Rethink grading on bell curve

Students doing work at Kwa Geok Choo Law Library in Singapore Management University’s law school building.
Students doing work at Kwa Geok Choo Law Library in Singapore Management University’s law school building.PHOTO: ST FILE

I stand by Professor Stefano Harney's grading pedagogy in a recent episode at the Singapore Management University (SMU reviews grades after don gives A to all students, May 25).

There is nothing inherently wrong in giving a whole class an A grade if the students are deserving of it. After all, aren't grades an indication of one's performance in a particular subject?

SMU, in its statement, seems to assume that a variation of work quality must mean a variation of scores or grades.

Such an assumption may not always stand. For a humanities-based "soft" module, whether or not a piece of work is of quality may be subjective.

Moreover, if someone of Prof Harney's calibre - one with qualifications from elite universities - is applying such grading, I trust his pedagogical and professional reasons to do so. Though I feel that he should have done this consistently, if he stood by his pedagogy, and not only when his tenure was ending.

Some autonomous universities often grade on a bell curve, where a fixed proportion of students will attain particular grades. This is also the same for our national exams at the primary, secondary and junior college levels.

This incident has shown that a review of the grading regime is timely.

The bell curve grading system, unfortunately, seems to promote a zero-sum game.

To attain a good grade, the individual must do better than his or her counterparts. Such a regime is unhealthy as it promotes a dog-eat-dog learning culture, something that society and the Government have pledged to alleviate in recent years.

I am an undergraduate on an exchange plan in Uppsala, Sweden. The bell-curve grading system is not used here and students are given absolute grades that reflect their actual performance.

As a result, I observe that students here are more helpful and forthcoming towards their peers in terms of sharing of knowledge, very unlike in Singapore where students do not help because they fear that their peers might eventually do better than them.

Other countries have shown that their education systems still run smoothly even when a bell curve is not used for grading.

As long as the zero-sum grading regime exists, any reforms in education will do little to alleviate the overly competitive learning environment, and make it difficult to inculcate the joy of learning.

Sean Lim Wei Xin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2019, with the headline 'Rethink grading on bell curve'. Print Edition | Subscribe