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.
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).
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/