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Credit: Lulu Wang

Forced grading curves create a “toxic” atmosphere in classrooms, according to Wharton’s youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor.

In the Sept. 10 edition of The New York Times, professor Adam Grant wrote an op-ed arguing forced curves — those that require students to compete against each other for a limited number of good grades — should be abolished because they create a “hypercompetitive” culture.

Grant argued that this hypercompetitive culture may have a negative impact on campus mental health, since one predictor of depression is a lack of belongingness and social support.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about competition,” he said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian. “When I start to worry about competition is when it’s created artificially — in a way that doesn’t match how the world is structured.”

Grant also said that forced curves are not necessary to distinguish between students when faculty members “write tests that really reflect the core knowledge that they’re expected to teach in their courses.”

He said data suggests these curves undermine students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and discourage collaboration.

Executive Director of the Weingarten Learning Resources Center Myrna Cohen said that collaboration is beneficial because it encourages active learning.

“Active learners learn at a higher, more sophisticated level, and collaboration provides opportunities for active learning,” she said. “Students that study together are more likely to learn more — remember more — than students studying in isolation.”

Grant said that hypercompetitive culture is a more prevalent issue at elite schools and is especially problematic at Penn.

“I’ve been at five universities — this is by far the worst I have ever seen it. The way it is at Penn is far, far, far more damaging than at Harvard [University], or [University of] Michigan, or [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill].”

Grant was an undergraduate student at Harvard, a graduate student and an adjunct assistant professor at Michigan, a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield and an assistant professor at UNC before he came to Penn.

Of these schools, he thinks Penn is exceptionally pre-professional.

“Penn is more pre-professional than any elite institution that I’ve had exposure to, and the pressure kicks in earlier to make sure your grades are perfect and to have a great internship,” he said.

“When I was at Harvard, I literally did not know what internships were — and not only did I not get one the summer after junior year, I didn’t know people who had them either for the most part,” he added. “The fact that we have freshmen who are getting internships, to me, is absolutely absurd.”

Grant said his goals in writing the New York Times piece were threefold. He hoped institutions would set policies to forbid forced grading curves and professors would abandon them. He also hoped to suggest changes beyond abandoning forced curves.

“It’s not enough just to take away the curve — we also need to think about building the kind of community in the classroom that enables students to help each other,” he said.

In his op-ed, Grant explained how he changed grading policies in his class so that students would be rewarded for collaborating during their exam preparation. After implementing these policies, he saw an increase both in teamwork and in average exam scores.

Cohen praised the class structure described in Grant’s article as “a model of course design.”

“It’s a great example of an instructor being very creative within a course to develop a culture of collaboration and students reaching out to one another,” she added.

Grant said he was “encouraged” by the feedback he has received on the op-ed. University presidents and deans told him they have convened discussions about this issue at their institutions.

Regarding possible changes in policy at Penn, Grant said, “I have heard from a number of people who are in positions of influence to do something about this, and I know it’s an active topic of discussion.”

Meredith Stone, senior associate director of communications for the Undergraduate Division of the Wharton School, wrote in a statement to the DP that grading method decisions are at the discretion of individual undergraduate course instructors at Wharton and at Penn.

“Any effort to devise a policy constraining this discretion would be subject to faculty vote, and there is no consensus view on grading among our faculty,” she wrote. “The Undergraduate Division does not have the authority to create policies that would require or forbid a particular grading method or determine the level of collaboration appropriate for a given class. The Division does, however, encourage faculty members to consider the pros and cons of various grading methods and advocates for a collaborative and supportive academic environment at Wharton.”

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