Stoimenoff: The detriments of the Northwestern grading system


Trevor Stoimenoff, Columnist

Last quarter, while performing my weekly experiment in the physics laboratory, my lab partner and I ran into a step that was explained in a confusing way. We turned to the lab group next to us and asked them about the problem, and they gladly told us how they approached it. As we got back to work, I overheard a girl at another station telling her partner about how she refuses to help other lab groups because she is in competition with each student for grades. Her partner responded that she felt the same way, that she had even purposely answered another lab group’s question incorrectly in the past for that reason.

In my time at Northwestern, I have never been so disappointed with my peers as I was in that moment. Despite the fact that it was only two students and they by no means represent the opinions of every student at NU, I was still shocked somebody could be so aggressively competitive. However, I do understand where these two students are coming from and why they feel the way they do.

I am a biology major, meaning most of the classes I take are science-related. In every science class I have taken at NU, the professor chooses to curve the course in such a way that a certain percentage of students gets an A, a certain percentage gets a B and so on. This means grades are essentially based on the class median or mean, so everybody’s goal is to score higher than the average and therefore hope for the lowest average possible. While this makes sense on paper and works for students who don’t struggle with the sciences, it brings up the problem of competition within the classroom.

When I was touring NU a year and a half ago, the one thing that I took away from my time on campus above everything else was that the student body seemed extremely unified. The tour guides stressed that NU valued collaboration in every facet and that everybody here was always willing to help. While that might be true in other academic areas, and the majority of the time it is true, the courses that I have taken have encouraged the opposite. By grading one student on the success of others, professors are creating an environment in which students hope for the failure of their peers. Although the girls in my physics class were definitely extreme in their views and actions, they did represent one of the major flaws of the grading system.

There are many directions professors could go to fix this issue. In one course I am enrolled in this quarter, my professor sets grades in this manner: After every assignment, midterm and final exam is completed, he adjusts each grade up a certain percentage so the mean of the class is a B. This means that there are no set numbers of As, Bs and Cs, but each student’s grade is based on his or her own performance in the class. On top of this grading scheme, the professor also created weekly assignments in which we are placed in groups with four to five other students and forced to collaborate.

I am a firm believer in collaboration, and studying in groups helps immensely in learning challenging material. But with many professors’ current grading systems, students are discouraged from doing so. Does the opinion of a couple of girls in a physics lab represent the voice of every student? Certainly not. But it does bring to light the fact that the grading system encourages anti-collaborative behavior, and it cultures the thought within students’ minds that in order to succeed, they must simply outperform their peers, rather than achieve results based on their own merit. Although this style of grading may be necessary in “weed-out” classes, it contradicts the image the University presents to the world.

Trevor Stoimenoff is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].