May 18, 2011
Thoughts on the dreaded curve
I am going to get meta here and refer to two other blogs writing about something we have blogged about (I think?) and we have talked about in the ASP community. The Faculty Lounge links to Prawfsblog and work by Ethan Leib on mandatory grading curves. Dan Filler comments on something many of us have encountered in ASP; if a student is in the bottom of the class with a 3.0, they can't see they need help. If that same student has a 2.4 (or 2.0) it is a different story; students intrinsically know this a problematic GPA.
Years ago, I encountered this phenomenon with a student with roughly a 2.9/3.0. The student was furious that s/he had to meet with me. S/he was certain she was not struggling, although s/he was in the bottom 10 in the class. S/he was on a journal (one that accepted everyone who applied and had a passing grade in their Legal Writing course). S/he went on to tell me s/he had graduated from high school at 16, graduated at the top of s/her college, and the law school was making a mistake. I spoke with a few faculty members after the meeting, who had a similar experience with the students--the student was deeply in denial, and angry at anyone who tried to confront the problem. I recently saw a link to the student (now alumni) profile on a business networking site, and it appears s/he to be struggling to find work. It also appears that s/he did not take or pass a bar exam, or chose not to list bar passage in their profile.
Would it have helped if the student was at a school with a more harsh curve? I don't know the answer to that. It may have been easier for me to show the student they were in trouble. I think the curve has some pernicious effects on student motivation, collegiality, and morale. But an "easy" curve, such as one that doesn't require grades lower than a B-, may be worse than no curve at all. It lulls students into a false sense of their own competence. A C is a shock to the system in a way that a B- doesn't appear to be.
I don't want this post to sound like I am suddenly a fan of mandatory curves. I actually think they should be abolished. What is happening at many schools, in response to the jobs crisis, is artificial inflation of grades that defeats the purpose of a curve AND hurts students who need extra support. I recieve an email from a former student at least once a week asking for help finding a job; I understand the problem. But I don't think the answer, at least from an ASP standpoint, is to ease the curve and bring students false hope about their prospects and needs. (RCF)
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