Concerned students await the day of examination results release with trepidation. The bell curve is drawn and the academic fate has been decided. It may signal a boon for only a small handful of students, but bane for majority of others. Nonetheless, life goes on with the dawn of a new semester, and the academic rat race to the top of the pile continues. In order to quench the insatiable thirst for perfect transcripts, one would typically have to get to the alpha end of the bell curve.
The all-too-familiar bell curve, is a form of grading system, whereby certain grades can be dished out to various percentiles within the cohort. For example, the top 1% within the cohort will be given A+, the subsequent 5% will be awarded A, and so on. There is a common perception among students of the National University of Singapore that the university uses the bell-curve grading system. There is also a perception that bell-curve grading is being used in National Examinations in Singapore from the GCE “O” levels to the GCE “A” levels. Bell curve grading is not really common at the tertiary level in other countries, like UK, Australia and US for instance. Perhaps, Georgia Institute of Technology is the only institution that I know of in the US that employs bell curve grading, and undergraduate life there is notoriously difficult with its high dropout rate. However, that in itself is a discussion meant for another time.
Allow me to state my position with regards to the bell-curve system of grading. I consider myself a staunch opponent of the bell-curve. To me, it’s a numbers game all in all, which doesn’t necessarily give a comprehensive review of the students’ performance.
Allow me to state my position with regards to the bell-curve system of grading. I consider myself a staunch opponent of the bell-curve. To me, it’s a numbers game all in all, which doesn’t necessarily give a comprehensive review of the students’ performance. In fact, it can be a little misleading at times. Lastly, I may state that the system of bell-curve grading can give rise to personal integrity issues, which goes against the idea of meritocracy, an ingredient for an unhealthy dish.
First and foremost, numbers or final marks per se doesn’t necessarily indicate academic understanding of a subject. Take for instance this particular situation comparing 2 students, A and B. Student A scored 80 marks out of 100. Student A is exam-smart, but doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the subject. In his examination, he left out 20 marks worth of challenging/higher order questions, concentrated on the 80 marks worth of easy questions and scored full marks for all of them. Student B on the other hand had intimate knowledge of the subject, but he was not exam smart. He scored for the 20 marks worth of challenging/higher order questions, but was careless for the other easy questions. Subsequently, he scored only 75 marks and was placed below Student A on the bell-curve. Consequentially, Student A got an A while Student B got a B. This instance is an example whereby numbers do not necessarily reflect the abilities of students.
Next, allow me to dwell into the misleading aspect of the bell-curve. Students are graded according to the bell-curve drawn for a particular cohort. In a scenario, a large number of excellent students take a particular module in the first semester. In the bell-curve drawn for the cohort in the first semester, 90 marks will garner an A grade, 80 marks will land a B grade, 70 marks will result in a C grade and so on. For the second semester, the cohort of students taking that particular module were rather poor. In the bell-curve that was drawn, 65 marks will land an A grade, 55 marks will garner a B grade, 45 marks will result in a C grade and so on. The question is if we were to just compare letter grades within a transcript, can we qualitatively state that a C grader for the module in the first semester is worse off than an A grader in the second semester? I think not. If a C grader for the module had taken it in the second semester, he might be the top student in his cohort.
Moving on, you may be wondering where the unhealthiness of the bell curve comes from? In my opinion, I see the bell-curve as the catalyst of an unhealthy rat-race culture amongst students, and it involves doing any thing in order to get to the top. I had the privilege of sitting in during a class presentation by individual students for a module once. For the evaluation of the class presentation, part of the assessment comes from fellow peers, whilst the other part comes from the lecturer’s evaluations. The problems come in the part whereby the assessment has to come from fellow peers. I have seen seemingly good presentations being given mediocre marks by some of the students, even as the presenters were being praised by the lecturer for their laudable performance. On the contrary, those who were buddies of these students were given excellent marks, but did not perform well for their presentations, based on the lecturer’s feedback. What I witnessed is a form of mini-corruption, to put it harshly. Really, it’s a case of exchanging one’s integrity in order to get to the top. The death of meritocracy indeed!
Adding on to the discussion, I would like to refer Prof Hang Chang Chieh’s comments, which was then published in the Campus Observer.
- “We always have a bell curve. We cannot accept the fact that only 100 (students) are the best in the country and all of them score only A’s and B’s and no C’s. We cannot accept that.” – The Campus Observer
Apparently Prof Hang believes that bell-curve serves as the basis of segregating students, which in essence is the numbers game. I have tenuously pointed out the problems with this numbers game, such as its degree of objectivity and its implication on the development of students where their integrity is concerned.
If the bell-curve is really problematic in as far as student assessment is concerned, what is the solution then? I believe the solution will lie on the part of Professors who are assessing the students. Perhaps, students can be graded based on their understanding and knowledge of the subject matter. This can be gleaned from assignments, projects and responses to questions in tests and examinations alike. In fact, this is how students are being graded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An A grade reflects exceptionally good performance, demonstrating a superior understanding of the subject matter, a foundation of extensive knowledge, and a skillful use of concepts and/or materials. A B grade reflects good performance, demonstrating capacity to use the appropriate concepts, a good understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to handle problems and materials encountered in the subject (Source: MIT). For one, this way of assessment can filter out the exam smart ones from the really knowledgeable ones. It also adds a degree of objectivity when students from different cohorts are being compared. It is also free from any form of biasness in peer assessments. Of course, if the university administrations here feel that bell-curve is still a necessity, perhaps they may consider reflecting say the student’s level of understanding of the subject he has taken through any form of measure (be it numerical or alphabetical scale) beside the bell-curve derived grade. It sure adds a great degree of objectivity when it comes to evaluating the student’s transcripts. I am sure that prospective employers or graduate school admission committees will find such elaborate information pertaining to the student’s performance extremely useful.
1) A review of Georgia Institute of Technology. http://www1.epinions.com/content_60565196420
2) Nilsson, Dennis & Loh, Noelle. Student assessment system remains controversial. The Campus Observer accessible at http://campusobserver.org/2007/March/08/bellcurve/curve.html
3) Academic Guide for Undergraduates and Their Advisors. Massachusetts Institute of Technology accessible at http://web.mit.edu/academic-guide/sec6.html
Cover photo credits: Melvin Yap