By: Brian Snow  | 

Education: A Zero Sum Game

My first class in Yeshiva University started off about exactly the way you would it expect it too.  The Professor came into class, sat down, and spent a very tedious class period going through the whole syllabus cover to cover. Most of it was the standard information regarding the attendance policy and how many tests/paper we would have to complete in this class. However there was one thing in particular that caught my attention. When the professor reached the section in the syllabus discussing the class grading policy the professor mentioned that there would likely be around a certain number of A’s, a certain number of B’s and a certain number of C’s. In other words my fellow classmates and I were going to be graded on a curve in reference to each other.

Now you might be thinking that this is no big deal. In fact many people would argue that it makes sense to grade on a curve. Not only does a curve create a certain competitive element which pushes students to do their very best, but it recognizes the reality that some students understand course material better than others. Don’t those students deserve to be rewarded for being at the top of the class?  Additionally many people would argue that in order for students to be trained for the competitive “real” world they need to start being trained now, while in college, learning how to deal with competitive situations.

Notwithstanding these positive elements, there is a tremendous downside that comes along with a curve. One of the biggest challenges that I had coming in to YU was adjusting to the cutthroat atmosphere that existed in some of my classes-- like this one--where the students were graded on a curve.  Everybody in the class knew that only a certain amount of people would get an A, so whenever I heard that somebody else in the class did well on an essay there was always at least a small part of me which was unhappy with their success.  Their success meant my potential failure.  This can have a potential ripple effect, leading to students not sharing notes, not assisting each other with essays, and can even possibly create animosity between fellow classmates.

The good news is that there is another model. In many classes that I have taken in Yeshiva University, the students are actually not graded on a curve. Rather each student gets the grade that they earn and deserve based on their level of mastery of the course materials.  In these classes, I have found that I rarely have trouble borrowing the notes of another student if I need them. When the students are not rated against each other, they are much more open to assisting each other and to collaborating together on projects.  

Both education and “real” life do not need to be a zero sum game. Rather than focusing on preparing students for the competitive world out there, we should turn our attention to educating the student body on the value of collaboration and working together so that when they actually go out into the “real” world they will not only be focused on getting ahead by themselves but they will actually be open to working together with other people in order to make significant contributions when possible.