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The Ongoing Debate about Grade Curving in Academia (Part II)

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This is the second article in a three-part series reviewing a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve” by Dr. Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania.

In the first part of this series, I began a review of Dr. Adam Grant’s 2016 article on grade curving. I also pointed out that although his article’s overall aim appears to be to admonish grade curving, he and I ironically both utilize a common form of grade curving in our classrooms — one that rewards all students when no one student is able to earn a perfect score on our assessments.

Failure and Success in the Classroom

When we as educators curve the way Dr. Grant and I both do, students are not made to feel as if everyone else in the class has to fail in order for them to succeed — as a traditional notion of zero-sum would suggest. Instead, students simply understand that their score is a product not of an objective test metric, but rather of their performance relative to the average of all students in the class.

Depending on a student’s aspirations for grades, it is not necessary to beat everyone in the class to achieve their goals. And even in the case where a student aims for a perfect score, it is entirely possible — under the grading paradigm that Dr. Grant and I both use — that more than one student could earn a perfect score on an assessment. All that would be necessary for such a thing to happen would be that the highest score in the class be shared by multiple students.

But there is no doubt that an element of competition exists in grade curving, and that brings me to another criticism I have of Dr. Grant’s thoughts in this area. In my view, grade curving, when it’s done properly, sets an appropriately competitive environment for students, not a “hypercompetitive” one as Dr. Grant describes it.

Competition Is Important for Students to Succeed in the Real World

In an ideal world, we would like all pursuits to be team pursuits and we’d like the circumstances to be such that, when one person benefits, everyone benefits. And there are situations where things might in fact shake out that way.

But in many, many other situations, an element of zero-sum is inherently present. Teaching students a healthy competitive spirit prepares them for those situations.

For example, suppose a university is hiring one new professor, and Dr. Grant and I both apply for the job. Obviously, we both want the job.

And presumably neither of us holds any animus toward the other. In other words, we don’t want the other person to have to lose. We have no vested interest in the other’s failure, apart from everything else.

But given the reality that the hiring university will only choose one of us, we both know as rational people that, if one of us is to win, the other by default cannot also win. And if we prevail over the competitor, we would accept victory with reluctance about the other’s loss, not in celebration of it.

As such, the intrinsic “loss” component for one competitor is a collateral byproduct of competitive situations and not something that should ever be the focus of any competitor’s aim or energy. If I were to win over Dr. Grant in the hiring scenario, it would be my intention to shake his hand, congratulate him on a hard-fought contest and sincerely wish him well in the future.

At the same time, I’d hope that he’d want to extend the same sportsmanship and respect to me if he won. This is what all mature and good-natured winners do, be they politicians, athletes, or any other type of competitor. There is no need for such situations to produce any hard feelings.

Such one-winner situations are obviously ubiquitous throughout our personal and professional lives. But Dr. Grant’s narrative suggests that competition is inherently toxic, and I adamantly reject this premise.

Yes, competition can be unhealthy if it becomes obsessive or mean-spirited. Yes, we should teach healthy views and approaches to competitive settings for students. Yes, we should temper and balance competitive scenarios with team projects or group work, where students can also learn what it’s like to work together with others for mutual benefit.

But if we eschew competition altogether, we do our students a huge disservice in inadequately preparing them for the real-world encounters they will face beyond their studies. This way of thinking, I fear, leads to the disparaging views many people have about “coddled millennials,” which Dr. Grant actually references in his article.

Competition isn’t all there is — nor should it be — but it is an absolutely unavoidable aspect of life. As educators, we shouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to nurture our students to develop healthy competitive habits, rather than pretend that competition is unnecessary or inherently evil.

Group Work and Competition

Dr. Grant goes on to provide two “exhibits” as evidence for the superiority of group work over individual competitive effort. In the first, “Exhibit A,” Dr. Grant points out some studies have shown that employees benefit from time they spend helping peers and coworkers, as measured by evaluation scores and promotion rates.

I wouldn’t argue that this benefit to group work is probably true in some cases. But I would argue that it assumes peer collaboration and support is a significant element of all evaluations made by supervisors in all work environments. We know this isn’t always the case.

For example, as an online educator, the vast majority of my work is remote. I do have some responsibilities that involve group work, but most of it by far is independent tasks done at a distance.

So how much do group work skills affect the future trajectory of my career? They do have some impact, to be sure.

But my competitive spirit also has an impact as I work to earn pass-fail ratios and instructor evaluations from students that exceed the averages among other faculty who teach for the same institutions — the average of which will serve as a benchmark for some of my evaluation metrics. And it’s no secret that remote jobs like mine are becoming more and more common as technology allows employees in different industries to work from home.

So my aim here is not to reject Dr. Grant’s argument. I’m simply pointing out that it is contextual, and that competitive skills can be just as important as teamwork skills — if not more so — in different situations.

In the third and final part of this series, I’ll look at Dr. Grant’s “Exhibit B” evidence and summarize my thoughts on this comparative review.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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