I'm a student with the Open University in the UK, recently due to industrial action my tutors are no longer marking our essays with scores, they now only put comments on them. Personally I prefer this. I find myself feeling motivated to higher levels, and without the scores I cannot gauge what my average is, meaning that each essay is important to me. Initially this was because I didn't want to receive a bad comment, hence a bad score, but now it's because I am so much more absorbed in my subject. But other students don't feel the same, they feel as if it's their right to know their scores, after all, what is a degree if it isn't one massive score. I've decided that those of us who are enjoying the way things currently are, without scores are at University for the pursuit of knowledge. While those who do not like it are at University in pursuit of a degree. Two very different things. My question is, with this in mind, Do you agree that Universities would become better learning establishments,...

Grading at least some of students' work is probably unavoidable, but comments are essential. I've become fond of the British system of separating teaching from assessment. At Cambridge University, where I work, this means that the weekly philosophy essay that undergraduates write for their supervisions (tutorials) receives extensive comments and is the basis for extended discussion between the student and the supervisor, but the essay is not graded. The student's grade is based rather on tests and extended essays (both types of excercise submitted anonymously), and the grading is done by a board of examiners. Some students who come into this system find it disconcerting: since their examiner is in general not their supervisor, they are nervous that they won't know exactly what the examiner wants to read. But that may be no bad thing, and the system gives students plenty of feedback and separates this from the grade. Since your supervisor is not your examiner, your relationship with her can be...

I have read, recently, that it is better for a student of philosophy to have completely mastered the secondary literature before moving on to the primary. Is this really the best approach to a philosophical text?

Philosophy differs from physics in this respect. If you want to learn physics, you pretty much have to start with textbooks. Indeed you may well complete an undergraduate major in physics without ever reading a research paper. But philosophy is a deep-end-first subject. The text you are reading in your freshman course may be the same text your teacher is focusing on for her research. That is one of the neat things about the subject. Of course not just any primary source is a good place to start: Kant can wait. But anyone with decent reading skills could do a lot worse than start their philosophical career by reading Plato's Meno or Descartes' Meditations or Hume's Inquiry concerning Human Understanding.

I'm in year 11 and obviously heading to my HSC and there are so many people expecting so much from me, but I don't know if I can live up to them. Since I'm the youngest in my family and my brothers and sisters never got into university, my mother hopes to raise atleast one child of hers makes it to uni. I could do what I like doing and live a happy life but it means not making it to uni. Can you please give me some suggestions on what to do. From Daniel H.

Daniel, university is not the be all and end all of life, but I think it is well worthwhile. There are three obvious benefits. The first is that it is a lot of fun. The second is that it is a mind-expanding experience, and that is something that most people value for the rest of their lives. The third is that it gives you many more options for your future. Being a university teacher, I may be biased, but I also see how much students are getting out of their university experience. I say go for it.

How do you teach somebody how to learn something?

Someone who didn't know how to learn anything could not be taught anything. So for people to be teachable, they must already have some ability to learn, an ability that was not taught to them. But that doesn't mean that people can't be taught to learn various things, just that unless people already know how to learn some things, they won't be able to learn other things. By the way, in the Meno, Plato's fabulous dialogue, Socrates seems to accept that learning as normally understood really is impossible, because you either already know the thing, in which case you aren't learning it, or you wouldn't recognise it even if you came across it, and so wouldn't learn it either. His view is that what we call learning is really recollection.