I have never believed in a curving system when it comes to grading, and, similar to many, it was a rude awakening for me when I came to Penn. While radical, I believe that curves diminish the motivation to learn among students, discourage collaboration and stimulate a hypercompetitive environment that injures efforts to boost mental wellness on campus.
I’ll never forget getting my first test back here at Penn. Nervous and tense, I had an odd feeling that I had aced it, even though we all know that that can be a scary feeling to have. The grade I had on my paper was so low that I frantically called my parents immediately. I felt like I didn’t belong at Penn. However, after attending office hours just the next day, my professor made it clear to me that despite my perceived failure on the test, my grade was around the average. In other words, because of the results of other students in the class, I was comparatively successful.
When we ask ourselves, “What is wrong with the grading system of higher education?” the answer you may formulate probably pertains to the the hypercompetitive and failure-based environment we go through. And while I understand that the goal of the curve is to fight grade inflation, I believe that it sets restrictions on the number of students who can excel in a class and minimizes collaboration amongst students.
Firstly, the curve limits the number of students who can do well in a given class. When professors come into a class having an idea about how many A’s, B’s and C’s they can give out, the vast majority of students get stuck in such categories and learn the content of the class to either break out of their given category or stay in it.
Such a system causes us to value grading over learning, as we aren’t just studying to do well on a test for ourselves, but rather to do better than the same classmates we should be collaborating with. I am not calling on professors to refrain from curving a test if the entire class does poorly — I am encouraging professors to design their tests in a way that promotes grades based on merit rather than systemic distribution.
Secondly, the curving system stagnates collaboration among students through a hypercompetitive environment. By pitting students against one another, grade curves create an atmosphere that’s toxic as students compete against each other rather than learn with each other.
Through a win-lose zero-sum game, curves affirm that the success of one student is prompted by the comparative results of another, in an environment where students so often compare themselves to each other already. In reality, I believe that if two students both know the core elements of a unit, there is no shame in them both doing well naturally, rather than systematically.
Furthermore, abolishing the curve can create an atmosphere in which students want to help one another. Collaboration, especially, proves to be a quality that adds to personal and professional relationships inside and outside of the classroom. For example, if you don’t know how to fix the washing machine, your roommate can help you simply if you ask. If you’re at work and you don’t know how to use features on Microsoft Excel, you’ll ask your colleague for assistance. However, when it comes to the grading system at Penn, collaboration is discouraged rather than encouraged, as students fear studying with their classmates and asking for help as it could influence their placement on the curve.
As Penn and just about every college today has actively sought to manage mental wellness and academic excellence in a healthy way, I’ve always wondered just how much the academic realm of our institution contributes to each one of those topics we discuss so very often.
As students, we would be much healthier, happier and relaxed if we weren’t scared to study with our classmates and help them on problem sets that they don’t understand, rather than stay strictly to ourselves in order to increase the chances of the curve working in our favor. We are all qualified to be here and thus can all succeed in a class, regardless of the grade distribution a professor has in mind before they give their first lecture of the semester.
Doing well and internalizing the material of the classes we pay so much to take should never be mutually exclusive. Tests should fundamentally reflect the core knowledge that is expected, and shouldn’t be designed for failure. It’s time we abolish the curve.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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