Grade curving is anything but simple


There is no uniform principle for curving grades at Notre Dame.

The Rover set out to answer three key questions about the nature of grade curving at Notre Dame: First, what grade curving actually is; second, what the purpose behind grade curving is; and third, to what extent it is used in the university as a whole. The answers are far more complex than one might imagine.

Catherine Pieronek, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering, spoke to the difficulties in understanding precisely what grade curving is.

Pieronek requested that the Rover define grade curving, in response to which the reporter cited the definition put forth by Kelly Roell in her online article “What is grading on a curve?” There, Roell defines grade curving as the adjusting of grades to a pre-determined distribution of grades amongst students in a class.

“That is something that is employed (to my understanding) in Mendoza … we don’t do that in engineering,” Pieronek explained of Roell’s definition, which Pieronek said aligned more with “forced grade distribution.” Pieronek went on to note that the College of Engineering operates on a different definition of grade curving; if the class mean is a C, then one standard deviation above the mean would be a C+, one below would be a C-, and so on.

The second question about the purpose of grading on a curve was primarily addressed by Professor Thomas Stapleford of the Program of Literary Studies. Stapleford explained that one grades on a curve if “a) you believe the student body is reasonably consistent in abilities and work ethic from year to year, and b) you have a class large enough to assume that your students form a fairly representative sample of the student body as a whole.” This test has interesting implications when considered with the findings from the third question, the university-wide use of the curve.

Regarding the application of grade curving across the university as a whole, one line appeared repeatedly: Both Pieronek and Stapleford mentioned that their departments had “no formal policy” with regard to grade curving, and so “different professors do it differently.”

In addition, Stapleford was quick to point out that classes in the Program of Liberal Studies do not match criterion b) because of their small sizes, ergo there is no need to grade curve whatsoever in his department.

Thus among the Mendoza College of Business, the College of Engineering, and the Program of Liberal Studies, one supposedly uses a forced grade distribution, another grades mathematically along a bell curve, and the third does not curve at all.

The lack of formal policy in individual departments means that professors are at liberty to adjust any curves as they see fit. Seeing as there are wide varieties both within and between departments regarding the understanding and extent of grade curving, it can be said with some degree of certainty that grade curving is a fairly sporadic process at Notre Dame.

Furthermore, class size variance across departments and programs contributes to the lack of uniform policy. Stapleford said that the average PLS class size was about 25 students, while Bloomberg Businessweek reports that average class size in Mendoza is 33 students. US News and World Report: Education Colleges also points out that 11 percent of Notre Dame classes contain over 50 students.

These statistics provide a microcosm of the diverse classes at Notre Dame in terms of size and make-up, justifying a case-by-case basis for the manner in which grade curving is applied. The fact that different departments have a different approach to grade curving, and different professors within said departments mix and match, can be explained by looking at the numbers. It appears that discretion really is the better part of valour.

Dylan Stevenson forgot to submit his byline last time, and apologises for that. Tell him all is forgiven at