Not Curving Grades, But “Smoothing the Edges”

I don’t curve course grades; rather, I review every student’s grades one by one in a process I call “smoothing the edges.” I first check to see if the student’s grade is on a cut line, such as 89.9%. I almost always round up and can count on barely two wings the instances where I left a grade tantalizingly and sadly close to the next grade. The common culprit? Not turning in assignments. As in, “if I don’t turn in this paper worth a letter grade, I can still get a B.” I can’t in good conscience reward missing work with a higher grade.

I try to prevent this, though, by reaching out to all students with missing assignments to ensure they get the grade they deserve rather than a grade they’re settling for. I’ll even file grade changes for proactive students and send reminders months later.

Next, I check for three patterns: sustained performance over time, increasing effort over time (low initial grades but finishing strong), and decreasing effort over time (losing steam and/or giving up). Don’t worry–final grading isn’t the first and only time that I look for decreasing effort. Working with these students throughout the semester almost always prevents this pattern from happening.

Finally, I ensure that a single poor assignment grade isn’t dragging down their entire grade. Just this morning I noticed a student who recieved an A on all but one assignment. For whatever reason, the student didn’t perform well on a single major assignment, which brought their entire grade down to a B+. I “smoothed out the edge” and gave them the A.

Returning to the three patterns, the “one bad assignment” is typically random with sustained performers and early in the semester with increasing effort performers. If my mentoring works, decreasing effort students find their center and recover strong. Think a V-shaped pattern: seemingly at the ropes like a prize fighter, getting a talk from coach, and rising to the challenge again. I’ve certainly been there, so I’m always ready with a pep talk.

My nap after submitting grades earlier today was glorious–and I napped with confidence in my students!

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