At last week’s Fall Forum on Teaching and Learning, faculty, staff, and students gathered to identify strategies for helping students—particularly DePaul’s large population of first-generation and low-income students—persevere and succeed in college.
Jacky Villagomez, a student in Business at DePaul and a speaker on the afternoon panel, suggested that all professors, not just ones teaching first-year courses, incorporate team-building activities into their classes to create a sense of community among students. Another panelist, Imran Khan, who is a former teacher at Harper High School in Chicago and currently the CEO of Embarc, recommended that professors take time to simply ask students, “How are things going?”
Other participants suggested identifying themselves as first-generation students on the first day of class, encouraging students to see themselves as scholars first, referring students to support services on campus, and understanding that many first-generation students’ families put pressure on them to leave school and return home.
One suggestion from the keynote speaker David Laude struck me as particularly provocative. He advised the audience to “kill the grading curve.”
Laude, whose success at UT Austin in closing the graduation gap for first-generation students was featured recently in The New York Times Magazine, argued in his keynote that educators should move away from a “macroscopic” view of students, which understands them in terms of predictable patterns of performance, to a “microscopic” one that considers each student individually. Laude said that his goal is to have every single one of the 500 students in his introductory chemistry course earn an A. His strategy isn’t to lower standards, but to develop ways to improve his teaching so that every student will achieve success. And so far Laude has made some progress. He’s already doubled the amount of A’s earned in his course.
As a writing instructor, I don’t give exams and have never shifted student grades so that they fall on a curve. But implicit in the notion of the bell curve is the assumption that in every course a few students will get A’s, most students will be about average, and some will fail. Taking a step back, I realize that this assumption has colored my interactions with students and conversations I’ve had with other teachers.
In their critique of bell-curve thinking, teacher education specialists Lynn Fendler and Irfan Muzaffar argue that the idea of the bell curve has no place in democratic education because it “guarantees failure” for certain students and perpetuates social inequalities. But perhaps even more importantly, they say, the bell curve (or normal distribution) is not a “representation of things in nature.” This is an important distinction because many arguments against bell-curve thinking focus on its ethical implications while still continuing to naturalize the ideal of normal distribution in education and in society more broadly.
Fendler and Muzaffar’s claim that normal distribution does not accurately describe human performance was corroborated by a 2012 study that examined the performance of over 630,000 employees working in five different industries. The study’s findings suggest that individual performance is better described by power law (or Paretian) distribution. Unlike normal distribution, power law distribution does not assume that the curve is equal on either side of the mean and can therefore accommodate infinite variance and greater extremes. In other words, power law distribution can accommodate a situation where every student in the class earns an A.
As one Forum participant pointed out in a question to David Laude, the material realities of limited time and resources sometimes keep us from doing more for our students. However, abolishing bell-curve thinking and reframing our perspective on failure will better prepare us to facilitate the success of every student in our classroom.