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PARK: To curve or not to curve: How grade inflation affects student success

Column: The Queue

Students should not be judged solely according to their grades. – Photo by Aryan Sharma

We have all experienced it — the sense of relief when you see a higher grade than what you expected, alongside a six-letter word: curved.

Whether grade inflation is beneficial or harmful to students and their futures is widely debated. Personally, I can see both sides.

As a student, I cannot exactly complain when I gain a couple of extra points (or sometimes a whole letter grade) due to a curve. But I can also understand how inflation can cause some students to try less or only do the bare minimum since they expect their grades to go up in the end anyway. 

In light of this ongoing debate, I would like to argue that grade inflation could be reduced in general if universities implemented better teaching methods and test-taking strategies for their students. 

Universities, and students in response to them, put too much emphasis on exams and grades. In high school, our GPAs determine both our ranks among our peers academically and where we end up in college, if we choose to go. But our grades do not need to define us. 

A common argument against grade inflation is that it lowers students' expectations about learning. If we want to do well on exams, we spend our time studying, practicing and memorizing topics and concepts.

But if all grades end up being fixed to a higher point, who is to say which students are struggling and which are truly understanding the material?

Yes, we all want to do well in school. Grade inflation encourages a higher grade on paper, but in turn, it prevents appropriate remediation as students can receive high marks despite having learning gaps in skill and knowledge.

But if we de-emphasize pressure on grades, students can actually spend their time taking on intrinsic interests, which will encourage intellectual curiosity and hopefully a deeper understanding.

In conjunction with intrinsic motivation and interest, what we learn in the classroom is not always applicable outside of it.

I am a supply chain management major at Rutgers Business School. I truly think that more than half of what I learn in the classroom will rarely be used post-graduation.

A perfect major GPA is helpful in STEM fields, where the memorization and knowledge of different medical terms and biological processes can help one succeed. Yet, in a more application-based field, this may not be true. 

I am currently taking a class on logistics and transportation. A lot of the material in the class and textbook covers definitions and processes that are currently outdated due to rapid advancements in warehousing technologies.

I know I do not intend to enter this field, but because it is a requirement to take this class for my major, I am left to memorize this material in order to get a good grade.

Listening to guest lectures by those actually in this field, I learned that it is the experience in the warehouse that they find useful — not the textbook knowledge. This makes me wonder why teachers put such a heavy emphasis on learning it all anyway. 

Easy A's are good GPA boosters and give students some peace of mind. As I mentioned earlier, a curve is more often than not going to be a good thing. It increases student confidence and has contributed to the growing percentage of college graduates.

Placing so much weight on these conventional academic metrics has been the norm for so long. But we should be shifting into the mindset of learning and applying — not learning and testing.

Learning about real-world experience in classrooms can stimulate much more than academic testing prowess. And it can be more engaging too. 

Foundation knowledge is important — do not get me wrong. I spend hours in the library studying and doing practice examples. But what is to say that my grade is a true reflection of my capabilities?

A dip in my exam results could be caused by a lack of resources for studying. It could be a professor who creates hard questions to trick students. It could be test-taking anxiety.

A number or letter grade should not define you, nor should a curve foster the idea that your grade is not what you deserve. 

In its essence, grade inflation is when students receive higher grades than they "deserve." But what do students really deserve?

My answer: the opportunity to actually learn and understand in classrooms with a supportive teaching environment — not a world that revolves around a number that will not matter in the long run. 

Annabel Park is a junior at Rutgers Business School, majoring in supply chain management and minoring in economics. Her column, "The Queue," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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