As students work to make the curve, professors try to ensure everyone is learning.
“Do you curve?”
For professors in the College of Science and Technology, this question is a popular one asked by their students.
Dr. Steven Fleming, a chemistry professor, debunked the common use of the term.
“I don’t ‘curve,’” Fleming said. “I adjust the curve.”
The curve Fleming referenced is the even bell curve or normal distribution. When applied to grading, normal distribution suggests more students will earn a grade of C than any other single grade.
Fleming said by adjusting the curve, he ensures there is an appropriate amount of spread among the grades and that no grade is too demoralizing.
“I think an average on an exam should be between 67 and 75,” Fleming said.
“If I’m significantly outside that [normal distribution] range,” Fleming added. “I’ll look back at the exam and see if there are points that nobody got right and add those points back. If the average on an exam is 35, then a 35 on an exam doesn’t mean that the student failed. It means that they had a bad exam, poor teaching or that the students were unprepared.”
By not following a set grading scale of counting percents ranging from 93–100 percent as an A, Fleming is able to analyze his own tests to make sure they are fair.
“I look for roughly the top 10 percent of the class getting As,” Fleming said. “Then 10 percent earning an A-, 10 percent [with a] B+ and most people getting Bs and Cs.”
He does this by looking for significant breaks or gaps in students’ final point scores to act as cutoffs between letter grades.
Fleming makes sure students are forced to work for an A by giving difficult exams. However, it is possible for everyone in class to earn an A if they perform well. He said he tries to give students the grades they deserve and will work with students who need help.
“I feel bad about students who get a D,” Fleming said. “It means that I failed to teach this person.”
Dr. Andrew Price, a chemistry professor, utilizes a slightly different curving system than Fleming’s “grade breaks.”
“I establish a grading curve based on 20 years of experience,” Price said. “An 85–100 [percent] is an A, 76–85 [percent] is a B and 65–75 [percent] is a C.”
Similar to Fleming’s method, this idea of a 75 as the class average is based on normal distribution. Price explained if the class average is less than 75 percent, he will usually make adjustments, but that does not happen frequently.
These differences in grading systems, although they are slight, are allowed to exist because there is no overreaching university policy about curving practices. However, most teachers try to be fairly uniform.
“We try to be consistent amongst all the sections of general chemistry one and two,” Price said. “We usually end up getting the same class averages in all six lecture sections. And on the whole, students generally understand the system.”
Karrie Finn, a junior biology major, said she agrees with the grading systems she sees in most of her classes.
“If they didn’t curve the class, then the grade that I received would not reflect what I learned in the class,” Finn said.
One unintentional result of the curved grading system is that it inherently breeds competition among students.
“Instead of just trying to get an A, you have to be better than your neighbors. In that aspect it makes it more competitive,” Finn said. “I’m still willing to help my classmates, but I won’t give them an answer because that would not be helpful to me.”
“It makes everyone more competitive because it’s all based on how you do compared to everyone else,” Megan Jennings, a junior chemistry major, said. “There are so many tests that I know as long as I scored above the class average, I’ll be okay.”
Fleming, however, said he is not trying to breed competition with his grading system.
“Students should not see it as a competition with anyone,” Fleming said. “They should be trying to perform at the highest level. The reality is that students make the curve themselves. They are the ones who have different levels of knowledge and skill, which is reflected in their performance.”
Amy Stansbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org