Introduction to College Grading Curves

August 09, 2017

98% accuracy may not be a realistic goal in college; luckily, professors may use curves to save your 68% from destroying your GPA.

As a high school student, you are probably accustomed to raw scores being final scores on exams and in course averages. Perhaps your overall GPA is even reported as a percentage. However, in college, there is often a “curve” that alters raw scores into more palatable final scores.

Curves are usually assigned in one of two places: either on individual assignments, or at the end of the course. If individual assignments are curved, it is similar to the entire course being curved in that your raw score will not be the same as your final score. However, the two types of calculations may yield different final letter grades depending on individual and class performance. 

Why are curves used? Well, they’re meant to normalize grades in order to adhere to some standard of grading. For example, perhaps a university or specific department aims for a certain grade distribution (e.g. 20% A-range, 30% B-range, 20% C-range, 30% D and below), or a certain average grade (e.g. the average student received a B- in the course). This standardization is meant to control grade inflation or grade deflation (such that not all students will fail the course, or ace the course based on their raw scores). 

However, sometimes curves or scales are predetermined, and thus don’t force students to compete directly against one another. If, for example, the course syllabus says that a raw average of 70% or above correlates to an A grade, your performance alone will stipulate your final grade. However, if the syllabus says that the 70th percentile and above will receive an A grade, then your final grade assignment is contingent on your performance relative to your classmates. Such courses are often more competitive, and students are forced to project their grades by benchmarking against class statistics like mean and standard deviation. Sometimes, grade distributions on individual assignments will be released intermittently to help students forecast how they are performing in the course.

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