When we toured Penn, we heard about the "collaborative environment" that our school supposedly fosters. I'm calling bullshit. I examined our intro classes to see what environments they were really encouraging by taking a closer look at their grading systems and talking to students. Here are my findings:
Intro Math Classes (104, 114, 240):
These curves are as confusing as the material itself. Each teacher has different midterms, but all classes take the same final, sometimes only written by one or two of the multiple teachers of the class. The proportion of students who receive an A overall is determined by how well each section’s class does on the midterm. If one section does proportionally better overall, then that section will receive more of the allocated As in the class. I felt like this grading system resulted in a high stress level from my classmates, as no one had any idea of their standing in the class until after the final. It also seemed — dare I say — unfair that the section whose professor wrote more of the final or was the better professor overall would do better in the class.
Intro Econ Classes (ECON001, BEPP250):
Econ 001 typically has no curve. However, if the professor feels that the average of an exam was unusually low, he or she has the right to curve the exam grades up. There is no downward curving if the exam average is too high. I was in this class freshman year and thought the exam policy, along with the homework and quiz grades, encouraged collaboration. I would more often than not study and do homework and share answers with my friends.
Honors Econ (BEPP250):
BEPP250 is notoriously difficult, but in order to encourage students to take the class, will give out the same amount of grade allocation as its regular counterpart. Joey Coslet (W ‘20) weighed in on this type of curve, saying: “It was a tough class, but they curved the tests to make it easier, which made it seem like you were doing poorly when you actually did well. That was nice for the grade but not really reassuring to think you don't know the material.” Curving the overall class instead of curving each midterm creates an area of guesswork when trying to determine how someone is performing in the class, adding another element of stress to the average student's life.
The curve is set up so that "the better your group performs on team assignments, the better you will perform as an individual," according to the Wharton course syllabus. The class has one final group project where team members rate how the others participated and how the team’s progress is coming. For each lecture, the teams are ranked from top to bottom; the team that comes in first gets eight As and two A–s, the next team gets A’s five A–s, etc. This means that within each team, you are more likely to get a higher grade if one of your teammates does worse comparatively, in effect encouraging your teammates to mark you low on status reports and attitude grades. “Everyone fucks each other over to get better marks," says Alexandra Lorenzotti (CW ‘20). Out of all the curves I have looked at, this one seems the most surprising. The system of how each group member could potentially boost their own score by grading others down can be easily taken advantage of by intelligent and competitive students, which this school certainly doesn't lack.
This one's another classic Wharton class, OIDD (Operations, information, and decision department). The curve stated on the OIDD101 syllabus is as follows: “3% A+, 15% A, 25% A–, 24% B+, 18% B, 9% B–, 6% C+ or lower. The average final grade in the course will approximately equal a B+.” Since homework grades count for 30% of the overall grade (as much as each midterm), Lorenzotti explained that “everyone collaborates on homework and recitations, and it means the only thing that bases the curve is the exam. If you ever do bad in homework or recitation, you're screwed.” The homework collaboration policy is generous, stating that students may share solutions as long as they submit their own work. This policy encourages students to help each other on the homework, and along with the generous curve, creates a more collaborative environment.
CIS Classes (110, 120, 160):
CIS classes are usually curved so that 30%–40% of the class gets an A– or higher (CIS110 website). Each exam is curved, and the website states that “usually” every curved exam grade will be higher than the original grade. However, in Fall 2016, students did unusually well on the final, so the final grades ended up being curved down.
This type of curving encouraged a competitive culture, as the fact that the class did well as a whole on the exam actually hurt a good majority of the students. Sierra Mills (E ‘20), a CIS major, feels that “my classes all curve down, and it's an awful competitive environment. No one ever wants to collaborate and they get all defensive about their answers.”
Alex Crane (C ‘20), who took CIS110 last year, agreed, saying, “It doesn't test how well you have mastered the subject. It tests how you compare to the class. I've gotten curved down on tests before, which is bullshit.” Another reason CIS has such a challenging curve is that many students have taken these types of classes before, or code in their free time. Mills says, “I’ve never been intimidated by a curve till this year because I’m concerned about how the smart kids determine the class grades. Especially in classes where people have taken them before, if everyone else does really well, a 95 could be a B and that makes it so I feel like I can’t make any mistakes on the tests”
Intro Science Courses (Phys, Bio, Chem):
In Physics 140, 141, 150, and 151, no curve is specified on the syllabus, but there is a statement that the curve may vary depending on the difficulty of the exams. The Physics 140/150 syllabus does state that a B usually falls in the 69–74 range, but that can also be subject to change. The Chem 101 classes also grade the class on a curve, with the only grades in the class coming from three midterms and a final, with the lowest midterm grade dropped. Intro to Biology classes are graded differently based on the professor—some have curves, some do not. Caroline McGeoch (C ‘20) took two bio classes last year, one which had a standard curve on every test, raising the average (which was around a 50%–60%) to a higher level. In the second semester, the bio course she took curved the exams so that they were out of as many points as the person who scored the best on the test (say, if a 97 was the highest grade, the test would be out of 97, not 100). She said that on average, her second course exams received much higher averages and she felt the grade better reflected her understanding of the course. Students appear to be more deterred by classes with low averages on exams, even if their resulting grade is curved up at the end of the class.
Intro Nursing Classes:
“The Nursing School doesn't have curves and it's honestly great. I don't know if it's just the Nursing School in general, but everyone always sends out study guides and helpful hints in our year–wide group chat and people are always really willing to help because they know how difficult the classes are. So I really like that we don't have curves because helping someone else learn something helps you learn it, too, and decreases the animosity in our small classes,” said Olivia Cook C ’20. Nursing courses, such as anatomy, have a reputation for being very work–heavy. However, Nursing students agree that they are able to get through the workload with the help of their peers. Not only does this create a support system, but also gives them experience with peer–to–peer collaboration.
Is It the Students Themselves?
Another aspect of what determines the environment of a classroom is the student’s attitude themselves. We all got into Penn (somehow), and it’s reasonable to say that we did really well in high school. And for most of us, we did really well because we are all highly motivated, and yes, competitive people. If you put the top 10% of students (shoutout to college rankings) in the world at one University, you're going to find classrooms full of highly competitive individuals. High school was all about competition, and this competition easily translates to college. Looking around my classes, I can see people on Handshake and LinkedIn, updating their resumes and applying for jobs and internships—and it’s barely the fourth week of school. OCR seems to rule the world when you see flocks of blazer–clad men and women every time you pass Huntsman. Taking these aspects of our student’s personalities into account, Michael Marcus (C '20) said it best: “I think that curving classes naturally causes students to be competitive with one another due to the nature of how the class works and everyone’s goals in getting high grades at Penn, but I think the true competition just comes from people's personalities and whether they tend to be more competitive or not."