UBC Grade Curving and Competition

When I talk to other students about the perceived difficulty of their courses, grade curving gets brought up a lot, especially by students in popular courses like Psychology. ´The content itself isn´t that hard, but the prof often curves the grades, so you have to study really hard if you want a good grade in this course,´ is something I heard from the mouths of many students. Grade curving is a zero-sum game system, so if you want to get a better grade, that means someone else will have to get a worse grade, which pits the students against each other as they try to outperform one another to maintain their relative superiority. This post will refrain from evaluating whether the competition created by grade curving is ´good´ or ´bad´, but will describe how various situational and individual factors influence the competition in the classroom.

According to Garcia et al., the psychological phenomenon which drives competition is social comparison and it´s various aspects, most notably comparison concerns. They propose six main factors that influence the level of competitive behavior: relevance of dimension, similarity and closeness to targets (situational factors) and proximity to standard, number of competitors and social category fault lines (individual factors). In a university setting, which is largely anonymous, us students have less tools to determine our current standing in the grade hierarchy in relation to others, because, as I noticed in the past term, nobody is exactly eager to openly flaunt their grades. Therefore, students have to rely on the communicated mean grade of the class to determine their current relative position, changing the usual social dynamics where we are familiar against whom we are competing.

Individual factors
Garcia et al.´s description of the effects of individual factors on competitiveness would suggest that students who find their class content relevant, that is, it somehow relates to how they perceive themselves, will be more motivated by the grade curving to study harder than students who are merely trying to get the credits. A course could be relevant for a student for plethora of reasons, for example it could be a prerequisite for a major the student is striving to get in, or the content could be related to the student´s passion project. But the motivation could also be unrelated to the course content itself, like if good grades are a part of a student´s self-worth, then the student would be strongly motivated by the curve grading even if they aren´t as interested in the course material itself. The similarity and closeness factor is diminished in the classroom. Most of the time, we don´t interact with our classmates much and our friends attend different lectures. So, assuming the professor´s goal is to foster competition (and therefore studying harder), they should artificially create groups of students who share a characteristic and make their relationship a closer one, to exploit the similarity and closeness effect on competition (as Machiavellian as the idea of making students work together just to pit them against each other sounds).

Situational factors
While the professor has little influence on individual factors, what they can manipulate to a degree are the situational factors. Proximity to a standard becomes an important variable. In this case, top students will be strongly motivated to get an A, a scarce resource, by outperforming everyone else. Even stronger motivation might be felt by bottom students trying to get out of those failing percentiles. However, average students might not feel much of an impact – they don´t see themselves capable enough to perform better because they would be scaled down to average anyway, instead of ´competing with themselves´ as would be the case with absolute grading. The next factor, number of competitors, suggests that the smaller the class, the fiercer the competition. Therefore, the effect of the curve grading on competition will not be as noticeable in larger classes, which is exactly where it seems to be employed the most. The final factor, social category fault lines is not something I see around UBC, where the students are so diverse that social categories almost lose meaning. One area I observed this effect in would be competition between different course sections, but if a bell curve is used, it is only within one class, therefore it is unaffected by different sections.

Whether the course instructor wants to use grade curving to motivate their students to study more is up to them, but according to Garcia et al., some ways of doing it are more effective than others. If he professor wants to exploit these mechanisms to the full, it should be done in a small class with students for whom the given subject is relevant and where they have means to compare themselves to others and are close to each other within the in-group, but can also compete with the out-group. If doing all this would be more effective than supporting cooperation between student would be more beneficial in the long run is a discussion for another time. Fiona Huang´s post provides a closer look at the individual factor of closeness that induces competition in Garcia et al,´s article but encourages altruism according to Molina et al.

Sources: Gracia et al. Psychology of Competition https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/law_faculty_scholarship/941/

Fiona Huang´s post: https://mschandorf.ca/2019/01/26/the-psychology-of-competition-a-social-comparison-perspective/


  1. Hi,

    I found it interesting how you mentioned the individual factor on the post. It made me think about how related group psychology is related to collective behaviour in fostering certain attitudes. When you mentioned how professors should group students together based on characteristics, do you think that they may express competitive behaviour or cooperative behaviour (or another alternative behaviour)?


  2. I liked your analysis and the relevance you saw in our own circles. I noticed you mentioned the exploitation of social comparison theory as a motivating factor in a competition near the end. Is it correct to assume that you approve of social comparison as a motivating factor? Where then would you draw the line between its benefits and consequences? Would this apply to everyone?


  3. I really appreciated your approach to this response, looking at one area of you life where you see competition, and exploring it through the lens of Garcia et al.’s paper! From my own experience taking some classes where most people in it where pre-med students who were used to intense scaling in their classes, I could definitely notice the insane competition between students in a way that I have never seen in other non-scaled classes. At the same time, while classes that don’t depend on the bell curve don’t have the class-specific structural incentives for competition, we have probably all been in non-scaled classes that are still quite competitive, which could be speaking to a greater structural incentive from the part of the university (I’m thinking like how in first and soemtimes second year you need to be out-performing your peers to get into certain majors, if you’re trying to get into a major that requires an application).


  4. Interesting that you are brining in grave curving to the discussion. At first glance, I didn’t really understand why you were brining it in a reference point for discussion, but you are right in that that curving can definitely alter the way that students view their peers if grades are going to be curbed. I rarely personally experienced the competitive effect of a curve in a class from the onset since a lot of professors don’t necessarily advertise if or when they will apply a curve to a test, as they don’t want to disincentive people from trying to reach the highest score possible. However, even if a bell curve is introduced as a standards grading tool, it would be interesting to consider how different types of curves can influence competition between peers and student motivation. Some use square root curves, add points, or give 100’s. Something to consider.

    You said that you didn’t really observe social fault lines at UBC because there is so much diversity on campus. That is where I have to disagree. Fault lines, particularly wealth, are incredibly present on campus. If your parents could afford to send you to private school or afford a tutor, that changes how you relate to other students and how they relate to you because you have been given and not necessarily earned a social advantage that makes you more competitive with your peers. Again, just something to consider and be more conscientious of as you go through university!


  5. Hi!
    Thanks for your response!
    I also really liked the way you brought up grade curving at UBC as I have experienced this for myself. Honestly I am a fan of the system because in order get a good mark, you need to be better than everyone else, and I think this is the crux of university. It may apply to certain courses more than others (curving a Math course to an average of 71 (where people can objectively be “right” or “wrong” versus curving an English course where each paper is compared to the rest and the best is given 100). In the former context I think Sophia’s point holds about being de-incentivized, while the latter (at least for me) would provide me with more motivation. A good example is Professor Gateman’s ECON classes, where the exams are made to not be finished, questions are long and vague, and its the students that get the furthest with the quality responses that are given the highest mark. Considering you put quotation marks around “good” and “bad” with respect to scaling, are you a fan or not? What is your value judgement?


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