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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The grading curve: redefining the standard


Students discuss their experiences with curving grades

A 40 percent under “Grades” on UC Davis Canvas typically wouldn’t elicit a positive response. However, for students who are graded on a curve, it might end up being a passing grade.

“The average for the [Economics Department] has to be a B-, a 2.75 gpa,” said Thomas Smith, a fourth-year economics major and a teaching assistant in the Economics Department. “So as long as [the professor is] within that standard, it doesn’t matter how many A’s and B’s or C’s or D’s or F’s [they] give as long as the average is a B-.”

The Economics Department uses a bell curve to average the scores of a class, in which each student’s letter grade depends on their performance relative to the rest of the students in that class. Once the class average is found it typically becomes a B- and the rest of the grades are assigned depending on the width of the distribution of scores. The professor can give out more A’s and F’s and fewer middle grades, or have a wide B range and few A’s and F’s for top and bottom-scoring students, just as long as the class average remains at a B-.  

Not every department at UC Davis grades on a curve as each one has a different grading policy. Some departments adhere to a strict curve, while others are at liberty to give out grades based on a preset scale, regardless of what the class average becomes. Tommy Schultz, a third-year material science and engineering major, finds most of his classes have been graded on a curve.

“I think [professors curve grades] to challenge people and see who actually knows the […] hard material,” Schultz said.

According to Schultz, engineering professors set the curve depending on how the class is responding to the material.

“One class, the average was a 40 percent overall,” Schultz said. “So [the professor] set that at a B-, so an A became a 53 percent.”

While students in these departments depend heavily on this grading scale, other subjects rarely grade on a curve. Stephanie Whitworth, a third-year English major, has only experienced one of her major classes curve the grades.

“For my English class where they curved the final, they took the highest score which was a 95 percent and made that 100 percent,” Whitworth said. “So basically everyone got five extra points. I’d say this is a fair way of grading.

The curve tends to be used more in classes where grades depend on students’ test performance. Classes that are not test-based but value a process, like in a University Writing Program course, tend to grade without a curve.

Some students like Ann Ogihara, a third-year economics and international relations double major, appreciate when professors grade on a curve.

I think [the curve] is really helpful because economics classes can be really hard,” Ogihara said. “If the professor isn’t really good — if they don’t grade [the class] on a curve — then everyone’s going to get a bad grade and that’s not fair, so I think the curve really helps to have fair grading.

Like Ogihara, Schultz also believes grading on a curve is helpful because he feels it pushes students to study harder.

“I feel like the curve is a good thing,” Schultz said. “It kind of evens out everything and lets you know where you stand in the class […] so I like it, it lets you pass the class while still being challenged.”

Schultz and Ogihara believe that the curve allows professors to test students on more difficult material while still giving students a fair chance to succeed in the class.

I definitely want [professors] to give harder tests and grade on a curve,” Ogihara said. “Because I don’t think the teachers always know what’s easy. The professor might think the test [they are] making is easy but I don’t think [they] really know what the student considers easy.

Unlike Ogihara and Schultz, Smith does not believe grading on a curve is a fair way to grade students.

“I’ve always been an avid objector of the curve because it creates a disincentive,” Smith said. “If a majority of the class doesn’t do well then they get curved to a passing grade. So it’s almost dissensentivising to study hard because […] if a part of the class does poorly then [they] can get curved to […] a very decent grade.”

Smith finds that even at times he does well in a class, the curve has brought his grade down because of how the grades were distributed.

“So when you are at the top of the distribution you have to raw score an A to get the A,” Smith said. “If you’re at a 93 or a 92 […] you usually get an A- even with the curve but the people you were beating by 15 to 20 points end up getting a B or B+.”

According to Smith, the curve can be unfair as it does not always accurately reflect a student’s individual academic performance but does so relative to their peers’.

“It’s like my grade is supposed to represent my knowledge,” Smith said. “It’s almost being dampened because the people that scored really lower are getting boosted up and I’m not getting boosted up. It’s kind of like an unfair distribution if you’re at the top of the curve, which sucks.”

Smith has also found that students are more competitive with each other in classes that are graded on a curve.

“If you try to study with one of the top students they don’t want to study [with you] because your grade depends on how well they do and vice versa,” Smith said. “They don’t want to help you achieve anything.”

From Smith’s experience, students are less willing to help each other understand the material, which can ultimately hurt the learning environment.

“When there’s no curve you’re up to your own devises and it doesn’t really matter what the other [students score],” Smith said.  


Written by: Elizabeth Marin  — features@theaggie.org



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