Costly Curves

As midterm grades roll in and students commence the push toward final examinations, it is not uncommon to see students from the different schools within Georgetown University engage in lively debates about grading curves.

Several academic departments — from the government to economics departments in the College, as well as all core courses in the McDonough School of Business — automatically employ a curved grading system, but the system’s standards harm both students and faculty because of a system of backward incentives for both groups. Faculty, on their part, are encouraged to put less effort into their lectures if students’ grades will eventually be lifted by the curve while students consequently allocate less time to their studying if they feel they will be “saved by the curve.” To create a more meaningful and fair grading system, department heads should grant individual professors the agency to develop their own grading system or curve.

The economics department is famous for fielding generous standards for its students, given the high difficulty of the material. In courses such as “Intermediate Microeconomics,” 40 percent of students are required to receive some form of an A. While the argument for course difficulty seems to hold, especially for many upper-level economics courses, the underlying incentives with the current system cause both students and faculty to perform worse. The only party that benefits is the university, because students end up receiving satisfactory grades, but in the end the standards cause deleterious effects to the academic rigor of the university.

Students do not need to master the course material to receive an A or B as their final course grade, because ultimately the competition created in the current system is between students. Students can set a low bar for “excellence,” thereby skating by with low scores, but high grades. As a result, students’ best bet for high grades becomes poor and lazy classmates instead of sustained hard work in classes.

Faculty face a similar incentive structure; with professors already incentivized by institutional structures to focus on research and publishing, grading curves remove any remaining motivations for teachers to prioritize pedagogical performance and excellence. They do not have to work as hard to deliver content, as a large contingent of students will receive an A and thus won’t receive any useful feedback on their students’ performance.

A better curving strategy would allow faculty to create discretionary scales for their courses. Professors can set grades at appropriate percentages on the curving scale based on the difficulty of the course. Such a shift dissolves the current departmental one-size-fits-all institutional imposition, and helps professors deliver content to a standard that creates opportunities for students to master the material.

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One Comment

  1. Clearly not the MSB says:

    You do know that the MSB curve tends to actually curve people down, right? It actually facilitates a huge amount of competition for the top grades, and not any sort of complacency related to the curve lifting grades.

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