During exam time, the lives of many HUFS students revolve greatly around campus and especially the library. They stay up until early in the morning if not all night, buried in their books and cramming without a break. But the pressure does not come only as soon as exams come in sight. Throughout the whole semester, one’s performance is like an ominous cloud dampening the mood. This is especially the case for those who are graded on a relative curve. Being under constant comparison and competition amongst classmates and forced to participate in order to get that one crucial extra point, is tiring many students out.
The relative grading system was introduced in December 2014 and changed the lives of many students at HUFS. “It has brought more competition and a stricter standard for students to have a good grade. Many students were frustrated and showed a lot of complaints,” said Shin Gi-Tae, a graduate student, who has studied at HUFS since 2011 and most of whose courses are graded relatively. The new system had been implemented by the Ministry of Education in order to correct the prevalent grade inflation at HUFS and other universities. It introduced a relative grading curve, in which the number of students who can receive a certain grade is restricted. At HUFS, the relative grading curve is being applied in approximately 30 percent of the courses. On an exam in these classes, having one single point less than another student can be crucial not only to pass or fail the course, but also to achieve an A0 or A+.
Hence the struggle lies not only within the exams, but also with the requirements for courses, which are graded on the relative curve, as the number of students is restricted and the competition has become fiercer. The system is suffocating the spirit of many students. Apparently, it has become much more difficult to get a good grade, especially when there are bilingual or native students in the same course. They are at an advantage due to having a more advanced language level than many Korean students. As a result, students preferably choose classes where it seems to be easier to get good grades. But the relative grading system seems to prove the policymakers right, as this strategy has already previously overcome grade inflation at the world’s top universities. But after all, the quality of education and the future of many students are at stake.
Harvard University, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and University of Oxford are some of the most famous higher education institutes worldwide. They bear resemblance to the new system due to being based on absolute grading principles, yet to different degrees. Their main difference lies within a predefined distribution of the grades, regardless of the student’s overall performance. Whereas absolute grades show a clear distinction on the individual’s achievement, the relative curve ranks students in the same course amongst each other.
But even though the absolute grading system is more common in the top league of higher education than its relative equivalent, it is not flawless: “It judges a student’s knowledge based on key singular events that may not accurately gauge their acumen,” said Scott Bartek, an American regular student at HUFS. He and many other HUFS students feel that by being graded in the absolute system, they are measured based on individual rather than the class’ performance. Yet, he opposes the relative grading system at HUFS even more, as “it puts needless stress and pressure on the students.”
But not everyone would like to go back to absolute grading. Park Yae-Jin, a recently transferred HUFS student majoring in English Linguistics prefers relative grading: “Absolute grading is unfair because the difficulties of the tests fluctuate. The competition encouraged by the relative curve system has a positive effect on us. And good grades go to those who deserve it,” said Park. In order to solve the fairness issue, a softened relative curve could be taken into consideration to eliminate unfair factors, such as competing against bilingual or native speakers in courses conducted in English.
In the light of striving for a good reputation and international ranking, relative grading is not necessarily an obstacle. After all, Seoul National University (SNU) ranks in the Top 30 of many global rankings despite partially using relative grading as well. Furthermore, these rankings do not regard grades as a main criterion. Instead, a good university is measured on high standards in learning environment, research and its influence, international outlook and knowledge transfer. The relative grading curve does not only give a distorted image of the individual’s performance, but also does not pay tribute to these quality criteria. After all, they put heavy weight on becoming a qualified and distinct member of society rather than focusing on simple delivery of content.
Western universities put high emphasis on the aspect of fostering self-independence, interdisciplinary approaches and critical ways of thinking as well as supporting the individual strengths of their students. As the Western approach encourages shaping student’s individuality, HUFS’ main focus is more future-oriented and focuses on their contribution to society after graduation. On the main page of its international website, HUFS underlines its qualities to educate students to become creative experts, international Koreans and independent researchers who will contribute to the development and exchange of culture. A direct comparison in a global ranking does not pay tribute to these distinct values, which cannot be judged without further fine-tuned quality attributes.
Maintaining the relative grading system at HUFS might solve the grade inflation issue but it lets students pay dearly. It awakens a critical competitive spirit which has a reverse effect on students of subjects such as International Studies and English Linguistics, which are inherently linked to social competence. The phenomenon might be cured but the root of all evil is not tackled. Rather than focusing on grades which are designated as a short-time performance reference, the policy makers ought to keep the long-term impact in sight and should focus on the quality of education.
By Salome Dettwiler