The Bell Curve!

When I decided to study abroad at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, one of my greatest reliefs was the pass/fail grading system to get credits. Which means that I had to just pass the class at my abroad university in order to get the equivalent course credits at Drexel. Seems exciting, right? Imagine spending a term in a foreign country and university without having to worry about your GPA. I had begun my exchange term with the similar thoughts. Because I didn’t have to worry a lot about the classes, I got involved in a credit-based research experience with a professor and also joined the Squash team and other cultural clubs on-campus. Whenever I had some quizzes or assignments for the classes, I didn’t bother to work really hard because of the passing mindset. However, the things weren’t as easy as I had expected, because of this really tricky grading system – “The Bell Curve”.

In one of my previous blogs, I had mentioned that I got to know from my local friends that most of the professors tend to “curve the classes”. When you hear the term “curve”, you would normally expect the grading to be easier for the students. And that’s what I had initially assumed. When I learnt about the “curve” system, I became more stretched back about my classes because I had assumed that the “curve” will definitely boost my grade to a some extent towards the end. However, there was an important piece of information that I missed, i.e. the “curve” was supposed to be a “Bell curve”. For those (including me), who don’t know the difference between a normal and a Bell curve, this might not seem really important. But, once I got to know more about it from the local students, I realized that if I wouldn’t have learnt about it earlier, there was a high probability that I would have at least failed one of my classes.

And that’s why I chose to write about it in my blog post. Undoubtedly, studying abroad is meant to be a fun experience, but it’s also important to at least pass and get credits for your classes. Therefore, I want to make a few clarifications that would help the aspiring students to be aware about the classes from the beginning and avoid any hassle or backfire towards the end. To begin, I would highly recommend all the aspiring students to go on the study abroad website and check the minimum grading criteria (to receive credits) for the respective universities. You might often hear that “you just need to pass the classes”, but that’s not always the case. For example, at HKUST, the marginal passing grade is D- and above, but according to the Drexel policies, you need at least C and above to get credits for the class. Which means, you don’t simply need to “pass the class”. This might seem like a trivial piece of information but there’s often a huge difference between the “passing grade” at the foreign university and the “minimum grade” to get credits. So it’s always advisable to be mindful about it.

Next, let’s see how the usual Drexel grading system is different from the “curve” systems followed by some of the foreign universities. Usually, the grading system for a particular class is decided by the professor. At Drexel, most of the professors use the “absolute grading system”. Which means, “you get what you see”. For example, if your aggregate percentage score based on the quizzes, midterms, and finals, is 85%, you would most likely end up getting a B on the class based on the typical percentage to grade mapping scale. However, if the professor feels that the class is really hard, he might decide to “curve” the class in a way that the student with the highest score gets 100 and everyone else get a grade boost based on the difference. For example, let’s assume that the class topper scored an aggregate of 93% on the class, after applying the curve, he will be at 100% and everyone else will get a 7% boost for their final grade. And this is followed by determining a grade using the typical mapping scale. Therefore, this type of a “curve” is always going to be beneficial for the students as there are always chances of your grades being boosted.

So this is the type of “curve” that I had originally assumed when I heard from the local students about the HKUST professors usually curving the class. But, that wasn’t the case as the professors usually follow the “Bell curve”. So let’s see how they are different. For calculating the grades based on the Bell curve, first the mean (average) and standard deviation based on the individual student performance in the class is calculated. Once the mean is decided, based on the difficulty of the class (which is usually determined by the professor looking at the overall performance), the students falling within “one standard deviation” around the mean are assigned a specific grade (in the range of B or C). And the remaining students are assigned higher or lower grades based on where they stand above or below the mean. This might still not seem that hard. But it’s still tricky because you can never estimate your grade and quantify your effort before the exams because your performance is largely dependent on the overall performance of the class. As majority of the students taking the class are full-time students who are really cautious about their GPA, it’s very likely that they will put a lot of effort and do well in the class. Which implies that the exchange students (us) cannot get away by doing terrible in the class. We still need to put enough efforts to be really close to the mean to at least secure the minimum grade to get credits. The primary reason to use such a grading system is to assure that everyone is putting maximum effort to score well in the class in order to get a good grade.

After learning about this system, I was initially frustrated because it required me to study relatively harder for my remaining quizzes, midterms, and finals. But I was also happy that I got to know about it early, which motivated me to start studying for my remaining quizzes and midterms. Else, as I said, there was a complete possibility that I would have continued taking my exams lightly because of the passing mindset, and would have ended up failing the class due to the Bell curve. But, this doesn’t imply that studying abroad is a stressful experience. Believe me, if you are careful about these things from the very beginning, you can plan well and manage to do well on the classes alongside all the attractive perks of being abroad. Remember, a little effort everyday would add up and help you to do decent on the classes.

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