Open grading process would relieve stress

You hear it every semester, the tone of voice depending entirely on who you’re hearing it from. Whether it’s in the panicked confusion of a doe-eyed freshman, the stressed tone of sophomores worrying what number they’ll be putting on their resumes when applying for internships, or the gruff resignation of upperclassmen wondering if they’ll have to retake a class again, everyone’s said it: “I don’t have a clue how I’m doing in that class.”
Tech professors grade on curves. It’s just a fact as inescapable as gravity, magnetism, and the lateness of blue route buses. We’ve all had a test or two where we’ve celebrated the fact that we scored in the double digits. We’ve all had that test where the professor walks in and says, “I don’t understand why the grades are so low; I thought it was easy.” And we’ve all experienced the joy of explaining to parents how we’re not failing out despite the stack of sub-sixty scores on our desks.
Honestly: I don’t mind this. It lets professors correct for tests they misgauged the difficulty, and leaves room for the top one percent to learn as much as they want without trashing everyone else’s grades. It’s easier on the grading staff, makes for more consistent grading over the years, etc, etc.
Basically, there’s a lot of reasons why curving is useful. So why are people always complaining about the curve?
My guess is that students don’t mind the curve, they mind when they don’t know the curve. You never hear someone complaining about having a B in a class where they got a 56. You do hear people complaining about working day and night all semester long to bring up their 56, only to find out it’s a B at the end of the semester. Then the complaining starts.
In other words, it’s the uncertainty that drives us up the wall. We don’t mind getting a good grade for a bad average, so long as we know what to expect. If we’re expecting a B and we actually have a B, great. If we’re expecting an F and actually have a B, we’re going to spend hours frantically cramming, trying to improve a grade that is just fine.
So what’s the problem? We spend a bit more time than we need to on a class. Big deal.
Problem is, every hour we spend on that class is an hour we don’t spend studying for another class that really does need it. So, what do we do? We cut back on sleep, start guzzling caffeine and lock ourselves away in our study area of choice, not really sure what needs work and what is perfectly fine as-is. Stress rises, sleep goes out the window, and all that fun people say we should be having in college dries up and floats away.
In a nutshell, so long as the grading process is transparent enough that we can say “I have a mid B” or “I have a low A,” there’s not a problem. Professors get to curve, we get to sleep, and everyone gets to go home happy.
But it’s typically not that easy. Typically, you’ll get a mean and standard deviation, and are lucky to get that. In a perfect world, where everyone graded on a bell curve, this would be fine. You’d look up the professor’s past classes, do a bit of math, press the button on your calculator, and you’ve got your grade. But what if the syllabus changed? Or you have a new professor? Or if your professor had a bad day when he was assigning grades?
Take one of my classes this semester. The professor breaks down test scores point-by-point into what letter grade it will translate to. I know I’ve got a low A on one test, and a mid B on the other. Throughout the semester, I know how I’ve been doing, how much I needed to study for the next test, and how much time to spend on the homework. I know what I need to get on the final for an A, what I need to get for a B, and what happens if I bomb it spectacularly. No muss, no fuss and no stress.
The administration is always trying to come up with new ways to make us happier, but at the end of the day, that’s going to depend on how much time we have to do things we enjoy and how much time we’re spending stressed about classes. If we actually know how we’re doing in classes, we can spend less time on the latter and better plan our time to maximize the former.
Obviously this wouldn’t stop students from griping entirely, but it would certainly cut down on it if the administration encouraged professors to share this information. Compared to all the effort that goes into programs aimed at making Tech students happier, making sure students understand how they’re doing requires very little effort for how much it would affect our quality of life.


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