Stephanie Trierweiler: Bell curves breed competition

Monday, February 5, 2018 - 4:05pm

A new kind of grading system is gaining traction at the University of Michigan. About 8,000 students at the University’s Ann Arbor campus have earned grades through GradeCraft, in which they progressively gain points throughout the semester by choosing between a variety of assignments to complete. GradeCraft aims to give students greater academic autonomy, encourages them to take risks and works to boost their self-confidence. Results have been promising — the January 2018 issue of the journal Games and Culture reported that gameful course design is positively correlated with students “working harder and feeling more in control of their class performance.”

Though almost 100 professors from 28 departments across the University have tried GradeCraft so far, in my experience most courses here don’t take such a self-designed approach to learning. Grading systems continue to vary widely and, for courses in LSA, they’re often up to the complete discretion of individual professors. And while LSA classes differ in their grading structures, The Ross School of Business takes a completely non-self-determined approach to students’ grades: It assesses each and every class on a bell curve, irrespective of learning material, types of assignments or student performance. 

A look into The Michigan Daily’s guide of grade distributions in LSA reveals bell curves in some large introductory courses like Mathematics 115 and Economics 101. These kinds of classes tend to serve as a prerequisite for majors, “weed out” many freshmen from pursuing those majors and set intentionally difficult exams to create a wide distribution of grades. Advanced courses in LSA typically use an absolute grading system to assess students — in my own experience taking a number of upper-level courses in 12 different departments, I have only been graded on a curve in the Economics Department.

Students in business courses, however, are perpetually sorted on a bell curve that doesn’t necessarily raise their raw scores. This places them in a state similar to students in “weeder” LSA classes in the sense that one student’s gain is inherently another’s loss. The curve is as follows: Grades for all core classes in the Business School are distributed with less than 40 percent of students receiving an A- or above, less than 90 percent receiving a B or above, and over 10 percent receiving a B- or below.

The problem with this grading system isn’t in numerical outcomes — the Business School’s curve doesn’t impact students’ overall GPAs significantly. The average sophomore transfer to the program comes in with a 3.7 GPA and the Business School’s classes roughly generate a B+ average. Grade inflation is mixed; in quantitative core classes with low average test scores, grades inflate, while in other classes with generally high raw scores, they deflate. Few students struggle to pass classes since many professors avoid giving grades less than a B-.

The real problem lies in the implications of the curve on students’ learning styles, relationships with classmates and self-perceptions. Consistently grading on a bell curve creates a toxic environment where students are judged only relative to each other. They come to view their grades — and consequent success at the University — as a zero-sum game between themselves and their peers. If they’re consistently graded lower than classmates, they may make negative social comparisons and lose general motivation to do well.

Bell curves foster a competitive, rather than collaborative atmosphere, and disincentivize students from helping and learning from their peers. Especially in qualitative classes where students’ collectively high raw scores are curved down, and they’re assessed more heavily on performance in class participation, group presentations and essays than exams, the curve truly doesn’t match the material and desired classroom environment.

Emily Yerington, a University alum who transferred out of the Business School, said in an interview with The Daily while critiquing the Business school’s pedagogy: “Even though they curve it high, it’s just a bad mentality when you’re not worried about how much you’re learning, you’re worried about how you’re doing compared to everyone else.”

The Business School’s one-size-fits-all approach also ultimately runs counter to its purported values. The school frequently references collaboration, inclusion, community and positive business as integral facets of the Ross experience. For example, its Center for Positive Organizations has led extensive research on positive leadership and advocates for organizations and companies to develop cultures of collaboration and empowerment.

A New York Times piece further argues against the mentality ingrained in bell curves because it doesn’t reflect the real advantages of students taking on a collaborative approach in their later careers. A meta-analysis of studies of employees across industries finds that in the long run, “leaders reward people who make the team and the organization more successful.”

I encourage the school to look inward, implement the findings of its research in its own curriculum and experiment with a grading system like GradeCraft. This would not only fall in line with its research on positive organizations, but also generally foster a desire among its students to learn the material and achieve — rather than simply come out above their peers.

Stephanie Trierweiler can be reached at strier@umich.edu.