### 3 Responses to Grading on a Curve

1. Kenneth Millett says:

I’m now retired and believe (perhaps naively) I’ve gotten through some 50 years of teaching during which I’ve never “curved” except in multi-instructor common exam grading in which there was no place to hide. Perhaps I was never caught and I don’t feel that I’ve “lost,” so find myself now wondering if I’ve missed something. I’ve promoted “high expectations” to my students and was frequently startled (and encouraged) by their level of achievement against the objectives of the course. For example, there was an advanced course of some 30 students in graph theory in which roughly 2/3 did “A” level work. How, in good conscience, could one employ a “curve?” I should add that my assistants and I have used a “holistic” assessment rubric for more years than I can recall thereby giving a higher quality measure of achievement than other assessment alternatives, at least in my experience! I would say the “curving” works neither for the student nor the instructor!

2. Nathan Walters says:

I always find it interesting that the discussion for curving is always centered around the questions of the high grades, which are essentially meaningless. An F is a grade that has an intrinsic meaning: it means the student isn’t getting credit for the class. A D is largely similar but is nicer. But in a world where “C’s get degrees” all the other grades boil down to “passed,” “passed, but better,” “passed, with grape leaves.” Why do we do even have these fancy variations? So we can calculate the bad metric of the GPA.

What does a GPA mean? Well in theory it’s a metric designed to tell you how good a student is on an absolute scale. In practice, it’s a number calculated by throwing together a moderate amount of data with no normalization and iffy weighting; i.e., garbage. Some classes are even taken not for their educational value, just as “grade inflators.” And yet it’s a heavily-used metric because it’s the main way of amalgamating the data.

The discussion of how to differentiate between passing grades can’t be separated from the discussion about what a GPA is supposed to mean.

We cling to the notion that students “earn the A” instead of being cutthroat for a ranking within the class but really we’re just incentivizing students to beg for grade adjustments and find the Lake Woebegone classes where all the kids are above average.

Maybe we should just be honest about grade distributions in our classes. Put it in the course catalog: “15% of students who pass this class get an A, 70% B, 15% C.” Let the gimme classes boast of their 40% A’s and 50% B’s in order to attract students, and require the final grades to stick closely to the published numbers. At least at that point you’re being upfront about it.

3. Shawn Wirts says:

This sounds eerily similar to some of my soapbox sessions following student inquiries on curving of grades.

Even my experiences with offering extra credit seem to have backfired just as often as they have achieved their intended purpose (i.e. bribing under-performing students to learn content), and tend to serve to let overachieving students who are lacking confidence better solidify their overachieving performance.

That said, pandemic induced online instruction has been mentally exhausting, and offering extra credit to anyone willing to upload a portrait to their streaming account’s profile just to mitigate some of the awkwardness of trying to teach a virtual room full of unresponsive names without active webcams is entirely worth it, in my opinion.