC Committee chaired by Vice Dean (External Relations and Student Life) Associate Professor Loy Hui Chieh, and comprising Associate Professor Christopher Michael McMorran (Japanese Studies), Associate Professor Stephen Lim (Psychology), Senior Lecturer Gilbert Yeoh (English Language and Literature), and Senior Lecturer Chen Ingru (Centre for Language Studies).

Eminent NUS historian Professor Wang Gungwu receives prestigious Tang Prize

22 June 2020

The 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology has been awarded to Professor Wang Gungwu, University Professor at NUS Arts and Social Sciences and one of the world's foremost experts on the Chinese diaspora.

Announced on 20 June 2020 by the Tang Prize Foundation, this prestigious award was conferred on Prof Wang in recognition of his trailblazing and dissecting insights on the history of the Chinese world order, overseas Chinese, and Chinese migratory experience.

Prof Wu Gangwu
The 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology has been awarded to Professor Wang Gungwu, University Professor at NUS Arts and Social Sciences and one of the world's foremost experts on the Chinese diaspora

As a leading scholar on Sino-Southeast Asian historical relations, Prof Wang developed a unique approach to understanding China by scrutinising its long and complex relationship with its southern neighbours. His erudition and critical discernment have significantly enriched the explanation of China’s changing place in the world, traditionally developed from an internalist perspective or in relation to the West.

Prof Wang said, “It is a great honour to be awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology. When I was a student, Sinology was part of Oriental Studies and associated with classical studies, guoxue (国学) in China, Hanxue (汉学) in Japan and Europe. It was centred on ancient philology as the foundation for the study of literature, philosophy and history. The four previous awardees, Yu Ying-shih at Princeton, Ted de Bary at Columbia, Shiba Yoshinobu at Tokyo and Stephen Owen at Harvard, started with the study of classical Chinese. Yu and de Bary went on to enrich our knowledge of intellectual history while Shiba did the same for social and economic history. Although Owen is best known for his contributions to literature, his work on literary theory has illuminated key features of the historical imagination.”

“I am a historian who believes that China’s present cannot be separated from her total past. Living all my life outside China, I am fascinated by the way China had fallen and risen several times. Each time that happened had made a difference to the course of world history. For us to understand why that could happen requires us to go beyond the humanities to the social sciences. I am gratified that modern Sinology now recognises the centrality of shi (史) in Chinese civilisation,” he added.

One of Asia’s most important intellectuals

Prof Wang Gungwu has been University Professor at NUS Arts and Social Sciences since 2007, and Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University since 1988. He is Foreign Honorary Member of the History Division of the American Academy of Arts and Science and former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Prof Wang received his BA and MA from University of Malaya (UM) in Singapore, and PhD at SOAS, London.

Spending much of his life immersed in different cultures gives Prof Wang diverse personae as a scholar. He is an “insider” in the academic tradition of Chinese Confucianism and British elite education, and an “outsider” in the interpretation of China’s perception of the world. His original approach to understanding China from the southern perspective is in part a natural choice given his personal experience. This same experience provided him with abundant inspiration in his formative years as he matured into an authoritative voice in the analysis of China’s worldview.

Besides being an outstanding scholar, Prof Wang has been an inspiring educator since he embarked on an academic career first at UM and subsequently at the Australian National University, before making his mark as Vice Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong from 1986 to 1995, Chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy from 1996 to 1997, and Director of the NUS East Asian Institute from 1997 to 2007.

At 89 years old, Prof Wang is still very prolific as a scholar. “I am writing on Chinese hopes and fears following China’s opening and reforms, focusing on the period after the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the United Nations in October 1971,” he shared.

And when asked how COVID-19 has impacted him, Prof Wang said, “COVID-19 has moved me away from my routines and made me parcel my life more carefully and take into account how much time I might have to get my work completed.”

The biannual Tang Prize consists of four categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology and Rule of Law. It aims to promote the interaction and cooperation between cultural and technological research so as to find a 21st century path to the sustainable development of the world.

See citation for the prize.

This article was first published on 22 June 2020 in NUS News at

Laptops for low-income families: Addressing digital inequity

19 June 2020

As the COVID-19 situation escalated in Singapore, additional measures were introduced, including home-based learning (HBL) for all schools and working from home for all workplaces except for essential services. These circumstances threw a light on the difficulties that some families who may not have any laptops at home or only one laptop to share between multiple children, are facing. These children are at risk of missing online lessons.

NUS staff, students and alumni are stepping in to help.

After speaking to founder of charity organisation Daughters of Tomorrow Ms Carrie Tan, Dr Natalie Pang, Senior Lecturer from the NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Department of Communications and New Media (CNM) learnt that many low-income families were struggling to find laptops to support their children’s learning needs, particularly those with more than one child at home. This kick-started CNM’s ‘Laptops for Families’ campaign.

