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

This is the third and final part 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 second part of this article series, I examined and scrutinized the first piece of evidence (“Exhibit A”) that Dr. Grant put forth in support of an apparent claim that group work or teamwork in the classroom is always a better choice for student learning than individual competitive scenarios. In this third and final part, I’ll look at Dr. Grant’s second piece of evidence.

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The Beneficial Effect of Cooperation

In “Exhibit B,” Dr. Grant creates what I would argue is a false dichotomy between “givers” and “takers.” He argues that givers — those who support and cooperate with others — tend to come out better than takers, those who just aim to get ahead.

This point may be true in certain situations. However, it unfairly presupposes that motives always fall into one and only one of these two categories and that there is no mutual compatibility between giving and taking. It’s another way of repeating the fallacious, demonizing argument that competition only comes in one dark and sinister form.

But respectfully, people can seek to get ahead and still find ways to help others in concert with their own ambitions. This effort is, after all, the fundamental premise of capitalism, which for all its failings has been the most successful economic model in human history.

For instance, just because a person wants to succeed doesn’t mean that helping others is always detrimental or inconsequential to that person’s success. It’s easy to imagine that in many instances, including supporting coworkers at work, a person can “give” and “take” at the same time and, if the circumstances are right, everyone can prosper. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Dr. Grant and Changing Means in Classes

To be fair, Dr. Grant seems to have had success with group work or peer-reliance strategies in his class. He recounts that after he added components like “phone-a-friend”-style options to his exams, he saw increases in average scores of about 2% year-over-year for several years. I’m inclined to take Dr. Grant at his word on these figures, though I can play devil’s advocate in two ways.

First, even if he is seeing 2% improvements, that’s not necessarily a statistically significant difference that would be indicative of some type of impetus acting on the class grades versus random variations from one semester to the next. Second, even if there is a correlation here, we also can’t necessarily assume causation. In other words, if something is causing a gradual uptick in the grades in Dr. Grant’s classes, it would take a careful, well-thought-out research investigation in order to examine whether the peer collaboration tactics are what is causing those increases.

Dr. Grant cites testimonials from some of his students who praised his group work methods, but anecdotes are exactly that — anecdotal. I regularly receive positive comments from students about different aspects of my courses, but it’s another thing entirely to assert those as conclusive evidence of cause and effect for anything.

To be clear, Dr. Grant is a trained scientist like me, so I’m certainly not accusing him of doing that here. I suspect he was just adding these comments as additional context for readers, which is fair.

To his credit, I think Dr. Grant makes a valid point about only curving up in his classes, which is another point that I advocated in my 2019 series. Right or wrong, when an instructor curves down, it makes students feel as if they’ve been cheated out of their fairly earned score.

They feel that, if the assessment was too easy such that a curve down would be warranted, they shouldn’t be punished because of it. And I can empathize with that feeling.

Curving Scores Downward Can Have Its Problems

Incidentally, grade curving in a downward direction also creates mathematical problems. Imagine a grade curve that is crushed up against the upper limit, due to the assessment being too easy for the class. Suppose that 50% of the class earned a perfect score and the remaining 50% of the class all earned scores between 95% and 99%. How, exactly, do we attempt to redistribute that curve?

We can’t simply shift the grading curve by deducting the same number of points from each student, as Dr. Grant and I would do for curving up when we add points to student scores. Shifting students’ grades down in this way would take the perfect scores down to non-perfect levels, which obviously doesn’t make any sense.

No, to curve grades downward, we would have to actually change the shape of the curve and the relative scale distance between scores. But there is so much ambiguity with respect to how one should do that fairly. It’s a problem without any clear solution. So Dr. Grant and I seem to agree that it’s probably better to simply not go there, for all the right reasons.

Dr. Grant and I Agree More Than Disagree about Grade Curving

Overall, I think that there are probably more points of consensus between Dr. Grant and I than areas of disagreement. I think Dr. Grant’s classroom curving strategies are sound, and I follow virtually the same policies with my own courses. However, where we disagree, I think the points of discord are material.

Specifically, the importance of appropriately competitive environments and the balance between group and individual pursuits in the classroom cannot be overstated. It is critical that we adequately prepare our students for the challenges we know they will face tomorrow.

But we can teach competitive philosophies without inspiring animus and hostility. Students are capable of approaching challenges in a mature way if we explain the parameters adequately and give students an opportunity to understand them.

As with most things, the devil is in the details. How we go about our grade curving can make the difference between the negative consequences Dr. Grant fears and the positive ones I know are possible through thoughtful design and sincere effort.

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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