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I've recently taken a new position within a math department at a large university. The department has an official policy that in most lower-level undergraduate classes (let's say anything in the calculus sequence and below), roughly half of the students should receive A's and B's, and the other half should receive C's and below.

I tend to disagree with this policy, but being new to the department and rather inexperienced with the student population, I'd like to honor the policy for the time being. So for the first time in my teaching career, I plan to curve my class to achieve a desired distribution.

One tenet of my teaching philosophy is that I try to be as transparent with students as possible about how they will be assessed, and how their performance will translate into a letter grade. This means that if I am to institute a curve next semester, I want to be able to tell students exactly how the curve will work. Of course, I'm very worried that telling them only half of them can get A's and B's will create a very competitive environment, so students will not want to study with and help each other, so learning will suffer (in fact, I'm almost certain this will happen). This leads to my question:

How can I simultaneously

  1. tell the students how I will assign grades,
  2. achieve the distribution desired by the department, and
  3. still get students to buy into working together?

Seems impossible to me - maybe it is...

One quasi-solution (which potentially strays a bit from condition 2) is to have guaranteed grade cutoffs. For example, if a student achieves an 80% in the class, she is guaranteed at least a B-, even if 75% of the class scored higher. In this scenario, the perceived effect of any curve is that it "can only help and not harm." This could give students at least some sense of being in control of their own destiny and that they are not only being assessed in comparison to their peers.

The problem with this solution is that determining those grade cutoffs can be tricky at the outset. If I make them too high, then at some point in the semester it will become clear that the curve will supersede the cutoffs, and competition is likely to creep back in. If the cutoffs are too low, then I could be locked into awarding an overly generous distribution that would be frowned upon by my department.

What can I do?

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    $\begingroup$ I do not envy your predicament for one second. Just a thought though - this question might garner more responses over on the Academia SX. It doesn't seem to be highly specific to Mathematics Education. $\endgroup$ – J W Dec 16 '20 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ I saw the title of this post and thought, "That's impossible." After reading the post, I'm glad you're thinking about this carefully, but the only real solution is to change the departmental policy. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Dec 16 '20 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @JW: Yes, good suggestion. I'm so discipline-centric that I didn't even stop to think this is not at all a problem isolated to math. $\endgroup$ – Jared Dec 16 '20 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it has been cross-posted at Academia. Such cross-posting is discouraged on the SE network, and I think that this question is more appropriate there than here (I don't see how this relates to mathematics education, specifically). $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 16 '20 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ I asked basically this question a year ago; consensus was that it's impossible (no actual solutions given): academia.stackexchange.com/questions/135815/… $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Dec 16 '20 at 18:52
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I teach at a community college, where our goal is to help all students succeed. But they have other commitments, and many are not used to being A students, and don't expect that. So I have seldom managed to get half of them getting As and Bs. (Linear Algebra and Math for Elementary Teachers are the only courses I can remember that probably achieved that.)

I am guessing that you're at an elite university, where most students will work very hard for those top grades, so your natural grade distribution is likely to be higher than mine. It would be great if there were a way to get data on the likely distribution without that sucky policy. It if were close, then your plan would be good.

Also, if your overall grade distribution among multiple courses fits their nasty criteria, is it ok with them if some of your classes do better?

I would definitely recommend fighting this policy once you have tenure.

I was an undergrad at U of Michigan. I remember feeling like I did pretty well in my French class, and being shocked to get a C. It was that sort of grading system that did it. (I already had my language requirement covered. I was taking that course for fun! Grr. Can you tell I have strong feelings about this issue?)

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Your question is pretty broad: "what can I do".

  1. To start with, I think you are overestimating the danger of students outperforming some external "bar" on competence (e.g. AP test). My experience has been that generally curving inflates the grades versus an a priori standard. Note, this is a generalization. I'm sure we could construct an example where this is not the case. E.g. a required course in shop or mechanical drawing at a competitive engineering school might be one where we expect well over 50% to score a B or higher. I don't think this is the case in lower div math weeder courses at a big stat university though. Nor is it in the majority of cases...as a student, what I found was more of a relaxation knowing others at the low end will carry one, versus a competition to extreme...after all, even with a priori standards many students work well short of capacity.)

  2. Furthermore, very little knowledge is gained in a course like this from collaboration. Students learn by drilling homework. Those who drill more, learn more. Collaboration/help is way overrated. Individual practice is underrated. (I also find most people who would help will still help even if there's a small disincentive. After all the single person you help is in front of you...you're not lifting the entire curve...just the person who is in front of you, socially near.)

  3. In addition, I would counter that your own lack of confidence in setting a standard for A, B, C work and for designing such tests shows that you might even be better off going with the crude idea of a curve. After all, you don't have a feel for how to set the bars without one!

  4. You're new to the school. And maybe a newer instructor in general (based on the hesitancy to gauge tests). Why not try it out their way first? You can always do something different later, when you have more basis to strike out on your own. There's a gazillion things to work on in your teaching. Why not concentrate on some of them and just roll with testing similar to how the rest of the department does it (at least this semester)?

P.s. None of this is to say I'm pro curve. The opposite, actually. Just for different reasons than yours.

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    $\begingroup$ Expect pushback based on point 2, but point 4 is what I was going to recommend. There is surely a departmental playbook for grading an intro course at a large state school that will satisfy #1 and #2. Whether perceived competition due to a curve is the main driver of collaborative effort versus other factors like intrinsic student preferences, lack of friends in the class, schedule conflicts outside of class, etc. is a different question. $\endgroup$ – Steve Dec 17 '20 at 13:04

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