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Not All Curves Are the Same: Left-of-Center Grading and Student Motivation

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Student Motivation and Faculty Development

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1190.1 - 26.1190.13



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Paper Authors

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Joanna Wolfe Carnegie Mellon University

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Elizabeth A. Powell Tennessee Technological University

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Not all curves are the same: Left-of-center grading and student motivationA substantial body of research critiques norm-referenced (i.e., “curved”) grading for fostering acompetitive climate that discourages many otherwise capable students from pursuing STEMfields (c.f. Seymour & Hewitt; Covington). Despite these critiques, the practice remains a staplein STEM education and is unlikely to change. One reason educational critiques of the practicemay not have hit home is that not all norm-referenced grading is the same. There is likely a bigdifference between what Wolfe & Powell call left-of-center grading, where exam means are inthe 20s or 30s and a score of 40% can translate into an A, and exams where means are in the 60sand a score of 80 translates into an A.This study tests the hypothesis that students will distinguish between different types of norm-referenced grading practices. 177 engineering students at a private, research I universitycompleted surveys asking about their perceptions of norm-referenced exams with means in the20s vs. those with means in the 60s. In addition, students were asked about the prevalence ofdifferent types of exam practices, the feedback they receive on exams, and their beliefs about thepurpose of exams.The results overwhelming show that students found exams with means in the 20s—but not thosewith means in the 60s—discouraging and damaging to morale. Students receiving an “A” forexam scores in the 30s were unlikely to feel proud of their accomplishment and were highlyunlikely to feel that they had learned what the instructor expected. These same students,however, did feel proud when an “A” was based upon an exam score in the 80s.Students interpreted exams with medians in the 20s as evidence of bad teaching and instructorswho do not care about their students. They were more likely to consider cheating and were lessmotivated to study when the median score was in the 20s than in the 60s.We also found that the majority of students had taken classes where they did not find out howtheir exam scores translated into grades until the end of the semester. A majority of students alsoreported that it is not standard practice for instructors to review exam questions that most of theclass had missed. These findings that the full learning potential of exams is often not realized.93% of students indicated that a primary purpose of exams should be to measure mastery ofconcepts, and nearly 80% indicated that measuring what a student had learned should also be aprimary purpose. By contrast, only 12% of students indicated that “distinguishing exceptionalstudents from others” should be a primary purpose. These results are at odds with theassumptions of left-of-center grading, which prioritizes distinguishing among different groups ofstudents and only indirectly seems o measure a student’s mastery of course content or learning.

Wolfe, J., & Powell, E. A. (2015, June), Not All Curves Are the Same: Left-of-Center Grading and Student Motivation Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24527

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