College Guide


February 15, 2013 12:31 PM The Curve

By Daniel Luzer

The academic curve, whereby student grades are determined not exclusively by their own performance, but also based on the general performance of the class itself, are mildly controversial. As one teacher explained recently of the practice “the inevitable result is that there will be students who try hard but are not rewarded, which threatens self-worth and reduces motivation to work hard. The focus of the exercise becomes the competition, rather than the appreciation of the subject matter itself.”

That’s certainly a possibility. As one class at Johns Hopkins demonstrates, however, it’s also sometimes possible for students to really game the system. According to an article Zack Budryk at Inside Higher Ed:

Since he started teaching at Johns Hopkins University in 2005, Professor Peter Frohlich has maintained a grading curve in which each class’s highest grade on the final counts as an A, with all other scores adjusted accordingly. So if a midterm is worth 40 points, and the highest actual score is 36 points, “that person gets 100 percent and everybody else gets a percentage relative to it,” said Frohlich.

But students in three of his classes, “Intermediate Programming”, “Computer Science Fundamentals,” and “Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers,” realized an interesting loophole in the policy. If no one takes the final, everyone gets an A.

And so, using social networks, they engineered it so that everyone would boycott the final examination.

“The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,” Frohlich said. “After about 20-30 minutes I would give up…. Then we all left.” The students waited outside the rooms to make sure that others honored the boycott, and were poised to go in if someone had. No one did, though.

It worked. Everyone got an A.

Frohlich explained to Budryk that his “students learned that by coming together, they can achieve something that individually they could never have done. At a school that is known (perhaps unjustly) for competitiveness I didn’t expect that reaching such an agreement was possible.”

He has, however, altered the policy. While the same basic curve rules remain, in future classes the policy will state that if everyone gets a zero everyone will, well, actually receive a zero grade. He also reserves the right to award zeros if he deduces students are trying to “game” the system.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Bill on February 15, 2013 3:28 PM:

    As a college instructor who uses curves, I am basically OK with the way this happened. I'm OK with students using clever understanding to pull off something difficult and being rewarded. Instructors are also able to change their rules with cause, or to use judgement to decide what to do in unusual circumstances.

  • Crissa on February 20, 2013 2:54 AM:

    This just in old news: Curves break when distribution isn't a bell.