Grading on a curve: for some students it is the saving grace at the end of the semester and for others it is not. For faculty it is simply a topic of great debate.
While many instructors at University of Wisconsin use of the curve system to determine grades, many are unsure whether it is truly the best way to evaluate a student’s performance.
Despite common complaints from students at UW, the curve is commonly used in introductory and lower level courses like Economics 101 and Chemistry 343, both of which are considered prerequisites to qualify for certain programs. Despite the wide use of the curve on campus, faculty opinion remains varied.
Clifton Conrad, a UW education professor said learning is paramount to competition. A curve should be instituted in the classroom only if students are learning and meeting the expected standards, he said.
“The curve is fine if students are meeting the threshold,” Conrad said. “If not, that’s when it becomes a problem,” he said.
He said the curve reintroduces competition into the classroom, and it is possible for the learning expectations to fall as a result.
“The downside of the curve for me is when it becomes about competition instead of collaboration,” he said.
Organic chemistry professor Sam Gellman said a curve can help professors identify their top students. He said because many students express concern over receiving low percentages on a curved exam, he assures his students this is not an indicator of deficiency. Rather, the most difficult questions are used to identify top students, he said.
The only aspect of the curve he considers problematic is when a student scores around a 60 percent on an exam, for example.
“I have to do extra work to reassure students that this is okay,” he said.
Gellman said it is his personal decision to use the curve, although his department does not impose its use or use it specifically as a “weed out” mechanism for higher-level courses.
Rather, he chooses to use it because otherwise he cannot accurately predict student performance, he said.
“There is a standard, but it is not my use of the curve that prevents [students] from succeeding,” he said.
He said he cannot be sure what an “A” performance will look like until he can see the grade distribution.
“I can’t understand how you work without a curve,” he said.
Gellman teaches both Organic Chemistry 343 and 345, which are two-semesters courses taught consecutively and mostly made up of sophomores.
He said one major advantage of having a curve is that when he is teaching a course with hundreds of students in each section, the distribution of grades does not vary much from year to year.
“It is fairest to keep distribution of grades consistent from one year to the next,” he said.
Another advantage he said the curve creates is balancing the difficulty of the tests with performance. Gellman said if he occasionally makes a test too difficult, the curve provides a correction mechanism.
“If I get too enthusiastic with my exams, with a curve that is not a problem,” he said.