No Grades, No Glory?

Cover of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle M...
Cover via Amazon

Very interesting article here by Matt Welsh (Google Engineer and ex-Harvard professor) on whether the university system is obsoleted by the proliferation of free and very high quality courses.  He has three major points, all valid and one of them I found strikingly similar to an idea proposed in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  This is the idea of grade-less courses.

Pirsig describes the current university system as “grade-motivated” not “knowledge-motivated” and Matt makes the argument that it would not be fair, in today’s system, if all the students received an A as it would not discriminate amongst the students.  Assuming, of course, that all the students learned the material equally enough.  How would an external entity then know who was the “best” student?  Yet there are grade-free universities, and have been for some time.  Two randomly selected programs are St. John’s University in Annapolis, MD and Yale Medical School.  In Yale’s case, I think the idea is that removing the anxiety over constant performance measurements (tests) and stress over fluctuations in G.P.A., enables the student with the freedom to actually learn the material and study for study sake.  Plus, medical students have to pass the board exam anyway so what to do in the case where a student passes all the university’s test but fails the boards?

With online courses there are many different course offering in multiple disciplines, but I feel that those courses which are computer science related seem to be the most successful, as evidenced by the 160,000 students that completed the intro to ai class.  (Although this could be familiarity bias on my part).  Most self-respecting hackers have the zen-like quality of a “beginner mind” and a desire to keep learning, even if the topic is not computer related.  Maybe it’s hacker ethos, but it could be that the classes are free 🙂  So take a free course on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I would love to see one), but don’t forget to buy the book!

4 thoughts on “No Grades, No Glory?

  1. In a way traditional college is becoming outdated as potential students have just as much if not more access to information outside of school. I’ve recently started going back to college and I don’t feel as though I’m learning anything. I feel that all I’m doing is slogging towards a degree.
    That being said traditional colleges are still important as a way to show employers that one can earn a degree.

    1. Yes, and that’s why I think the “university revolution” will be (is) slow to fruition. At the moment, I think such online courses are a complement to traditional education, but they are not quite mature enough to replace it. It’s a problem of established metrics. Jobs want to see a degree in X just like colleges want to see an average SAT score of Y. This is why Phaedrus (in ZAMM) was frustrated with his university; the program lacked quality.

      I think this is also why I switched from a master’s in engineering management, where I only need 6 more classes but I couldn’t motivate myself to take the classes, back to computer science where I actually enjoy the material, but had to take 15 classes.

  2. Josh,

    Great blog; I enjoyed reading it and look forward to future posts! I read ZAMM over 15 years ago and don’t remember that much about it, but I’m sure I’d get a lot more out of it if I re-read it. I remember thinking Phaedreus frustrated about “quality” in his university was pretty self-entitled and immature thought. Maybe he was a genius and smarter than everyone else, but the more I progress in medical education (finally reaching the end in Fellowship), the more I respect the wisdom of those with more experience than me. For example, I’ll think I may know the best way to treat a patient and disagree with the way the 60ish year old surgeon approaches it (in an old fashioned way), but more often than not it turns out he knows so much more than I do and he is right.

    The system that exists right now for university (grades, classes, etc) are the best system for me. I’m not sure that gradeless system would work *for me*. If all I had to do was show up for lecture, or go through a series of online lectures and discussions, I don’t think I’d be motivated in the same way as if I had to know the material for a graded format. Pure pursuit of knowledge is great, but a graded university system made me the best scholar I could be – a self-motivated system would not work *for me*. However, I’m wondering what type of person an online gradeless system would work for.

    In any case, thanks for the thought provoking posts and I enjoyed your links. Congrats on the choice of the computer science masters degree instead of the engineering management! Hope to see you and Farrah soon!

    Take care,

    1. The subtle message behind the removing of grades is that I didn’t say to remove all “evaluations,” which is an euphemism for grades. In an quantitative field where there is a correct answer, there is a feedback system. Math and Engineering fields have a leg up here. There are certain truths that the student can check his/her answer against and if 70% of those questions are correct, well how is that not a grade? Personally, I find qualitative classes a bit more frustrating for this reason. One week, a paper is an ‘A’ the next a ‘B.’ In these cases, I question what the grade really telling you? I know this Yale Medical School alum who is very competitive when it comes to grades, so the idea of not having grades took some getting used to. But this person would agree you and prefers the systems as it is today. That is why I’m OK with Yale Medical School doctors not taking tests while at Yale, since they still have to pass their boards 😉

      I think your point about the experience of the surgeon speaks to the success of the master / apprentice model learning a skill. Start with a solid academic background and through *years* of apprenticeship (internship/residency/fellowship) you’ve finally moved your way up through the Medical guild. It’s good to know some things stuck since the Middle Ages…

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