The Syms “Bell Curve” Misunderstanding
Last Wednesday, students filled the Heights Lounge for the biannual Town Hall Meeting, a highly-anticipated event. One Sy Syms School of Business student took the opportunity of the open question-and-answer session to inquire about a rumor going around in Syms classrooms all over campus—that all grading systems in Syms courses would incorporate rigid normal distributions. This system, also known as the “bell curve” in statistics, due to probability’s graphical representation, raised much anxiety among students. Dr. Moses Pava, Dean of Syms, who already held a smaller open meeting for Syms students a couple of weeks ago, was quick to dispel the concerns by reassuring the audience that would be no mandated curves. The initiative was only introduced in order to boost the academic expectations of certain classes, one of many approaches Syms has undertaken to improve its reputation and academic integrity.
In general, there are two methods of grading a class: absolute grading systems and curve grading systems. The absolute grading system, based exclusively on the marks of individual students, rewards students for their specific accomplishments. Though each person’s grade is completely independent of any other, this system can often obscure the rigor of the overall course and create a general problem of grade inflation. The curve grading system, on the other hand, looks at the class as a whole. The grades are distributed among the class through a normal distribution, where a certain percentage will receive A’s, another section of the class receives B’s, and so on.
So, how did this issue come across in Syms, and how was it misconstrued?
One afternoon, I entered one of my Syms courses to encounter a heated discussion between the professor and about twenty students. The professor was defending the decision by the administration to change the grading system at Syms to the curve system. The students, claiming that this change would be terrible, argued that it would create an atmosphere of competition and that students will not want to help each other to prepare for assignments and tests.
As the days went on, other professors continued talking about this rumored curve. They claimed they received an email reporting this new policy implementation. Some professors even told students that they disagreed with this new mandated policy.
I had the opportunity of meeting with Dean Pava. Dean Pava informed me that this rumor is completely false; there is no mandated curve being implemented. The email that the Syms professors were referencing was a group email, sent out by a committee of all Syms tenured professors who were concerned with grade inflation in specific classes in previous semesters. Specifically, Dean Pava said that there are four or five adjunct professors who consistently give out A’s to their entire class, and these classes are now known as “easy classes” for the students. To counteract this trend, the email detailed grading guidelines for the faculty, not required policy changes. The email stated, “Beginning this semester, faculty are expected to submit grades as follows: A and A- range: between 25%-40%; C+ and below: between 5% and 20%…We hope they are helpful for all Syms classes.”
The email clearly indicated that these were just suggested guidelines, not requirements, of how the grade distribution should look in order to preserve academic integrity. Dean Pava insisted that he “does not expect or want professors to lower anyone’s actual grade based on this.” His hope is that these few professors will make their tests harder so that their classes will not be seen as “easy A’s.” He even concluded his email to the faculty by stating that professors are fully permitted to diverge from these helpful guidelines. However, if they are giving out A’s to all their students, they will need to justify to the Dean why each person deserved that high grade.
This recent initiative comes on the heels of many other programs Dean Pava has been working on to improve the Sy Syms School of Business. In his own words, “I care deeply for each student and am not out to try to get anyone. I wish for every student to be as successful as he possibly can.”
Over Dean Pava’s time here so far, the school has seen tremendous growth and opportunity. While Dr. Pava has been at YU for over 20 years, he became Dean in 2011; at that time, there were 412 students enrolled in Syms and no honors program. Currently there are 575 students enrolled, with close to fifty in the honors program. In addition, Syms has since launched a very successful EMBA (Executive MBA) program, established the Leading with Meaning lecture series, and introduced new courses like Business Communications which takes the place of First Year Seminar and Business and Halacha, which factors into Syms students’ Jewish Studies requirements. Even more notably, Syms received accreditation from AACSB, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Robert Reid, executive vice-president of AACSB International, “congratulated Yeshiva University and Dean Moses Pava on earning accreditation and welcomed [Syms] into the family of AACSB-accredited business schools.” Things are certainly looking to improve for Sy Syms School of Business—no worrying necessary.
Dean Pava’s office (Belfer #408) is always open for any student with academic concerns or questions.