Always Ahead of The Curve

The concept of grading on a curve was something that I had never encountered before starting college. When my freshman biology professor stated that the course would have a curve on the first day of class, I was utterly bewildered. What did this mean? Was the class really so difficult that students needed a curve to succeed? I soon found out that even though grading on a curve is simple as a concept – all it means is that every grade is increased in order to raise the class median to a certain value– it can lead to a highly unhealthy and competitive culture. After taking class after class graded on this system, I slowly learned to combat this culture for the sake of my own wellbeing.


    Firstly, and most importantly, I stopped comparing myself to others. The system of grading on a curve ensures that the grade you receive is not reflective of how you performed individually. Rather, your grade is a reflection of how your performance compares to those of your peers. Thus, comparing your score to the median becomes an automatic response. Making matters worse, professors often make exam score distributions widely available, thereby allowing students to analyze how their performances measure up to those of their peers. I was quickly consumed by this culture, automatically calculating how far above or below the median my scores were. However, this culture is inherently unhealthy. The more I compared myself to my peers, the more paranoid I became. If my score wasn’t well above the median, I would feel terrible about myself. If it was, I was elated. But this way of thinking rapidly took its toll on me. No one’s sense of self-worth should be determined solely by grades, and it should certainly not be determined by how one’s grades compare to those of the class. The tricky thing about curves is that losing a lot of points does not necessarily result in a poor grade if most of the class did so too, while mastering most of the material does not always guarantee a high score if the rest of the students also performed well. Therefore, now, I don’t even look at exam distributions, and don’t calculate how far my score deviates from the median. Instead, I evaluate my score based on my individual performance. I look to see where I gained the most points to understand my strengths, and search out the problem areas to determine how I can improve. Even if the class is graded on a curve, I do my best to tune out any information about my classmates’ performances. It hasn’t been easy, but once I stopped worrying about how I compare to my peers, I became a much healthier and happier student.


    Secondly, and on a similar note, I learned to stop talking about grades with peers. When people are always talking about their individual performance and how the median will affect their final scores, it’s a natural response to join in. However, I soon realized that the more I participated in these conversations, the more stressed I felt. Based on the information I received during such discussions, I began feeling like my performance was insufficient. Thus, I eventually decided to stop sharing information about grades, and stop encouraging conversations about medians and exams. Whenever someone mentions something about exams, I try to politely deflect by saying something like “I’d rather not talk about that, it stresses me out too much.” People are usually understanding, and more importantly, this deflection method has helped me to avoid unhealthy thought patterns.


    Finally, I’ve stopped praying for low medians and large curves. When classes are graded on a curve, it becomes a common belief that the lower the median, the higher the curve. In other words, one person benefits from another’s misfortune. It’s not uncommon to hear something like, “I’m really hoping for a low median,” before a final exam. This manner of thinking creates a competitive culture, in which some people are reluctant to help others out of fear that doing so will result in “too high a median.” By focusing more on my individual scores, rather than those of my peers, I’ve learned to stop worrying about how each person’s performance will affect the curve. I tell myself that “the curve is out of my hands.” I shouldn’t feel hesitant to help others out of concern that I’ll be losing something. Collaborative learning can be incredibly beneficial and helps all those who partake in it. While there will always be competitive people who don’t like helping others, I do my best to study with the people who are willing to lend each other a hand. I benefit from working with others, and I also feel better about myself when I’m helping my classmates, rather than wishing them ill-will.


    Grades will always be stressful. I’ll always feel anxious before finals, or when I’m checking my transcript at the end of the term. However, learning to be less consumed by a competitive culture of curves and medians has helped to relieve some of the pressure that I feel on a day-to-day basis. It’s also helped me to be a stronger student. Because I’m not concerned about my classmates’ grades, I can focus more on developing my individual understanding of the material. I like to think that I’m ahead of the curve, even though it’s certainly not because I’m outperforming anyone. I’m just in a place where concerns about the class median and curve can’t have an adverse impact on my mental health.