Starting in April, the campaign aimed to raise funds for second-hand laptops to support these children and their families.  The Department reached out to its faculty, students and alumni contacts via email and social media. In addition to the generous support from faculty and alumni, many students came forward and offered their smart devices and online tutorial assistance.

“When the number of COVID-19 cases began increasing in Singapore, I was concerned about the impact on families, especially low-income families. Things that many of us take for granted – an iPad, a laptop, and a fast Internet connection – have become essentials in this crisis, but may not be accessible to these families. Some families only have one laptop to share between multiple children and working parents,” said Dr Pang. Together with Ms Tan, Dr Pang worked quickly to raise the funds to purchase second-hand laptops for 16 families within two weeks, and right before the Circuit Breaker started.

These laptops were delivered directly to the 16 families by the laptop reseller. Later, thanks to the generosity of the donors, another 12 laptops were donated to the Kolam Ayer Youth Network to support their underprivileged students from YYD Education Centre.

With the success of the initial campaign, the Department is now working with the People’s Association Youth Movement (PAYM) to supply laptops to another 46 families. In this expanded campaign, CNM is also collaborating with the NUS FASS Club to reach out to more NUS students to volunteer as online tutors.

“Digital equity doesn’t stop at having access to devices. It is also about sharing knowledge and helping to build the children’s resilience against online dangers. In the movement, the Department also hopes to also train and prepare tutors in this area so they can better support the children,” said Dr Pang.

“It is part of NUS FASS Club’s vision to empower students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to impact and contribute to society. We are honoured to be able to extend our helping hand to vulnerable groups in our society; this meaningful campaign is an opportunity for students to make a difference to children from low-income families who are especially vulnerable during this crisis.” Year 2 CNM student Chen Jia Jia, NUS FASS Club Vice President (Operations).

Alumni have also been supporting vulnerable families. In April, FASS alumnus, former national sprinter Mr U.K. Shyam, initiated a donation drive, with the aim to collect 600 laptops and tablets for these families.

‘Laptops for Families’ is the first initiative under CNM’s ‘Communication for Public Good’ fundraising campaign. To contribute to this effort, please go to by Sunday, 31 May, 2359h.

By NUS Arts and Social Sciences

Gratitude: The Emotion That Reduces Competitive Behaviour

19 June 2020

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought upon tremendous stress on millions of people worldwide. Health concerns, financial uncertainties, and a prolonged and potentially irreversible departure from one’s normal way of life all contribute to a trying experience. While some people react to these stressors with acts of generosity and kindness, others behave in a selfish and competitive manner: hoarding supplies, violating social distancing regulations, or posting others’ violations online for public ridicule and name calling.

How can we stave off competitive impulses at a time when solidarity and cooperation are most needed? In our recent research that was published in Cognition and Emotion, we found that feelings of gratitude may play a key role.

Gratitude is the positive emotion that people feel when they benefit from the intentional and thoughtful actions of another person. Past research has shown that feeling grateful can spur cooperation and coordination between individuals in neutral and friendly environments. In this new project, we sought to provide a stronger test by looking at the effect of gratitude in social interactions that have already turned antagonistic. Since competitive and destructive intents tend to be the strongest here, we wondered whether feelings of gratitude can suppress these ‘dark’ urges.

In the first study, participants were invited to play a game with a partner. Each participant controlled a ‘trucking company’ and tried to maximise its profit. Specifically, they needed to decide which routes to send the trucks on in order to reach the destination. Only when a truck has reached the destination, could participants send in the next. Each truck that reached the destination brought in profit to the company and, just like in real life, the shorter the routes the trucks took, the more the company earned.

The shortest route, however, was shared between the two players. This gave the players opportunities to cooperate, by using tit-for-tat strategies, or to compete, by blocking the route with their own truck or a gate they controlled.

As the game began, participants quickly realised that their partner was behaving very competitively. So did they retaliate by becoming competitive as well? Our results suggested that it depended on how they were feeling.

In a seemingly unrelated task earlier, participants recounted a past event where they felt grateful, joyous, or neutral. Hence, participants entered the trucking game with different feelings induced. We found that participants who felt grateful were the least vindictive against the competitive partner, who was actually a set of pre-scripted computer moves.

We know that this effect was not due to simply a good feeling because participants induced to feel joyous behaved as competitively as those with a neutral feeling. In other words, gratitude uniquely inhibited competitive impulses.

In the second study, we recruited online participants. After the same emotion induction procedure, participants competed with a partner, who again was a computer programme, in a language proficiency task. They were told that only the winner would have a chance to enter an attractive lottery, if the winner also excelled in a follow-up test. In our experiment, all participants were designed to lose and were given the job of preparing the follow-up test for the winning partner.

This presented a chance for participants to secretly sabotage the partner, for they could choose unfairly challenging questions to reduce the partner’s odds of winning the lottery. Rationally speaking, participants would gain nothing from such sabotage; they were already out of the game. But many succumbed to the competitive urge nonetheless. More importantly, we found that feeling grateful prior to entering the games reduced participants’ sabotaging behaviour.

