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November 4th, 2011

Grading on a curve, “Yahan ka system, hi hai kharab” and Sir Ken Robinson

by Amrinder Arora

A generation ago, I was a student at IIT Delhi. But, I wasn’t a brilliant student. Had a fundamental disconnect with the grading process there – 12.5% of students (roughly, rounding etc) had to be given A, A-, B, B-, C, C-, D and F grades. (All grades other than F are considered passing grades). While there were some professors who deviated from that significantly (and certainly didn’t hand out F grades), that still was the suggested grading policy. That bothered me significantly. Should I hope for my friends to mess up royally, so that I can get a better grade? Should I help someone else study, and in the process, screw my own grade? Should I lend you the book so you can push me to a different color of the pie chart? Even more innocuously, should I really study hard, and in the process push you down one bit? (Really, what kind of friend am I?)

Call it the Buridan’s ass, the obstinacy of the teenage years, or give it a fancier name, but when the system bothers you, you write and sing songs like purani jeans aur guitar and repeat “yahan ka system, hi hai kharab”. Ali Haider - Purani Jeans Aur Guitar

And now, how the times have changed. Some of my students at GWU ask me, “Would you be grading on a curve?” There is optimism in their voice. The answer they are looking for is “YES!”. “Most definitely!!” “¡Cómo no!” I kind of understand that. The students who are hoping that I grade on a curve, are suggesting that their score may be lower than my “flat passing line”, so if I grade on a curve, they stand to benefit. But alas, I deny them that very easy pleasure. I remind my students that I am going to grade everyone individually, and that I am not bound to give 20% As, 40% Bs and 20% Cs etc. All of them may finish with an A. Or, all of them may finish with a B. One student’s grade is independent of how well the entire class does. The simple reason I do this is to promote goodwill among the students, and to encourage collaboration (wherever appropriate).

In the collaborative aspect, I am in extremely distinguished company. In this awesome video, Sir Ken Robinson, international adviser on education in the arts talks about how the current education system stifles creativity, rather than encouraging it.

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