Saved by the bell (curve)?

How normative marking schemes, a university standard, are deflating our grades and creating a hypercompetitive culture.

Let’s begin this story as all good stories begin, with ‘Once upon a time in the gulag…’

In the days of Stalin, prisoners were required to meet norms. Enemies of the people would spend up to 14 hours a day in the gulags undertaking hard physical labour, such as digging at frozen ground with primitive pickaxes (which in itself will sound like a good metaphor for anyone who has ever done a group assignment). This system helped ensure the stability of the fair Soviet state: There is nothing like diligent work to break the spirit of the bourgeoisie.

Many Australian universities have seen the value of the example set by the USSR, and have followed suit by instituting norms of their own. Much like prisoners in gulags, Australian university students are condemned to years of hard labour (often developing a dependence on goon that mirrors a Siberian love of vodka) in the pursuit of norm fulfilment. Sadly though, our norms do not refer to potato yields, but rather to something far less inspiring: The bell curve.

Grading to a bell curve results from the practice of norm-referenced grading, in which a class of students’ grades are arranged along a normal distribution. This creates a bell curve, referring to the visual manifestation of such an arrangement on a graph – the majority of us unceremoniously dumped in the centre around a credit like broken down Ladas, with a few outliers on either side.

The most pernicious effect of this is grade deflation: The need to comply with a normal grade distribution means that the number of students who can receive high marks is limited, resulting in the students being ‘curved down’. That is, your grade does not reflect your grasp of the subject content so much as the demands of mathematics. With regard to the student experience, this results in a hypercompetitive culture, turning exam time into a competition of even more epic proportions than the Space Race. Everyone wants to be Yuri Gagarin, but most students end up more like Laika the dog – doing something incredible, but not in the best condition at the end of it…

Normative marking schemes lack a logical basis: To the extent that normative marking has any validity, it assumes a sample drawn from the general population in order to achieve a normal distribution. But, like the population of East Germany (see, for example, 409 medals won over five Summer Olympic Games, far out of proportion to its population of 17 million), Australian university students are no normal group.

Marking to a bell curve can have the consequence that … students in a class (who) meet the standard for a High Distinction … (can) be unfairly scaled down to a Distinction.

As we know, different universities set different admission standards, so the results in any subject at any university cannot produce a normal distribution (except in a hypothetical university the composition of whose student population mirrored exactly the range of abilities in that particular course nationwide). However, in a university which has a high admission standard (consider the fact that most law degrees require an ATAR above 97) the population is not generalised. Rather, it is a select population drawn from the upper ranges of the general population, and so placing students on a normal curve is statistically invalid, because such a sample group should achieve better results than the general population.

The real issue with the manner in which Australian universities have implemented Soviet policy is that they have forgotten about the value of Stakhanovites. The Stakhanovites were workers who modelled themselves after Alexey Stakhanov, who in true Soviet fairy tale fashion mined 102 tonnes of coal in less than six hours – this equated to 14 times his norm. Regrettably, it is unlikely that our hero ever actually existed, but the point stands: If universities are so rigid in applying a norm-based marking scheme, they deny the fact that among the workers, there are some exceptional individuals, whose ability to achieve success beyond their norm should not be denied. In addition, in the USSR exceeding one’s norms could result in early release – for students, the implication of normative marking may be repeating a subject. When the gulag is looking more just than your institution, you know something’s wrong. And at least the zeks (gulag inmates) weren’t paying to be there.

Furthermore, normative marking is ethically wrong. Marking to a bell curve can have the consequence that if, objectively, 20 students in a class meet the standard for a High Distinction but the normal distribution for a class of that size dictates that only 15 should receive that grade, the remaining five will be unfairly scaled down to a Distinction. That’s about as good for morale as the Siege of Stalingrad.

Finally, there is a point to be made about competitiveness: Universities make a big song and dance about encouraging cooperative peer-to-peer learning, but normative marking has the effect of pitting students against one another. When our marks are going to be arranged along a bell curve, we become rivals, and there is therefore a disincentive for us to cooperate and assist one another. In the gulags, this had the effect of discouraging prisoners from helping another prisoner who fell down from fatigue: When you need to meet your norm for Stalin, there’s no time for stallin’. By contrast, criterion-based marking pits all the students against the subject content, so to speak, and by helping another student master the course, we don’t diminish our own chances of learning. Rather than taking an ice pick to the back of a fellow student’s head, we are encouraged to share our criminal law notes and help comrades in need.

Criterion-based marking pits all the students against the subject content, so to speak, and by helping another student master the course, we don’t diminish our own chances of learning.

So in the face of the nigh on imperialist tendencies of university marking schemes, what are students to do? Inspiration can still be taken from the USSR: In 1954, the zeks revolted against the norms and their working conditions, resulting in 500,000 former zeks being rehabilitated or pardoned. While I don’t suggest that the students of USyd attack Comrade Spence, or that the fine workers of ANU storm the Chancellery, we should recognise that try as our leaders might, we students are the ones holding the hammers and sickles, and it may be time to revolt.

So, holding my farming tool of choice and with only a year left of my own five-year plan (undertaking a Bachelor of Law is startlingly similar to living under Stalin), I wonder then, what would a move away from normative marking look like? For inspiration, we can turn our eyes to universities such as Charles Sturt University, which has adopted criterion-based marking schemes, seeing as normative based marking is about as fair as Romanov rule.

Criterion-based marking requires markers to evaluate students’ work against a set of content requirements, rather than against the performance of other students. On their website, CSU states that criterion-based marking has the result that ‘Judgment is untainted by prior performance and is independent of how other students perform in the same task’ and ‘builds a student’s capacity for judging and identifying high quality work’: If anything, this should ease a lot of pain for lecturers, who will be subjected to fewer student complaints, and achieve better learning outcomes.

Criterion-based marking is increasingly taking root. Following years of valid complaint from students, the ANU College of Law is currently undergoing some reform of its marking schemes. Recently, the ANU CoL Associate Dean (Education), Vivien Holmes, disseminated an email to ANU law students stating that the ANU CoL Grading Distribution Policy has been suspended while a new scaling policy is developed. The interim policy will purportedly encourage lecturers to mark using the whole marking scale, and ‘ensure that there is an appropriate spread of grades’.  Maybe it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘bread and peace’, but ‘fair marking and responsive deans’ sounds pretty good to me.  

Overall, however, it is perhaps pertinent to note that it is in the best interests of universities themselves to change their marking schemes: By retaining unfair marking schemes, universities cultivate educational communities which are more Potemkin village than academic haven. Such schemes only serve to deceive students, employers, and universities as to the worth and skill of graduates. And that kind of deception simply smacks of capitalist propaganda.

Elizabeth Harris is studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Honours) at the Australian National University.

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