Study Contexts: Singapore, Private Education, and the Classroom


Although studies of historical thinking in Singapore tend to focus on students in primary and secondary school students, the context provided by existing research is essential to understanding how the undergraduate participants in this study approached history. Primary and secondary schools are the pipeline to higher education and, in most cases, the students in my course last studied history in school during the early years of secondary school (age 13-15). Their earlier encounters with history and the highly centralized nature of Singapore’s education form a key piece of the context in which this study took place.

In addition to controlling the curriculums offered in primary, secondary, and pre-university public schools, the Ministry of Education (MOE) strictly governs which schools students may apply throughout their academic career. High-stakes testing determines a student’s potential path at every level of her or his education. The first significant exam occurs during the last year of primary school when 11- and 12-year-olds take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Many parents and students view the results as impacting a child’s entire future since the scores determine the quality of secondary school a student is eligible to attend.

Achievement on the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (O-Level) exams at the end of secondary school similarly determines the next step of a student’s education. High-performing students may apply to a Junior College (a pre-university institution) while students who do not score in the top ranks seek admittance to a polytechnic. (Some top-scoring students do choose polytechnics as well.) Students admitted to a Junior College (JC) sit the Advanced Level (A-Level) examinations two years later and then typically apply to university. Polytechnic students study for three years and, upon graduation, receive a diploma that enables them to enter the workforce directly or apply to a university.

An American University Program

Private Education in Singapore

The high-pressure environment of Singapore’s schooling system produces impressively educated women and men. Singapore’s students consistently rank first in the world in mathematics and science and Singaporeans have few competitors in literacy rankings. In addition, the nation has a low gender performance gap, high academic success rates for immigrant students, and impressive results in tests of collaborative problem-solving abilities.

However, the high-stakes PSLE, O-Levels, and A-Levels can leave students behind, especially at the university level. Singapore has only six public, government-funded universities (called Autonomous Universities, or AUs) and it is difficult to gain entry to an AU without attending a Junior College. The AUs admit roughly 70% of all JC cohorts while only 20% of polytechnic students receive admission.

Students not admitted to AUs can instead study at Private Educational Institutions (PEIs), and some students choose PEIs because they wish to study outside of the regimented Singapore universities. PEIs are usually foreign-run and often admit more polytechnic than JC students. PEIs are still subject to government regulations and overseen by the Committee on Private Education (CPE), but exercise greater independence over their curricula and degree programs than the AUs.

The PEI in which this study took place

The study detailed in the following chapters took place in the University at Buffalo, Singapore Institute of Management (UB-SIM) program, a PEI that has existed in Singapore for fifteen years and currently serves around 1500 students. Approximately 60% of the students are polytechnic graduates, 35% are JC graduates, and 5% entered from another institution or are returning to school from the workforce. UB-SIM also has a relatively large international student body (10% of the program). Very few of these students are American, however, due to the cost of the program and living expenses in Singapore. A maximum of 5-10 students from the United States study in the program each year.

The program offers a small number of majors: Business, Communications, Economics, International Trade, Psychology, and Sociology. Most students are also expected to complete a liberal arts curriculum in addition to their major courses. During the Spring 2017 semester, the program required students to complete three history courses as part of their general education credits:

  • UGC 111 (“Undergraduate College”): World Civilizations I (3500 BCE-1500 CE),
  • UGC 112: World Civilizations II (1500 CE-Present) and
  • UGC 211: A course on American diversity and history (1945-Present).

The World Civilizations courses were required for all JC graduates; polytechnic students could take them as electives (though they rarely did). The American history course was one of two options for fulfilling a general education requirement; a sociology course met the same requirement.

Classroom Context

Course Overview

Since 2014, I have been the main (and often only) instructor for World Civilizations I: 3500 BCE to 1500 CE. In Spring 2017, I instructed three sections of the course comprised of a total of 150 students. The syllabus I used was my own creation and I was independently responsible for the course objectives, content, and assessments. The course is not part of a department or major within UB-SIM, so I was not required to follow a specific framework or set of content guidelines.

While my syllabi vary from semester to semester, the course has always included digital technologies and social media. The earliest iterations of the course included a clicker app (Socrative) as well as Google Docs and Google Forms. I began using the blogging project in Fall 2014 and continued the assessment each semester through Spring 2017. I introduced Twitter activities as part of the course assessments in Fall 2016 and included the same activities in Spring 2017.

