Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What is your ideal class average?

Let's pretend you care about class average.

What is your ideal class average?

Don't think about it too much, just shout out your ideal class average.

If you said anything less than 100% or an A, then I fear you are grading either consciously, unconsciously or subconsciously on a bell curve. If your ideal class average is less than a perfect score than I fear that success in your class is artificially and arbitrarily scarce. 

A common rebuttal I get to this discussion goes like this:
No class of students will ever get a class average of 100% because human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I like to say:
Reflecting upon one's beliefs can be a very productive use of time, and I can think of no better time to do so than when we have come to mindlessly accept something as a given truth. When questions are no longer answered because questions are no longer being asked, it's time to pause and reflect.
I've also used this Mark Twain quote:
It ain't what we don't know that get's us in trouble, but what we know for sure that just ain't so.
For a great read on why we need to rethink the bell-shaped, normal curve, I suggest you read The Myth of the Normal Curve. From the book flap:

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.


  1. Joe, I discuss the bell curve, at length, in my forthcoming book. As the excerpt you share suggests, the bell curve is something that is accepted as the norm in education. It is the product of homework, worksheets, testing, grades and other traditional methods that don't help students learn.

    Those who know how to play the game land on what's perceived to be the acceptable end of the curve, while those who struggle -- primarily students from poverty -- typically land some place else.

    If we have to be in the grade world, I suggest teachers flatten the bell curve with self-evaluation and narrative feedback. This is the only way to produce that 100 percent achievement level you discuss in the opening of your post.

  2. A class average of 100% pretty much means that everybody got 100% (assuming you aren't giving out marks >100%)

  3. I took a Poli Sci class in college where I learned nothing. Class grades were based on 2 tests, both of which were incomprehensible. I got fewer than half of the questions correct on either test, but got the most correct answers in the class. It was graded on a Bell curve, so I received a 100% in the class, having learned next to nothing. I've known since then that the Bell curve is at best a misguided idea.

  4. This really hit home for me as I was taking an ethics class as part of my Masters. The prof walked in one day, looking quite depressed, and said that he had just come from a meeting with the Dean and that he now had to impose a bell curve on our marks. Talk about an outcry. The main comment was that we were already a group of very bright students and how could they then abritrarily require that a certain percentage fail. After letting us go on for a while, he told us that it was just an activity to get us thinking aobut the ethics of how we mark/grade our students. It was a very powerful lesson for all of us.