Grading on a curve. Making students evil?

Disney - Evil Emperor Zurg!
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While studying for my recent test in Artificial Intelligence, I used Quizlet (still an awesome service) to create a deck of flashcards in order to help memorize all of the terms. As I was about to post the link on the class discussion board so that others could use it, I hesitated. The reason for my hesitation? I asked myself, “if the grade for this test gets curved? Would others using this possibly lower my grade?”

The answer to the question is of course yes. If the grade had been curved my helping the rest of the class would have hurt me. I posted the link in the end but am still disgusted by the fact that I even considered not sharing with others just to improve my own grade. I am even more disgusted by the fact that I have to make that choice. What if I was really into getting good grades (although we all know what I really think of grades)? Could I mislead people on discussion boards or during study groups in the hopes of bringing down their grades and increasing my own? How many students do this at the moment? Yuck!

So, the model of curving grades is broken. If it fosters malicious competition then it is not a model that should be used. The model cannot just be thrown out though, as it is very useful.It protects students from professors who have lost touch with just how difficult their material is. It helps to make sure the course grades from year to year are consistent. So how to fix the model?

My one proposal is to give students who work towards increasing the understanding of their fellow students some form of bonus grades. If a student can provide proof of the fact that they helped to increase the understanding of their peers then they should be rewarded in some way. Sharing is a good thing… not a punishable offense!

 

Update: The actual test that I took was not curved in the end. In fact it was a really well written test with all the questions relating directly to the learning goals of the course and most students in the class did really well. I still have many other courses where grade curving and scaling will be applied this year, but Artificial Intelligence isn’t one of them. 

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9 thoughts on “Grading on a curve. Making students evil?

  1. “If it fosters malicious competition then it is not a model that should be used”

    Unless a student purposing leads others astray (something which surely is quite rare), I don’t think it “fosters malicious competition”. I think it “fosters competition”. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and my goal is to maximize my mark. In an ideal system, maximizing my mark would involve self study and working with others (and often, helping others IS in our best interest). However, if keeping a cheat sheet to ourselves will guarantee me a better grade than my peer-well, you get the picture.

    Sharing can be a good thing…when its a good thing for you.

  2. This is the first time I read something on the possible side effects of grading on a curve. I’m from The Netherlands and at my university I have never seen grading on a curve actually used. It’s just a possibility from the teachers textbook.

    This is not to say that I believe our system is better, because we get stuck with those “professors who have lost touch with just how difficult their material is”. I do know some of these guys and their just convinced that it’s the students fault that only a mere 10% or so can pass their tests.

    Hope one day we can give grading on a curve a test run back here. Keep up the good blogging!

  3. Like Sander, I’ve never seen grading on the curve actually work. And I don’t really think it is a good system. After all, students are supposed to reach learing goals (either set by the curriculum or by themselves), and the degree in which they reach those goals does not depend on the degree in which other students reach their goals.

    If you really want to grade on the curve and encourage students helping fellows by sharing their knowledge, maybe the amount of sharing should be taken into account when grading.

  4. @Joe this is university, if I wanted to do something where the aim was to win I would go race cars. The aim here is to learn, not to maximize your mark. I agree the world isn’t “all sunshine and rainbows” but UBC’s mission is to produce graduates who are capable of making the country/world a better place. Curved grades works against that.

    @Erwin I agree that if students are assessed purely on their ability to meet or exceed goals then grade curving is a useless procedure and should be removed entirely. Unfortunately here most courses seem to rely more on the numbers than the outcomes.

  5. “My one proposal is to give students who work towards increasing the understanding of their fellow students some form of bonus grades. If a student can provide proof of the fact that they helped to increase the understanding of their peers then they should be rewarded in some way. Sharing is a good thing… not a punishable offense!”

    I like this idea, but I don’t think it would work. If bonus credit was given for this, everybody would just spend an hour making Peerwise/Quizlet/study guides to share (probably just copying existing questions) just to get the extra credit, so I don’t think it would work.

    I agree that the point of partaking in the education process is to learn, not to achieve good grades. However, from what I can see from people in first year, people aren’t learning anything any more. They are memorizing things to achieve good grades. This is definately not the point of education, but if the aspect of grades it taken away (that is, removing any and all motivation for a large portion of the student body), no memorization nor learning will take place. Education is confuzzling.

  6. Awww yeah I’m back.
    @ Andre: clever race car mention in there, I liked it.

    I agree that the purpose of education is learning. Learning specifically so you have a certain skillset that makes you useful after graduation (key here is people’s expectations/desires of usefulness). I don’t agree that we learn to “make the world a better place”-thats a personal value. (Boy, I sound evil). I believe that we will act in our self-interest (obviously, some people highly value contributing to the community-great for them).

    In general, however, you learn so one can fufill their chosen purpose. HOWEVER, because we all are slaves to the $ to varying degrees, we need other people (employers) to be interested in paying us for our purpose. They will pay the people who LEARNED the most/best at university. And, without ‘getting to know’ students or observing them @ the workplace for two years, the only rough way to see how much they learned is our standard marking system.

    Therefore, as flawed and perhaps inaccurate a reporting system as it is, marks are important because they provide a measure of learning. And therefore, as false as it may be, I want to maximize my mark to make it appear that I maximized my learning.

    What really would be ideal is a marking system that more accurately reflects learning. Professors make many incentives for marks unrelated to actual quality of learning; just work, or other bs (bonus marks for ….) There are so many cases of incentive in-congruencies…(given the goal is truly learning)

    It was good seeing you again…druken @ mcdonalds and all.

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