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Description: Have you ever been in a class where the marks were “curved”? That is where the obtained distribution of class scores on the midterm or final is adjusted so that it meets some requirement or expectation of the department or faculty as to the number of A’s, B’s and C’s awarded in the class. Understandably students are typically uncomfortable with this sort of arrangement largely because the correspondence between their efforts and their eventual grade outcomes are not entirely clear. One of things that’s not talked about very much in the midst of a fairly intense concern over “grade inflation” in universities and colleges is the impact that curving or grade quota systems have on the classroom culture experienced by students participating in those classes. The organizational psychologist author of the article linked below talks about his own efforts to directly address the competitiveness which often results from curving and quotas in his own classrooms within the business faculty where he works.

Source: Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve, Adam Grant, Sunday Review, New York Times.

Date: September 10, 2016


Links:  Article Link —

Most discussions over the issue of “grade inflation” usually begin with concerns that if higher proportion of students are given higher grades than was the case a decade or more ago that this means that the students are clearly getting something they do not deserve in a way that is unfair not only to their classmates but also to all of the students that have gone through similar courses before them. It is an important question as to whether classrooms are designed to competitively sort students in order to make it possible to distinguish the great students from the good students and the good students from the poor students or whether our educational systems need to take a mastery approach based on the notion that classroom experiences ought to be producing competencies in most of the students and that most of the students ought to leave the course having mastered important knowledge and skills. Such discussions are less likely to include consideration of the potential impact of possible solutions to these concerns on classroom culture and how the resulting classroom culture may or may not map onto the organizational cultures students will be moving into in the workplace once they leave the university setting. Adam Grant, the author of the article linked above, is an organizational psychologist whose research indicates that when you look at the long-term organizational outcomes experienced by individuals who are “takers” (essentially competitive individualists) as opposed to “givers” (people who work with and assist their teammates and coworkers). Grant consistently finds that givers do much better within the corporate setting both in terms of remuneration and in terms of promotion than do takers. Grant then goes on to talk about the things that he has been trying to do in his classes within the business school where he is employed to try and change the classroom culture from one of individualistic competitiveness to one that is more supportive of teamwork and genuine collaborative knowledge to focus activities among fellow classmates. If your first reaction to reading the article is that his students are getting away with something you might want to give it another read and think about it a bit more.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why do you think it is that a class in which the grades are curved or in which a grade quota system is employed seems to produce a more individualistic competitive environment among students participating in that class?
  2. What sorts of things would you be thinking about and what would your feelings be if you were contemplating taking a course which you know involved grade curving or grade quota system?
  3. What are some of the ways in which class culture can be shifted away from an individualistic competitive cultural set towards a more cooperative set that would be conducive to the development of more givers than takers?

References (Read Further):

Rojstaczer, S., & Healy, C. (2012). Where A is ordinary: The evolution of American college and university grading, 1940–2009. Teachers College Record, 114(7), 1-23.

Jaschil, Scott (2016) Grade Inflation, Higher and Higher Inside Higher Ed

Dubey, P., & Geanakoplos, J. (2010). Grading exams: 100, 99, 98,… or A, B, C?. Games and Economic Behavior, 69(1), 72-94.

Podsakoff, N. P., Whiting, S. W., Podsakoff, P. M., & Blume, B. D. (2009). Individual-and organizational-level consequences of organizational citizenship behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of applied Psychology, 94(1), 122.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: Why helping others drives our success. Penguin.

Johnson, M. D., Hollenbeck, J. R., Humphrey, S. E., Ilgen, D. R., Jundt, D., & Meyer, C. J. (2006). Cutthroat cooperation: Asymmetrical adaptation to changes in team reward structures. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 103-119.

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