Saved by the bell curve

Before coming to HKUST, I learned that the grading here is done on a bell curve. This means that instead of being graded based on your raw marks (the proportion of questions you answered correctly, for example), you are graded based on your performance relative to the other students in the class. What’s more, the grades are allocated using a Gaussian distribution, also known as a bell curve, due to the shape of its graph. In other words, there are many average grades on offer, but a much smaller amount of top grades. Furthermore, the unlucky few at the bottom of the year end up with a very low or even failing grade.

Lots of B-D grades, only a few As, but those at the bottom get an F…  Image from Google

For me this was awesome. You see, starting from an average position in the year (say in the 50th percentile), it becomes exponentially harder to move up to better and better grades. However, you also need to perform exponentially worse and worse to move down to lower grades. My study abroad year only contributes 10% toward my final degree ranking. So all I need to do is stay comfortably average and I’ll end up with an easy 2:2. If I wanted a better grade, I would need to work so much harder. I would sacrifice a lot of my free time, travel less, explore less, experience less, and bring my grade maybe up to a high 2:1? For an extra 1% or 2% in my final degree ranking? When my final year is worth 75%, it makes that seem so insignificant.

With a goal of just passing all my classes with an average grade, it removes the stresses and tensions of my assessments and leaves me free to learn for fun instead. To research and pursue my interests instead of cramming for a subject I dislike. To enjoy the academic side of my year and learn for the sake of learning, rather than learning for the sake of extracting as many marks as I can from a silly exam. Of course, it also allows me so much more free time to meet new people, try new things, and explore this crazy city I’ve somehow found myself in. When I discovered this back in Bristol, I was ecstatic. Oh man, I don’t have to try hard at all! It’s going to be amazing! Woo hoo, easy life get rekt uni.

I’ve been taking classes here for over a month now. I’ve experienced lectures big and small, tutorials, labs, quizzes, assignments and even peer-review. Since I arrived it’s become more and more apparent to me that something is wrong here. The atmosphere amongst my classmates is different and I don’t like it. I’m now confident that my beloved bell curve is to blame.

You see, with everyone being graded relative to each other’s performance, it doesn’t just incentivise you to make yourself do better, but also to make others do worse. There is no air of cooperation, only competition.

Back in Bristol, we are graded by our raw performance. Occasionally, if everyone in the class did very well or very poorly respective to previous classes, then they will ‘scale’ the grades; shifting everyone’s marks up or down a certain amount to create a fairer distribution of grades. This means that so long as you try hard and perform well, you will get the mark you deserve. It also means there is significantly less reason for you to want your classmates to perform poorly. So we help each other out. If the guy beside me in the lab is struggling with something and I know how to help him, I will help him. We have an online forum for each class, where students and lecturers post questions and offer answers. We help each other when we can because we know one day that person will be there to help us. We are all engineers, working together to learn, understand and innovate. This requires cooperation, and this grading system encourages just that.

Here at HKUST, there is no sense of cooperation outside of one’s small clique of friends. Even then, many students are not close with anyone else in their class, and so are only interested in helping themselves. The competition here for jobs and internships is fierce, and only those at the top stand a chance. So why waste your time helping others when that will only lower your own grade? If I’m at the top then everyone else must be below me. I have to put myself first in order to get ahead. In extreme cases, this problem manifests itself in the form of straight-up sabotage. Sharing fake answer sheets, hoarding important library books… nasty stuff like that.

What if I take a class in a semester where the cohort happens to be unusually smart? If every student is bright and tries hard, is it really fair to fail a few of them? Let’s say I scraped a C. If I took the same class in a different semester I might have gotten an A. It’s inconsistent across semesters, not representative of one’s ability or effort, and pushes those at the top to a bitter grind for those last few percent while crushing the spirits of those at the bottom. As much as I dislike the ‘everyone’s a winner‘ attitude, I believe people should be rewarded for their effort and accomplishments, not for being better than others.

The bell curve grading system happens to benefit me this year, but it’s fostering a poisonous environment among students; encouraging competition and breeding selfish, unhappy graduates. I now appreciate how lucky I am to study somewhere that cares about whether or not I can accomplish something, rather than whether my classmate can do it better.

Sorry guys, less boring posts coming soon. 🙂

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