It is important to note that at the end of the experiments, participants were thoroughly explained of the purposes of the studies and the deceptions involved. In the case of Study 2, all participants were given an equal chance to enter the lottery.

There is a reason behind the old saying that gratitude is the parent of all virtues. Feeling grateful reduces one’s egoistic, selfish needs and engenders a more community- or other- focused outlook in life. Indeed, it has been well-established that gratitude promotes prosocial behaviour and cooperation. Our new findings extend this line of evidence by showing that gratitude may arrest a downward spiral of mutual competition in social interactions that have already turned sour or hostile.

What implications do these findings have in the COVID-19 situation? Perhaps if we spend more time to think about the help and little acts of kindness we have received in life, and be grateful for them, we are more likely to become caring and supportive members of the community. Instead of being offended by others’ unintentional transgressions, which is made all too easy by the COVID-19 related stressors, we could react to them with empathy and understanding. Besides, research has also shown that feeling gratitude boosts one’s psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Be good to others. Be good to ourselves.

Practicing gratitude is certainly not a panacea to all our problems. But in this pandemic, we can use all the help we can get.

By Assistant Professor Jia Lile, NUS Psychology.

Varieties of Mood Experience

03 March 2020

Research in psychology suggests that moods vary across cultures in several different ways. This means that any adequate theory of moods has to explain how this is possible. Moreover, the theory has to predict the right amount and the right kind of variation. The purpose of this talk is to put forward a new account of moods—the patterns of attention view, according to which a mood is nothing over and above a pattern of attention. I argue that the incredible flexibility of the view can provide an elegant explanation of the ways that moods have been proposed to vary across cultures. Between feelings theories which give us too little cultural variation and cognitive theories that give us too much, the patterns of attention theory gets it just right.

Date: 5 March 2020
Time: 2pm to 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Meeting Room (AS3-05-23) About Tatyana Kostochka
Tatyana “Tanya” Kostochka is a PhD student at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focuses on moods—what they are, how they relate to the rest of our psychology, how they relate to moods in art, and so on. She also works on ethics in medieval Japanese Buddhist philosophy. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Ryukoku University Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia.

"A moderate-grain theory of states of affairs” by Daniel Graham Marshall

20 February 2020

A state of affairs is either a way things are or a way things aren’t. The two most popular theories of states of affairs are the coarse-grain theory, according to which states of affairs are identical if and only if they are necessarily equivalent (that is, if and only if, necessarily, they either both obtain or they both fail to obtain), and the structure theory, according to which states of affairs are structured in the same kind of way sentences are structured. Despite their popularity, both these theories have serious problems. This paper proposes a new moderate-grain theory of states of affairs that avoids these problems by individuating states of affairs more finely than the coarse-grain theory and more coarsely than the structure theory. According to the proposed theory, two states of affairs are identical if and only if they are necessarily equivalent and necessarily about the same things. In addition to arguing that this proposed theory is superior to both the coarse-grain theory and the structure theory, the paper argues that the proposed theory is superior to other existing moderate-grain theories of states of affairs.

Date: 7 November 2019
Time: 2pm to 4pm
Venue: Philosophy Meeting Room (AS3-05-23) About Dan Marshall
Dan Marshall primarily works in metaphysics and in related areas in logic, philosophy of language and the philosophy of science. He has a MSc in mathematics from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in philosophy from the Australian National University. He completed his PhD in 2011 and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“How much should we matter to an Ethical AI?” by Cansu Canca

29 January 2020

When we try to navigate potential impacts of artificial intelligence (AI), we invariably ask: Is AI for the good? Often, implicit in the question is: Is AI good for humans and humanity? This vagueness is captured by the interchangeable use of “ethical AI” and “human-centered AI”. But those two AI systems—and those two questions posed above—might differ significantly. While an ethical AI is, by definition, for the good, it might not necessarily be good for humans and humanity in all circumstances. Put differently, a human-centered AI might not be an ethical AI.
As we design complex AI systems that assist us in our tasks and decision-making, we have to face the daunting task of integrating value trade-offs into these systems. Going forward, as AI systems grow more robust making more complex or autonomous decisions, these value trade-offs will increasingly matter in how AI systems weigh various competing demands. More specifically, AI systems will have to weigh the value of human well-being against the value of other beings (including the well-being of AI agents if and when AI systems acquire moral status). How then should we design AI systems that accurately take into account the value of ourselves and other beings? Date: 6 November 2019, Wednesday
Time: 3pm to 5pm
Venue: Philosophy Meeting Room (AS3-05-23) About Cansu Canca
Cansu Canca is a philosopher and the founder/director of the AI Ethics Lab, an initiative facilitating interdisciplinary research and providing guidance to researchers and practitioners. She has a Ph.D. (NUS, 2012) in philosophy specializing in applied ethics. She primarily works on ethics of technology and on ethics and health. Prior to the AI Ethics Lab, she was a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Osaka University, and the World Health Organization.