My Uni is in Minnesota and classes started a couple weeks ago. I'm taking a class for my undergraduate degree. I knew it was going to be writing intensive from the syllabus. Every week we're going to have at minimum one short writing assignment due. In the syllabus he said we would be graded on:

  • Structure/Organization
  • Word selection and sentence structure
  • Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization
  • Content

My first two writing assignments were bad, 60% on them. His feedback was:

  • I didn't cite my sources
  • "Your grade is based on how you compare with your peers"

First of all, I didn't use any sources because they were basic questions that only required critical thinking and my opinions.

Second, is grading my work compared to my peers something that is actually done? It seems bizarre to me, I've never heard of something like this being done before. I have absolutely no control over the other people in my class. It's frustrating that in a class with 20 writing assignments, I'm getting docked points for something outside of my control.

If this wasn't such a writing intensive course I wouldn't be as upset. Is this normal to deduct points because someone subjectively wrote better than me?

  • I think the only relevant question is: what should I do to get better and learn something. It sounds to me like you are trying to shift the blame of your low score from your own performance to the professor or grading system. This is not useful. Your essays can probably improve by actually using and citing sources: this is what your professor clearly suggests. Maybe it helps to read some of the assignments of your peers (after the grading, of course) to see how they compare and what you could do differently next time.
    – Louic
    Mar 26, 2022 at 20:18

4 Answers 4


Sounds like you're in a course which is grading on a curve. The idea here is that everyone's score is going to fit a Bell curve with a predetermined mean. This means there won't be any "Christmas-comes-early" results where everyone scores A's, but also no "what-the-hell-everyone-is-failing" panic attacks either. Grade inflation is unlikely in a class that's grading on a curve, because there'll only be so many students who get A's.

If you're in a class which is grading on a curve, then yes: it's normal to "deduct points" because someone wrote better than you. "Deduct points" in inverted commas because you don't actually lose points, you just get a lower grade.

If you want to score well in such a class, you'll need to outperform your classmates.

  • I understand the idea of grading on a curve, but I've never experienced it in a subjective manner. I've never had a professor say, "I'm giving you a lower score because I feel like someone wrote better than you." It just seems odd to me but if that's a type of curved grading I guess I have to go along with it.
    – MyNameHere
    Jan 26, 2020 at 22:10
  • Agree with OP that as stated in his/her comment grading on a curve is quite bizarre. I never thought of that. And in writing or humanities this is quite difficult to cope with. In multiple choice tests about chemistry or maths would make more sense.
    – Alchimista
    Jan 27, 2020 at 8:16

There is a lot wrong with competitive grading, including grading "on the curve". It is used frequently, however.

First, every student needs and deserves to be evaluated based on what they accomplish, not on what others are able to do.

Second, a curve makes some assumption about a "class" representing a population. But that is a foolish assumption. Even a class of hundreds is a poor representative of all students. Not only is every student different, every class is going to be different. If classes are fairly small they could vary drastically from term to term. I taught for a long time. Sometimes I'd have a class where nearly everyone was beyond excellent with only a few exceptions. Other times I've had a class where everyone struggled.

If you have a group that is measured on some set of criteria, someone has to be last unless everyone scores the same. This is true even if you have a class of, say Nobel Laureates or the equivalent.

In your case, the first criticism is valid, but the second should not have been an issue. Probably there were other deficiencies. Perhaps the professor was just being lazy and didn't want to bother giving you the feedback that will help you improve.

Yes, you want to improve, but if the criteria is changing or impossible to know, then it is impossible to know when you have done enough.

It should be a principle that everyone can earn top marks and also that everyone can fail. But the instructor is responsible for giving everyone feedback that enables improvement, even if they are already at the top of the scale.

There is another issue in your specific case. You list the grading criteria from the syllabus and the comments of the professor seems to deviate from that unless competitive grading was mentioned elsewhere.

  • Grading on a curve is designed to make the feedback more impactful, except for the very top. Absolute grading does better in communicating student capabilities to other teachers and employers down the line. Grades are a social construct, I guess; the one designed to motivate people and help them flourish. But how it plays out hugely depends on the context and other forms of feedback, and the assumptions one might have about the system. "My grades should only be defined by what I do myself" is one of them.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 27, 2022 at 8:01

So if the marking scheme and the assignment instructions required sources, even simple mundane ones, then you should have included them. This is usually an exercise to get people into the practice of using and recording correctly the sources used.

The "grading against peers" is how your submission "stacked up" or compared to the other submissions. The professor was looking for certain items, which were compared to your peers. This means your peers either completed more, or possibly they completed them to a higher standard.

This means that you have to improve your performance and you should make sure you read the assignment in detail to make sure that you have a clear understanding of the items or parts that have to be submitted. One method I used was to make a list.

  • 1
    Neither the marking scheme nor the assignment stated that sources were required which is why I was confused. This is the issue, the professor's instructions were unclear and some were missing such as the required sources.
    – MyNameHere
    Jan 26, 2020 at 22:17

I think you need to ask for clarification. Does this literally mean you are being compared to the peers in your small class? Or does this mean a general comparison to what the writing of a freshman university student should normally be? I think the latter would be very common in any writing courses.

If you want to perform better, I would make an appointment and ask the professor to walk you through an A assignment and describe what it does that you need to incorporate in your future work.

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