Curving Grades vs. Fostering Collaboration

An article in the New York Times struck me recently.  Titled Why We Should Stop Grading On A Curve, I was expecting an impassioned plea for teachers at all academic levels to stop inflating grades.  And that’s where the article initially starts.  In the article, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses how some universities are combating grade inflation by forcing a curve to limit the number of As that are awarded in a class.  In his argument against this practice, however, Grant introduces research showing how forced curves can serve as a disincentive to studying.  While forced curves help create a wider distribution of grades, it also creates

an atmosphere that’s toxic by pitting students against one another. At best, it creates a hypercompetitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.

Instead of adopting a forced curve grading system, Grant decided to try something different.  First, he introduced a simple grading philosophy in his class.

No student will ever be hurt by another student’s grade.

Think about that for a second. At first glance, it makes absolute sense. Individual students should only be affected by their own performance and not by the performance of their peers.  But some grading systems do just that. They pit students against each other and students who excel are looked at negatively. In Grant’s class, however, grade curving would be used only when it benefited students.  For instance, the student who got the highest overall grade would get a 100% and everyone’s grade would be adjusted upward. If the highest overall grade was a 90%, everyone would get 10% added to their score.

While we can argue the benefits and downsides about curving grades, Grant’s other grading strategy is what I’d like to celebrate mostly. On his exams, students mostly struggle with multiple choice questions. Because of their challenging nature, Grant decided to employ a “phone a friend” strategy. Rather than actually calling up peers for assistance, if a student felt unsure about their answer on one multiple-choice question on their exam, they could identify another member of the class for help. If that student answered the question correctly, they’d get the question right too.

Some readers may be wondering why this strategy would even be considered.  In its simplest terms, the strategy rewards students for NOT knowing answers.  While there are actually lots of educational benefits for this policy, I’d like to focus on the collaborative aspects that this strategy engenders.  For a student to benefit in any way, they have to know their peers and have a strong understanding of what their strengths are.  A student couldn’t just write “the girl with the dark hair who sits up front.” They’d actually have to identify a person by name and be confident that the student knew the answer. That only happens when students study together and collaborate for each other’s benefit.

And that’s what Grant found. While the policy was initially met with some student hesitation, after a few semesters, the students started to develop better study system to support one another.  Students developed study guides and shared them with one another.  Some students developed practice quizzes.  Others organized study sessions. As one student wrote to Grant, “your class has changed the way students work together. I’ve never seen a group of students so willing to help one another succeed.”

And isn’t that what we should be fostering as educators. Few people work (or learn) in isolation anymore.  Shouldn’t the processes of grading support and reward collaborative endeavors?  At the risk of echoing one of the presidential candidates, aren’t we stronger together?

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One thought on “Curving Grades vs. Fostering Collaboration

  1. Interesting ideas, for sure. One weird outcome of the “phone a friend” strategy could be the “Hey, you, smart kid” phenomenon where students who are clearly understanding material are “targeted” by others to “teach me this stuff.” Having heard many middle and high school gifted kiddos complain about being forced to be peer tutors instead of pursuing their own learning and extending their own knowledge beyond the requirements, this would concern me. Any suggestions on how to help this?

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