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What the Best College Teachers Do
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What the Best College Teachers Do

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  613 ratings  ·  107 reviews

What makes a great teacher great? Who are the professors students remember long after graduation? This book, the conclusion of a fifteen-year study of nearly one hundred college teachers in a wide variety of fields and universities, offers valuable answers for all educators.

The short answer is--it's not what teachers do, it's what they understand. Lesson plans and lectu

Hardcover, 207 pages
Published April 30th 2004 by Harvard University Press
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This book covers almost exactly the same ground as The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life without, fortunately, Parker Palmer's cloying woo-wooness. As with The Courage to Teach, it raised lots of interesting questions in terms of what I teach and how I think about teaching (and assessments and evaluations). Unfortunately, also like The Courage to Teach, it was a little vague on the details. While broad concepts were illustrated with touching and fascinating anec...more
Much of the content is about convincing you to adopt the mindset of a good teachers: You should be interested in the students' understanding, not just in getting them to regurgitate facts or plug & chug formulas. You should be patient with learners of different types and levels. Assessments for the sake of getting feedback should be frequent and separate from assessments for the sake of labeling the student with a final grade. You want the students to become able to learn independently, so t...more
Geoffrey Benn
“What the Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain, is the result of a 15 year study of exceptional college teachers from around the United States. Bain and his colleagues identified outstanding teachers through a process that considered student evaluations, recommendations from other teachers, and in-person interviews and observations. Sixty-three teachers from a wide variety of disciplines and institutions were selected and their teaching practices and philosophies were studied in detail. This w...more
I began What the Best College Teachers Do, my first required reading for graduate school, with enthusiasm; however, my enjoyment of and agreement with the book waned as I read through it. The style is one of the thousand variations on self-help books, and it lapses into one of the greatest faults of the genre: needless repetition and explanation of the main points. As an essay, it would be useful, but as an entire book, its redundancy snowballed. In tandem with this, Dr. Bain emphasizes and extr...more
An excellent book! Very timely that I read it right now as we are making lesson plans and waiting to go to Papua to begin teaching young adults.

This book is an accessible yet thorough report on an extensive 15-year qualitative study of 63 great college teachers. The book answers six questions:
1) What do they know about how we learn?
Short answer: Learning is NOT a bunch of knowledge I open your head and pour in. Learning is always built on previous knowledge and experience, and takes place when t...more
So far, not much new, though I'm working at keeping an open mind. Having read Finding Freedom in the Classroom ages ago, and Parker Palmer (ARGH YUK) more recently, I will say that so far, this is more accessible to instructors in disciplines other than humanities, and for that reason alone it may well be more effective than PP, for instance.

Revision/Update: Bain's not helpful. If you want to figure out how to be a "best" college teacher, read first: Bridging the Class Divide by Linda Stout, an...more
Some good advice, but in many ways a frustrating read. First to me, a scientist, it's annoying early on when it talks about this study it did and how it selected participants, but then there's no solid data, no means of quantification, no controls, no hypothesis, nothing that one would typically consider part of a "study". You can say "we chose to study these individuals to see how they taught", but, to call it "a study" implies some sort of scientific vigor that wasn't there. Also, the book spe...more
A good overview of excellent teaching and what it entails. But, little about how to actually do these things while maintaining your sanity, and more importantly, avoiding lynching from parents and colleagues. If I had tenure I might try some of these things, but the program really falters when it comes to assessment; which is also the thing that will most likely get you into trouble with administration, parents, and students. Nevertheless, found the book very helpful in getting me to think about...more
Michael Meeuwis
Frustratingly vague. This had been much-recommended to me, from a variety of different people and courses. When I finally sat down and read it--when is the right time to read teaching books?--I found it pretty lacking in interesting ideas. At its worst, this is Goofus and Gallant: "Good Teachers make sure students learn all material clearly; Bad Teachers lecture while students sit in acid baths." I wonder who this book is directed at, given that (it seems to me) no-one would see themselves as ac...more
As the director of our university's teaching and learning center, I used this book in a faculty reading group. All agreed that it has provided valuable, evidence-based insights into the kinds of teaching approaches that lead to transformative learning. It has also left plenty of room for further debate and discussion. And best of all, it's readable and engaging, and well-organized. Well done, Ken Bain! I'd buy a copy for each professor at our university if I had the funds.
This book changed my life, no exaggeration. I started to think about the social aspects of learning, cognition, and ability in an entirely different way. ALL teachers whose students are teenagers or older should read this.
Jeffrey Niles
It was his first day of class and mine. One week fresh from Central America, Hannah approached the class with a grimace and drove panic into our souls. Little did we know that the same fear gripped him and served as the catalyst for his abrasive approach and harsh demeanor. But he then began to do what the best college teachers do. Ken Hannah created an environment in which the students began to realize their potential to learn. He spoke, he connected, he changed our thinking, he affected our wo...more
This book asks an interesting and important question: What do the best college teachers do? The contrast between the average instructor and the best instructor is played out on nearly every page by many, many comparisons. For instance, the average instructor is focused on the points to be acquired for performance in the course, including reductions for late work, while the best instructors have concrete and specific criteria for learning and do not reduce grades when it comes in late (since teac...more
Mel Murata
This is a lovely book that surveys cross-disciplinary teaching in search of answers to the question: How do you teach effectively or what do the best teachers do? The thoughtful and well surveyed answers focus on how to approach the classroom successfully. In short, the book argues that the best teachers are student focused and see their teaching as a way to develop deep thinking and sustained learning. The overall goals of their courses are not to have their students memorize a series of factoi...more
Ken Bain's book is great! I have read it several (four) times and it still provides new insights for my teaching. The book does not give a recipe for what to do in class, but it does create a framework for how to think about teaching and learning.

