Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Seth Roberts, formerly of Berkeley and now professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, decided to stop grading his students. He writes:
The more freedom I gave my students, the more difficult it became to grade them. At Tsinghua I teach a required class for freshman psychology majors called Frontiers of Psychology. There are 20-30 students. It covers recent research. For the first few years, I had students write comments on the reading. “Write something only you could write,” I said. The students struggled to figure out what that meant. I struggled to grade their answers.
Before last semester began, I had an idea: no grading. Maybe other sources of motivation, would be enough.
So what were the results?
It was the most pleasant teaching experience of my life. It was also the easiest by far, in contrast to my Berkeley colleagues’ claim that my ideas led to “too much work.” The hours I had spent every week grading homework in previous versions of the course — the part of the course I liked least — was gone. At the end of the class, I spent many hours discussing the student projects, but I enjoyed these discussions. They didn’t feel like work. The students had chosen topics they wanted to study and seemed happy to talk about what they had done. Unlike an oral exam, almost nothing was riding on what they told me and they could be proud of what they were talking about, since it was almost entirely their idea.
The students’s work was the highest quality I have ever seen. Two of their final projects might be publishable. (And these are first-semester freshmen.) It’s not my field, so I can’t be sure, but they have great inherent interest and no obvious flaws. The students seemed to like the class, too. On the final day, which happened to be Christmas, they gave me a Christmas card signed by everyone in the class. One student gave me a card separately. “Thank you,” I said. “Why did you give me this?” Among other things, she said I had high standards. Given the absence of grades, that was interesting. Maybe it came from the fact that after every presentation, I would point out something I liked and something I thought could be better. I tried to do that with all of my feedback. Another student told me, after the final class, that what I had said about “the best way to learn is to do” was, in her case, very true. She said she had learned more in my class than in all her other classes put together.
Students who are respected and trusted enough to pursue their own projects, lines of inquiry, and curiosities? A very Montaignian method of education.
Do people give you their best when they’re given the most freedom, at least within certain bounds? In a subsequent post, Seth shared this excerpt from an interview with Steven Soderbergh:
INTERVIEWER You’ve talked at length about giving actors as much freedom as possible. That’s resulted in a number of performances that have launched, revived, and revitalized careers. In the case of Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, you’re responsible for her only good film performance.
SODERBERGH It’s not that I never say no; I’m just not trying to control them. I’m looking to amplify and showcase whatever it is about them that I find compelling.
On the other hand, after reading those posts, I came across this interview with Kevin Spacey talking about being directed by David Fincher:
“Part of what I feel when he’s doing that — and I like working this way — is that, you know, he’s pushing you in a certain direction. He’s having you go in a different direction this way; he’s having you try a new meaning, a new approach to a line of dialogue in this way; and, frankly, the other truth is actors bring a lot of complicated accessories to the set. And some of those accessories are gestures, and some of those accessories are, ‘Oh, I found a kind of cute way of saying a line,’ or ‘I like the way my voice does this,’ or ‘I’m going to use this Coke can to do this.’ And I think sometimes, with David, it feels like [what] he’s looking for is the cleanest, streamlined version of the idea that the character’s trying to express. … And he’s just simply, at a certain point, beating the acting out of you. And I’m quite grateful for that.”