If you told the average student at the University of Toronto that there is no such thing as a bell curve here, they would laugh.
U of T makes this claim by adopting a rigid definition of bell curving that permits instructors to “calibrate” or “adjust” grades but not curve them. This is a distinction without a difference. There’s only a difference if you don’t want to admit that your grading policy is deeply problematic.
U of T prioritizes institutional success over student success by forcing students into boxes instead of assessing them properly. The university operates on a system of quotas, where professors are encouraged to hand out a certain number of As, Bs, and Cs and always stick to a class average hovering around a C +. A bell curve is good for lazy or incompetent instructors who create unfair assessments.
It’s bad for students because it causes massive stress while writing tests, and then leaves them with less knowledge. After all, you can change a grade from a 40 to a 60 per cent, but the student won’t magically understand that 20 per cent of material.
Giving out too many As requires professors to rock the boat. So if they’re tenured and feel incredibly passionate about it, they might. Though most don’t.
It’s a time-consuming process and it’s easier to hand out the expected grades and move on.
For untenured faculty, part-time instructors, or teaching assistants, the pressures to simply hand out grades in their allotted divisions, regardless of what grades students deserve, are even greater.
Bell curving and quotas are important because they hint at a larger problem — grade deflation.
While other universities manipulate their grades, they mostly tend to do so as a way of inflating marks. In 2013, the most common grade at Harvard Univerity was an A, and the average grade was an A-.
In October, Princeton University eliminated their decade-long grade deflation policy after failing to meet the target of only giving out As 35 per cent of the time — 43 per cent of 2013 grades were As. This is roughly in line with the average at private colleges in the US. Indeed, a 2010 study found that the nationwide average GPA at private colleges was 3.3 on a 4.0 scale.
Even within Canada, U of T’s grades are particularly low. A 2006 study found that students at UTSC got lower grades on average than counterparts at Carleton University or Ryerson University due to marking, not ability. While four per cent of UTSC students reported getting mostly As, 10 per cent of Carleton and Ryerson students reported the same. At UTSC, two-thirds of students reported mostly B-s or less, compared to 55 per cent of Ryerson and Carleton students.
The problem was bad enough that then-President David Naylor instituted an aggressive overhaul of the grading system responding to the concern that U of T students were struggling to get into graduate school at U of T as a factor.
Naylor’s overhaul may well have led to some progress, but it’s happened behind closed doors. U of T doesn’t release average annual grades, or the most common grade, or even the grade distribution.
I believe that grades at U of T are lower and that getting high grades at U of T is harder than at other Canadian universities.
U of T should follow the lead of the elite American institutions it tries to compete with and reveal its grading data. It’s been nearly a decade since Naylor set out to reform U of T’s rampant grade deflation. It’s time to see if any progress has been made.
Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year history student who contributes to the Globe and Mail and Macleans. He was The Varsity’s news editor last year. His column appears bi-weekly.
The whole topic concerning grade deflation is harrowing. I have been admitted to the Fall 15/16 term but am
getting increasingly worried about academic success since I definitely want to go to grad school.
But how do prof’s and TA’s assign students to their respective ‘boxes’? Surely, if most answer all questions correctly at a multiple choice exam, there would be no objective way to justify handing 100’s to some of them and 70’s to the rest.
This whole topic is very confusing, and it is hard to believe that the bell curve is not just some medium that provides opportunities for students with a poor work ethic to vent about their failure. Then again, I have little knowledge on the topic.
Just look at how hard your classmates are working. then work X % harder. At U of T, you dont compete against yourself to gt the grade, you compete against the masses. You actually have a huge advantage since many of your classmates will not have as good of English skills as you. My problem was that I was just too high all the time.
Your comment about multiple choice exams is valid of course, but the problem occurs in how those multiple choice exams are created not bell curved.
The general idea that I’ve received as a student, who has taken courses in mathematics and sciences as well as courses in literature and linguistics, is that if the midterm scores of a multiple choice exam are too high then the final exam will be created in such a way as to purposefully create traps students to make a mistake.
For example, should the average for a class be above a B at the midterm point, non-tenured instructors will be pressured to make the final exam harder, citing that obviously they’ve made the test too easy. Consequently, and in general, the instructor will warn before the final exam, that there will be questions that will be more difficult to answer and will require a very thorough knowledge of the material. Thus achieving an mark of 75% (theoretically answering 75 questions correctly out of 100) will not reflect your knowledge of 75% of the material, but rather 90%. This reflects the fact that you can receive only one point/mark for answering a multiple choice question correctly, despite the fact that you would have had to demonstrate a higher level a knowledge in order to arrive at the answer.
The response to this would be to create a test of short answers or questions requiring a student to show their work. However the answers could then become judged based upon the “preferred” mode of answering according to the instructor or subject to the moods of a marker who could give a student a lower mark based upon their belief that the answer could be answered better or in some way more complete. Of course there is no way to prove that an instructor has shown bias because this bias is against the entire class as a whole, marking them lower than what they deserve, i.e. bell curving, in order to maintain the preferred class average of a C+.
The hope is that by removing a preferred class average, then instructors would be less pressured by the institution and give students grades based upon the percentage of the material they’ve actually learned, not what bracket of the grading scale they fall into.
Studying math, physics, and comp sci for the past 3 years at uoft I have not once encountered a bell curve or any grade adjustment that resulted in the deflation of my grade. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky but I wouldn’t be worried if I were you.
Very interesting. Could you tell us a little something about yourself? Do you come from CDN or from an international background? Are there any study habits you have that others don’t?
My apologies if I seem intrusive, it’s just that you are the first UofT student I have seen on the internet who seems to be academically successful.