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Abolish the Bell Curve

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.

Image of three panelists.

Panelists Jacky Villagomez, Eric Mata, and Imran Khan. Photograph by Arthur Ortiz.

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.

What strategies do you use to help students persevere? Share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

One suggestion from the keynote speaker David Laude struck me as particularly provocative. He advised the audience to “kill the grading curve.”

Image of David Laude giving a keynote presentation.

Keynote speaker David Laude. Photograph by Arthur Ortiz.

Watch a video and download the event materials on the Teaching Commons website.

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.

Normal is a Distribution

Normal is a Distribution” by Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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.

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One Response to Abolish the Bell Curve

  1. Toni Fitzpatrick November 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    After attending the forum and reading your thoughts my mind continues to swirl with all sorts of thoughts and ideas. I find myself daydreaming about how we might find the algorithm for student success here at DePaul similar to how Laude and his colleagues developed the algorithm at UT Austin. We could learn so much about our students and better understand (and respond to) our students unique needs inside and outside our classrooms. I imagine a whole host of programs and interventions that would swiftly increase student success. Picture a student success super hero of sorts! When I stop daydreaming and begin to step back into reality I am reminded that this is what we so often do. We see a problem and we create a new program, a new initiative and hope for better. What I thought was interesting about Laude’s talk was that at the core of his remarks was a shift in his philosophy. Instead of putting himself first, he put students first. He looked at his methods for teaching and asked himself if what he had been doing for years and years made any sense when standing in the shoes of a student. From what he shared I think the answer he found over and over was no. What if we all did this? What if we all stopped and looked at our teaching methods as if we were our students? Would we be engaged in our classes the way we expect students to be? Would we be interested in the assignments? Would we be motivated to come back to class each week? Before considering any complex programs to support student success I think we could make some significant progress if we all took some time to reflect on these questions. We might find the answers as impetus for re-thinking our philosophy on teaching and learning.

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