For two years, Assistant Professor Tim Baird has instructed his students to “skip class, do anything you want, and give yourself a grade.” It turns out the strategy promotes engagement and learning. “In our education system, grades are a primary motivation for learning, which ultimately kills passion and undermines learning,” said Baird.

Taking a lesson from “Drive,” Daniel Pink’s book about motivation, Baird told students in his second-semester sustainability course to go learn about something that fired them up, present it to the class, and then tell him how well they think they learned about their chosen topic. He called the exercise, which took place three times during the semester, “Pink Time.”

“Students pursued an incredible diversity of activities,” Baird said. “They brought their passions into the classroom and imbued them with lessons from the course. They are thinking more critically about assessment and recognize that learning takes place all the time.”

Examples of Pink Time projects included interviewing a professor about life in Appalachia, making cross-country skis from wood, mapping the social networks for “The Walking Dead” television show, and developing a mobile phone app to reduce waiting times at campus food vendors, and redesigning a double-action valve pump.

“Before beginning their Pink Time assignments, we took a draft assessment tool to the students and incorporated their feedback into the final tool. In this way, the tool was co-designed with students,” said Baird. The projects were assessed based on choice, complexity, effort, persistence, and curiosity in three categories of students’ learning: developing, competent, and exemplary.

By the third exercise, 84 percent of students reported that they were doing complex projects and 79 percent reported exhibiting exemplary curiosity. “Students pursued their interests by spending more time on them and learning about them in increasingly diverse and integrative ways,” Baird said. “There was an increased sense among the students that they were responsible for their learning and that learning occurs everywhere.”

“Self-regulated learning is an effective way to harness students’ interests and sense of themselves, and to place them within the purview of a course in a way that promotes engagement, critical thinking, and a more tightly held and personal value for education,” he concluded.