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by Missi Patterson

For many years, I struggled with a problem in my classes. Students did very poorly on my first exam, but then did better on each successive exam. I recognize that exam one is generally a learning experience; a “getting to know you” challenge for students. When students rose to the challenge and improved on subsequent exams, I wanted to avoid having their grades adversely affected by one poor exam performance.

I thought a lot about how to mediate the effects of this problem. I instituted many different support methods, but they didn’t raise grades on the first exam to the level of the later ones. It occurred to me that students didn’t realize that they needed help until they did poorly, so they didn’t make use of the assistance I offered. They assumed that they could do well without the extra effort. After the first exam, when they had some evidence to the contrary, they seemed more interested in learning how to improve.

I considered many methods to create a curve to add points to exam one. No matter what method I tried, it occurred to me that I was basically rewarding students for no effort on their part. None of the options I’d heard of for exam curves made pedagogical sense to me. I knew that some students would attempt to “set the curve” and might be unwilling to work with or help their classmates. I wanted my classroom to foster a community of learners, not competition.

I finally came up with a method that works for me. I call it “The Collaborative Curve.” After exam one, I discuss the grade distribution and mean with the whole class. I then suggest that I don’t want poor performance on exam one to hurt them, but that I also don’t want to give free points for no effort. I explain that I will instead reward them if as a class, they do better on the next two exams.

Here’s how it works: I take the class means for exams 2 and 3, and average them to get what I call “the new mean.” I will then add as many points to the exam 1 mean as needed to make it equal to the new mean. Essentially, (exam 2 mean + exam 3 mean)/2 = exam 1 mean + CURVE. I explain that every student, no matter what their grade on any exam, will get the CURVE points added to their exam 1 score. This means that the class has a challenge. Every student in class needs to work hard and do better on the subsequent exams. If the whole class does better, the whole class benefits by having points added to their lowest exam score of the semester.

My favorite thing about this method, and the reason I call it the “collaborative curve,” is that it inspires students to work together. I tell them all – “If you did really well on exam 1, you should be motivated to help someone who didn’t do so well, because you’ll earn points for every bit they improve. If you did poorly on the exam, you now have a whole host of classmates with a vested interest in getting you do to better.” Generally, with traditional grading, students who are already excelling can’t earn points for helping others. With the collaborative curve though, even students who earned a 100 can raise that grade by helping their classmates to do better. Study groups crop up; I have people volunteering to be study leaders. I see a community forming around a common goal of doing better as a class.

The collaborative curve is something that works for my classes. Students no longer have to worry that one bad grade will drag them down. They get the “scare” of seeing what happens without good study methods, but they don’t have to drop the class because of one misstep. My stronger students learn the joy of helping others, my weaker students get the benefit of motivated peer guidance, and we all get the fun of “unveiling” the curve after exam 3. It is for this reason that I consider it one of my biggest teaching successes.