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“Engineering Beats You Up”: Problems with Relying on the Bell Curve

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Choice and Persistence in Engineering Education and Careers

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1410.1 - 24.1410.14



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Paper Authors


Joanna Wolfe Carnegie Mellon University

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Dr. Wolfe is Teaching Professor of Rhetoric and Director of the Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Beth A. Powell Tennessee Tech University

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“Engineering beats you down”: Problems with relying on the bell curve Research PaperStudent attrition is a well-documented problem in engineering education with women leaving athigher rates and with higher GPAs than men. Researchers have posited many reasons for thisphenomenon, but one potential cause that we believe has not been sufficiently explored is thecommon practice of awarding extremely low test grades that are then adjusted by a bell curve.Such grades fail to provide students with accurate and explicit feedback on what they havelearned in the course.We first became aware of how problematic bell curve grades can be through an unrelated projectwhen students we were interviewing complained about tests with class averages under 50%.Curious, we began systematically asking our interview subjects about the pros and cons of thisgrading practice.Since adding this question to our protocol, we have interviewed 32 engineering undergraduatesand 30 professionals. Nearly every individual had direct experience with this practice. Whilemany were able to compartmentalize and focus only on the final grade after the curve, half ofthose interviewed described discouragement and frustration over their initial score. Manyhypothesized that professors engaged in this practice primarily to bolster their own egos andmany explicitly connected this practice to thoughts of leaving engineering.In short, our interviews uncovered three main problems with this practice: 1) Feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, or anger—even by those who ultimately received an A. Some successful professionals, decades after graduating, still expressed resentment. These feelings seemed to disproportionately affect women. 2) Arbitrary grading: Although grading on a curve may seem to suggest mathematical fairness, in practice it means students’ grades depend as much on their classmates’ performance as their own. We heard not only of “super geniuses” who blew a class curve with high scores, but also of students submitting blank tests, thereby inflating the grades of their peers. One student told us of a professor who throughout the semester gave her group feedback that they were doing terrific, A-level work, only to award them a B at the end of the term because he had already given too many As. 3) Lack of feedback: Students often told us they did not know where they stood in a class because the instructor did not reveal the curve until the end—or they were unclear on the complicated formula used to determine the curve. We heard of one case where a student was planning to drop a course, but fortunately was advised by a mentor to stay and later found out she would receive an A. Relying on contacts and word of mouth to discover one’s standing in a course privileges those who are well-connected.Such grading practices may promote a culture where individuals are unresponsive to feedback.In fact, we might hypothesize one reason the practice persists is that faculty ignore studentcomments on course evaluations—a mindset they then perpetuate by teaching students to ignorethe messages inherent in their own grading feedback. This practice has serious repercussions forwomen and students who value constructive feedback.

Wolfe, J., & Powell, B. A. (2014, June), “Engineering Beats You Up”: Problems with Relying on the Bell Curve Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--19900

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