Proportional Grading Inhibits Healthy Learning


Lucy Nelson

For many of us (or maybe just me), getting a “C” in at least one class at Wake Forest is not uncommon. I have received a couple in my past four years here, some of which I have definitely deserved, and some of which I had to fight hard for, like in science and math divisionals, in order to not receive anything lower. While I am unbothered by most, there has been one that I simply cannot seem to shake.

I may not be good at math and science, but one thing I know for sure is that I am a decent writer. That’s why upon seeing the glaring “C” next to one of my journalism classes in DegreeWorks, my heart sank. Most of it was based on a final project and class participation. Side note: I participated in class so frequently he told me I should limit my questions and comments. So, naturally, I emailed my professor to inquire the reasoning for this grade, or if it was a mistake. The response I received was:

“I calculate all grades based not only on a student’s work and participation, but how it compares to others in the class. As always, and as I’ve explained and demonstrated before, students get the grades they earn.”

I have a couple of issues with this statement. First of all, the class I was taking consisted only of eight students — myself, along with seven classmates, who were all insanely bright, I might add. How did I earn a “C” if I completed the work in every “exemplary” way that was outlined?

The answer stemmed from the professor’s opinion that, when compared to my other classmates, my work was deemed “average.”

The key word here is comparison. This professor, along with a few others at Wake Forest, implement “proportional” or “curved” grading, a technique that determines individual performance based on a comparison to the performance of all others in a class. The alternative, or perhaps opposite, technique that we see more frequently is “criterion-referenced grading,”  or “absolute” grading, where grades are given based on an individual’s performance against specific learning outcomes.

Now, I understand that for Accounting and other specific courses, grading on a curve is essential to “weed out” students, as there is only a limited number of available spots to move on to the next round in that field or program. However, if there is no selective end goal, program or achievement, why pit students against one another?

Comparing students to one another fosters a toxically competitive environment that delimits  collaborative leadership — a quality that a 2012 study by Stanford University found to be essential to cultural innovation and intrinsic motivation in the workplace and elsewhere. It makes sense. A greater number of perspectives leads to stronger conclusions or ideas. In the classes I had following this journalism course that used curved grading, reciprocity and thoughtful discussions were lost, and I found myself and the other students rarely bouncing ideas off one another or hosting helpful study sessions. I avoided my classmates because their success could potentially mean my failure.

Not only does a competitive environment limit healthy learning opportunities with classmates, it also can be demotivating. In classes with absolute grading, students are graded on their accomplishment of learning the material. But with curved grading, regardless of if the student masters the material and proves their understanding of the content, the thought will still exist in the back of their mind that if the rest of the class performs even slightly better, they’ll be put at the bottom of the grading scale. Would you study if you knew you might receive the same grade that you would if you didn’t study? It would definitely be harder to motivate yourself, that’s for sure.

Grades aren’t everything, as Wake Forest students often have a hard time grasping, but they still impact our resumes and mental health (as many studies have shown), so there is absolutely no need to limit the number of students who can excel. I’m here to learn, and I hope I am graded on how well I have demonstrated my learning of the material, not how great my work is compared to that of some of the brightest young adults in the nation.

Part of what I love most about Wake Forest is the reciprocity among students and what we can learn from each of our unique angles. I know I can always walk into Farrell or the ZSR and find someone in my class who is willing to talk over material with me or offer advice. That is, if they are in one of my classes that is on an absolute grading scale. So I ask you, professors of the institution that implement a proportional system, to please let us collaborate, not compete.