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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Curving customary in science classes

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: News

Curving grades is a common practice for certain science classes at Brandeis. Science professors often explain that this is done due to the class’ high level of difficulty, meaning that, if these tests were not on a curve, students would do very poorly. Despite the apparently helpful nature of this practice, however, it remains unclear whether this is beneficial to students.

Some classes, such as Biology Lab, use the “bell curve,” which comprises the majority of grades resting around the “B” region, which is generally assigned as the class average. There are, however, outliers on any curve; in a class, these outliers take the form of very high or very low grades, such as scores of 40 percent or 97 percent.

Through this system, a class average of 72 percent can be made into a “B,” and any student who earned an 80 percent would earn either a B+ or an A.

Many students and teachers believe the curve system to be both effective and necessary, including Professor Melissa Kosinski-Collins (BIOL). Kosinski-Collins told The Hoot that, due to the ever-expanding nature of collective scientific knowledge, “expecting students to learn everything is impossible and completely unfair.” Additionally, she stated that she “provide[s] a realistic target of knowledge level” for her students, instead of 100 percent of the knowledge she teaches them.

Biology Lab is by no means, however, the only class that uses a curve system. Exams given in General Chemistry, taught by Professor Claudia Novack (CHEM), are also curved for the benefit of students. Samantha Daniels-Kolin ’15 said that she feels that “the curve system most definitely helps me in class,” since she usually “floats around the average of the class.”

Some students, however, feel that the curve could harm them. Esther Mann ’15, a student in Organic Chemistry—class and lab—and Biology Lab said she believes “the curve system has harmed me in the classes I have taken because people are competing against each other.”

Additionally, some students raised the issue of how using a curve can negatively affect the letter grades given in a class. Mann commented that she believed putting many students “in the B- range hurts every single one of us who need GPAs of at least 3.5 to apply for medical schools and graduate programs.”

Many students understand both points of view of the curve debate. Daniels-Kolin commented that she understood “the benefits of being graded without a curve,” but also said: “If you don’t need the curve, then … it shouldn’t bother you.” Mann also stated that she believes “the curve system is fair for some people but not others.”

The use of a curve system at all depends on a number of factors, including the professor’s teaching philosophy and the class being taught, according to Professor Susan Parker (MATH). In a phone interview with The Hoot, Parker said that throughout her teaching career she has “adjusted her exams so the median grade is almost invariably between a 70 and an 85.”

The implementation of a curve itself can often confuse students even more about their grades. Parker also told The Hoot that “students have different, sometimes hazy ideas about what it means to curve,” and that the professor of the class should explain their curving policy.

The curve system isn’t perfect, but it does seem to be something students can live with. Mann said she thought she would be doing better in class “if there were another system, but definitely not if we were given our raw grades.” While the system does provide more benefit to students who do poorly than who do well (an F to B jump is much larger, for example, than a B- to a B+ jump), it does help the majority in such intensive classes such as Biology Lab, General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry.