Thursday morning, professor Tim Baird and Dr. David Kniola held a presentation on a new, alternative style of teaching as part of Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center.
“This is my premise: students aren’t motivated to learn,” said Baird, an assistant professor for geography. “They do a lot of learning, but that’s not their primary motivation. They do the work we ask them to do because they’re shooting for a particular grade.”
Baird found a way around this dilemma by developing a new teaching strategy that he calls “Pink Time,” based on Daniel H. Pink’s bestselling work “Drive.”
Baird assigns his students to skip class three times a semester. While skipping class, students spend the time doing something they want. The next day in class, each student stands in the front of the classroom and explains what they did, as well as assigning themselves a grade.
“One thing you’d imagine was that there would be a little bit of fear and uncertainty,” Baird said.
Many students used their first Pink Time doing what they thought Baird wanted them to do – researching sustainability and making PowerPoint reports.
“The hardest part of the assignment is doing what you love,” Baird said.
However, some students utilized the extra time to pursue their passions.
“I wanted to design an app that told you in real-time what the line-wait time was,” said Neill Frazier, a sophomore applied economic management major. “I hired a friend to collect pieces of data every 15 minutes. How long it took people to get through the line, how long the line was, generally how busy did the dining hall look?”
Other students pursued a wide variety of passions, ranging from developing a mobile app, writing contemporary guitar songs based off of traditional hymns and diagramming all the characters from "The Walking Dead" according to the social network theory taught in class.
At first, Baird conducted the Pink Time classroom experiment on his own. He quickly realized that he needed to bring in a professional to help gather useful data to better assess the affectivity of the program.
“What we did was try to collect some quantitative data,” said David Kniola, assistant director of the Office of Assessment and Evaluation. He expressed the importance of quantifying responses from surveys and interviews.
“When we work on a project like this, hearing the stories is critical,” Kniola said.
Following the presentation conducted by Baird and Kniola, former Pink Time students opened the floor for questions from the audience.
Some students were initially hesitant to try something ambitious with their free time, but started to branch out as they moved beyond their first Pink Time assignment. Joe Tise, a junior psychology major, noticed this progression in his own Pink Time projects.
“The first Pink Time, my project was to learn how to tie a bow tie - not exactly the most complex project. I’m still proud of it, because I learned a valuable skill, but compared to the others I was like eh, maybe I can do more,” Tise said.
In subsequent Pink Time assignments, Tise conducted data-driven surveys of students in dining halls. After noticing a large number of classmates spending their class time surfing the internet, he gathered student feedback on questions such as “Are you a good student?” and “What makes you a good student?”
“That kind of fired me up,” he said. “That’s one of the things the (Pink Time) professors try to get us to do, get fired up.”
Baird teaches a two semester long course on sustainability. Many students take the class voluntarily, even if it is not an explicitly required course for their major.
Junior mechanical engineering major, Brooke Baugher, took the class for general education credit, going in with few expectations about the course.
“I came to this class as a random, spur-of-the-moment kind of thing,” Baugher said.
However, she ended up thoroughly enjoying Baird’s unconventional methods.
“To balance out all my engineering courses, it was great to have a block of time set aside to do what I wanted to do,” Baugher said.
Pink Time has become so popular that it has been implemented in other classes at Virginia Tech, also in a doctoral class at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Kniola introduced Pink Time to 15 Master’s students at Virginia Tech, and received tremendous feedback.
“After this class was done, every one of the students asked, ‘When are you teaching again, and when is the next Pink Time?’” he said.
Despite Baird’s sustainability class being a 1000-level course, it’s filled with students of all years.
“This has been a lot of fun for me,” Baird said. “If we’re going to try something new, why don’t we try something big?”