Grading on a curve: The pros and cons of the curved grading system

Probability curve of student grades

Probability curve of student grades

Professors who grade on a curve can be a blessing and a curse for college students. Depending on how well you perform in a class, a curve can mean passing a course you otherwise would have failed. However, if you did particularly well in a course, you may feel cheated if the instructor decided to grade on a curve and pass students who failed to study or do the work. If you’re a little confused about what grading on curve could mean for your grades, read on and see how to prepare yourself!

What’s a grading curve?

Grading on a curve means that the teacher or professor is distributing grades on a relative basis instead of on an absolute scale. Basically, when instructors grade on curves, they assign average grades (usually Cs) to a set number of students.

Then, they assign above and below averages grades to a smaller number of students. Each grade, then, has a certain percentage of students, forming a bell curve. This method can help account for potential shortcomings on the instructor’s behalf. For a more detailed description of a strict bell curve, see K12academics.

Some instructors intend to grade absolutely but end up adjusting by a curve if, say, an entire class does poorly on an exam. This is a more common approach, especially by professors who are hesitant to implement an absolute grading system.

The pros of grading on a curve

Grading on a curve automatically factors in the difficulty of the tests and/or assignments, and because instructors assign grades according to relative performance, you can still earn a good grade in a class you find extremely difficult—probably because your peers also find it very challenging.

When a professor curves a test or an assignment, he or she looks at the percentile scores in relation to the highest score in the class, and this ends up leveling the playing field for most students. Curved scores are higher than their actual numerical scores, and this can be tremendously beneficial for college GPAs.

The cons of grading on a curve

One of the drawbacks to this grading system is that students who perform slightly above or below the average can often miss out on a better grade. So, it is possible for a student who earned a straight B to end up with a C as a final curved score. Students may also feel less in control of how well they do in class, which can cause anxiety and stress levels to spike before tests and exams.

For professors, curved grading might make it more difficult to compare groups of students with each other in terms of performance. For instance, if all students perform poorly, even the highest-scoring students may fail to meet class standards.

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