Navigating Dual Roles as Educator & Researcher

The consistent presence of digital media in my course demonstrates continuity between previous iterations of the course and the syllabus I utilized in Spring 2017. This point is significant because the choice to study one’s own class and students is fraught with ethical concerns. While there are precedents for historians observing their own students, most historical thinking researchers study other instructor’s classrooms in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

My dissertation research in historical thinking and social media certainly influenced the shape of the course. The student learning outcomes for the semester focused on historical thinking (the thematic field at the heart of this dissertation). I also maintained the assessments that utilized Twitter and a class blog from previous semesters so I could continue to observe the impact of social media in the classroom. In addition, my guidance of students as the instructor for the course inevitably impacted their behavior. They adjusted their writing based on my feedback, changed discussion tactics when I suggested something new, and openly conversed with me about historical thinking in person and online. In sum, my influence was very much present in the course.

However, I took precautions to ensure that my influence was within the normal bounds of my role as an educator. Although it was not necessary for the collection of public data, I sought and received IRB approval from Drew University in order to ensure my practices and interactions with students met the ethical guidelines and expectation of my institution. To make sure the course was educationally sound and not simply driven by research goals, the syllabus for Spring 2017 was essentially the same as the syllabus for Fall 2016. I tweaked some descriptions of assessments for clarity but did not alter the instructions or expectations. Once the semester began, I did not make any changes to the course assessments or content in order to avoid manipulating the course to further my research goals.

In addition, I protected students’ privacy and agency by informing them early in the semester that I would be using the public data created for the class as part of my research. The use of public data for research does not require participant consent, but I wanted to provide students with ways to opt out of my data collection. Students had the opportunity to create protected Twitter accounts, which could not be accessed by web scrapers. I also encouraged them to use pseudonyms for the blogging project, which was and has always been a public writing project in my courses.

During the semester, ten students create protected Twitter accounts in order to opt out of my data collection. Their tweets are not included in the datasets or analysis of this dissertation. A handful more protected or deleted their accounts after the semester ended. I have included the data collected from these latter accounts in the project because it was public at the time of collection. I have not corrected missing content from these accounts, however, as it is no longer accessible to me as a researcher.


  1. “SEAB – PSLE,” accessed Feb 11, 2019,

  2. “Education System,” accessed Feb 11, 2019,

  3. “Post-Secondary,” accessed Jun 27, 2018,

  4. “Compare Your Country – PISA 2015.” Accessed Jun 27, 2018.

  5. Meaning male high-performing students and female high-performing students are very close to on par with each other.

  6. Nur Syahiidah Zainhal, “JC v Poly: The Pros and Cons,” Text, The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2016,

  7. Program statistics are courtesy of Katie Fassbinder, the Assistant Resident Director of the UB-SIM program. Katie Fassbinder, email exchange with author, Jun 28, 2018.

  8. The course code for the three history classes in Spring 2017 was UGC, “Undergraduate College.” Those of us who taught the UGC courses during that term reported directly to the program directors. The directors, not a history department, reviewed and approved our syllabi.

  9. Jada Kohlmeier, “‘Couldn’t She Just Leave?’: The Relationship Between Consistently Using Class Discussions and the Development of Historical Empathy in a 9th Grade World History Course,” Theory & Research in Social Education 34, no. 1 (2006): 34–57; Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (March 1989): 1130,

  10. Although I received IRB approval from Drew University, it was not strictly necessary. The IRB approval process is intended to oversee the collection of private data that requires participants’ consent. The data I collected was ultimately public and IRBs do not control the collection of public data. Nonetheless, the process of applying to Drew’s IRB was advantageous as it required careful consideration of the ethics of my research and how best to protect the privacy and agency of my students.

  11. I used an IRB-approved Consent Speech to present students with information regarding my project and the collection of their public data.

  12. In Clio Wired, Roy Rosenzweig and Randy Bass promote public, digital writing as an effective pedagogical strategy. T. Mills Kelly notes that neuroscientists have arrived at a similar conclusion: “Neuroscientists argue persuasively that there is a cognitive gain that accrues from the act of preparing information to be presented to others and so we are onto something good when we force students to represent their thinking in concrete forms.” See Roy Rosenzweig, Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 96 and T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age, 2013,, loc. 132.

  13. While the course was in session, I remained signed in to my class Twitter account (@helloworldciv). This allowed me to view students’ protected accounts in order to provide feedback and scores. When reviewing students’ data after the class, however, I remained did not sign into any Twitter account. This ensured that I could only view materials that were fully public during the research phase of the project.