Skipping class

Tim Baird, an assistant professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, teaches courses on sustainability and environmental conservation.


You're letting students skip class, pick their own projects, and assign their own grades?

Yes, that's right. And it's working beautifully.

Tim Barid

It seems crazy, doesn't it? Skip class? Do anything? Grade yourself? Let me explain. First, think about the times when your kid did really amazing, beautiful things. In these moments, was she simply following directions, doing what she was told? Or was she taking the initiative and leading herself? Now think of your own life. When did you really shine? And were you in the driver's seat, or was someone else?

In higher education, we have many "follow the rules" moments when professors steer the ship. We decide the courses for the curriculum, the content for the courses, the methods of instruction, and the structure of the exams—and ultimately we assign the grades. And in this environment, where success is frequently defined in terms of grades, following the rules is a winning strategy. But when grades become a student's strongest motivator, the motive to learn becomes secondary. We have research on this, and it's concerning.

So how can I flip the table? What can I do in my classes to refocus on the learning, to undermine the follower mentality, and to encourage students to lead themselves? Around the time I started asking these questions, I found Daniel Pink's book, "Drive." In it, he describes how economists and psychologists have found that incentives (such as grades) can lead to reduced performance, especially for complicated tasks. I was convinced, so, I created Pink Time.

Now, three times a semester in my Seeking Sustainability II course, we "skip class." Students take the time they would normally spend prepping for and attending class to do anything they want—literally. The following class period, we get together in small groups to discuss their activities and tie the activities into the course material. Also, with the help of David Kniola, a visiting assistant professor in educational research and evaluation, I have students write a bit about their experience: how complex their activity was, how much time they spent on it, whether it challenged them, and whether their curiosity grew. Then they assign their own grade—and they don't all give themselves A's.

With Pink Time, I don't lead students; they lead themselves. Through activities like conducting experiments, building prototypes, drafting designs, interviewing others, and volunteering, my students have brought richly diverse ideas, experiences, and feelings into our classes. They've taken charge of their own learning and drawn connections between their lives, our course, their other courses, and the wider world. And they've had fun. Really, they've done some amazing, beautiful stuff. You'd be proud.

Learn more about the Pink Time projects →