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Grading on a Curve

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Shawn Trautman Lessons - Life - Learning - Blog by SHAWN TRAUTMAN

What would life be like if we were graded on a curve?

Would the room where we painted 3 of the 4 walls yesterday suddenly be complete?

Would we cut half our yard only to see that all our neighbors only cut half of theirs yesterday and today we all have a freshly mown lawn with no further effort?

Would we take our driver’s test, fail it, and then get a new license sent to us in the mail just because the instructor felt they didn’t prepare us for the material?

The thing is, rarely is ANYTHING graded on a curve in the “real-world”. So, why is it acceptable in educational settings?

The answer to this question can, and often does, go in many different directions. It could be lack of preparation. A poorly worded set of questions. A realization that the material was not taught very well. A requirement for the entire class to meet a “standard”. A bonus or incentive for higher test scores. A way to pass the class and move them on to someone else (the “not my problem” mentality). A lack of time to adequately discuss and absorb the material. I mean, really, the possibilities for “why” are seemingly endless.

But does it ultimately help?

So, first, let’s look at grades in school. Are they important? Unfortunately, yes. It’s an “objective measurement of one’s performance” made from hundreds of “subjective measurements of one’s performance.” In other words, yes, it’s looked at because it’s easy to see, not because it’s a reflection of anything to do with knowledge.

Can you get an “A” and have no idea what you’re doing in a class? Sure. Can you get a “D” and that class change your life? Emphatically, YES! Can you get all C’s and expect to get into a prestigious college because you know the material better than anyone? No, and that’s the point. Do students LOVE IT when they get graded on a curve? Of course! And it makes the teacher more likable. 

Grades are a game. And you have to know how to play.

Playing the game, though, isn’t really about grades. Nor is about “learning”. It’s about meeting or exceeding expectations of those you’re working with.

Each teacher is your “boss” and each one is temporary. You may have only 1 boss or upwards of 6 or 7 at a time and each has their own set of rules they play by. Some are sticklers for timeliness. Some are really hard on punctuation. Some expect eyes on them at all times (virtual attendance or showing up in class). Some like and reward participation in class. Some demand all thought processes are shown and grade you accordingly (show your work!).

Learning what each “boss” values is important. Knowing what set of rules you’re being graded on is important, not just in a classroom, but in real life. Playing by ‘these’ rules will help anyone, academically, but really, it’s a matter of understanding that it’s nothing more than working with different people, or “bosses.”

When ‘bosses’ grade on a curve, everyone loses. It’s not “just a grade”, it’s an opportunity to make changes and ‘get better’, as long as the boss gives you that chance. If it’s that you didn’t ‘get’ the material, is there another way to ‘get it’? If everyone fails the test, can it be revisited so everyone can do better after a new lesson?

If the curve happens just for the grade, much is lost. Everyone gets a ‘pass’ without actually ‘earning it’ and the long-term impact of that kind of thinking degrades society over time.

Things don’t just miraculously get better. Situations don’t normally fix themselves. Yards don’t just get cut overnight. Walls don’t just get painted for you.

Someone, somewhere, has to take up the slack. Best if we teach those who are involved (teachers and students) how to play the game better and be responsible for their actions all the way through. Show them that if they make mistakes, there are ways of fixing them in most cases. Show them that making mistakes or ‘not knowing’ sometimes is unfixable. Show them that resourcefulness and understanding is always better than just knowing an answer.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Nor is it always the student’s fault. Both sides should be constantly evaluated.

Students: don’t look for, ask for, or expect a curve.

Teachers: find new ways to teach, grade, assess, or reinforce material in a way your students “learn” WITHOUT a curve.

It’s certainly harder, but better for everyone in the long-run.

I mean, if it’s “not important” they get it, why is it being taught? I’ll take a bad grade any day of the year if it makes me rethink the “why” over being graded on a curve and foolishly thinking I deserved it. Clearly, if I didn’t “make the grade”, I missed something of importance in the lesson, somewhere.

Don’t overlook the opportunities that come with bad grades. Sometimes, it’s the little things that end up mattering or the fine print you missed. One day, those little things you learned to pay attention to just might become the reason you get to do the big things.

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