His thirteen leading questions for how to prepare to teach are very helpful; the first one is "What big questions will my course help students answer, or what skills, abilities, or qualities will it help them develop...?" Note that this question does n...more
David Marquet
Isn’t it all about getting people to think?

College costs since I graduated in 1981 have risen twice as fast as medical costs, three times as fast as family incomes and four times as fast as inflation. With average private school costs approaching $40,000 a year and public school costs approaching $20,000 a year, the OECD estimates that the United States spent 2.6% of GDP in 2008 on education, about $370 billion. Given the investment, understanding what the best educators do is important.

Ken Bain...more
Books like this can tend to be trite and/or idealistic without practicality. Bain deals with the topic complexly and fleshes out how effective teachers build an environment rather than just a set of best practices. I've shifted in my thinking about teaching. It's something that I've always considered I needed to keep fresh with... work on new strategies, new activities, talk with other instructors, keep up with my own research and reading on the topics I'm teaching... but Bain's research helps m...more
Jul 30, 2008 Natasha rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: college and/or high school instructors
For me, this book was a terrific reminder of the foundational principles to keep in mind when teaching---something one can neglect when getting caught up in the details of each semester. Inviting students to learn and inspiring them: how simple and this gentle reminder was welcomed by me this summer. The trees make up the forest--ahh, yes, I remember that! :-)

I was okay with there being no specific techniques touted, but there was one idea I disagreed with considerably: the author does not like...more
I would highly recommend this book to all college educators for researched-based and thoughtful advice garnered from the best of the best.

Hope to write more about what I learned in my blog. Not to brag, but this blog basically confirmed all of my instincts. The focus should be not on what teachers do, but on what students learn. Specific techniques or methods matter less than constantly evaluating what works or what doesn't and thinking critically and seriously about teaching as a passion and an...more
Aaron Bolin
I thought Bain's "What the Best College Teachers Do" was excellent. It is well-written and packed with useful insight throughout.

In terms of criticism, two things come to mind.

First, the book seems to be an academic paper expanded to book form. As such, there is plenty of fluff. Some of the fluff is useful and adds embellishment to Bain's main points, but some of the fluff is just fluff.

Second, Bain's tone throughout the book is one of objective reporter. The tone is a perfect fit for the subjec...more
La intención es buena: no hay demasiados libros que enseñen esto, y el tema es importante. El libro es muy interesante, pero me temo que una buena parte de los contenidos no se pueden aplicar a la docencia universitaria española. Es un libro centrado en la praxis en una sociedad y una estructura universitaria muy diferentes a las españolas, y eso hace que algunas estrategias sean, francamente, inútiles, o, a lo peor, perniciosas si a alguna mente pensante de la administración le da por trasplant...more
Bill Guinee
I read Bain's book several years ago, and just re-read it this summer. It actually seems to me to be a better work this time around. In fact, I think that this book is undoubtedly one of the finest works yet produced about college teaching. While one could question some of Bain's research methods --> the selection process may be biased towards the conclusions of the work, the book is nonetheless provocative and even profound with regard to modern college teaching.
The greatest difficulty, for...more
Liz Wright
I read about this book on a psychology teaching email list that I belong to and it seemed like it would be a great book. It turns out that the recommendations were correct. The author and his colleagues created a study where they followed college teachers form many disciplines and found what exactly made these people “the best college teachers.” The author describes what they know about how students learn, how they prepare to teach, what they expect from their students, how they conduct class, h...more
I wasn't really impressed with this book, like I thought I would. It has generated some productive discussion in our professional development sessions, but I don't think that there's anything really revolutionary in it. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just read a bunch of weird stuff during my undergraduate years, but a lot of this is common sense education stuff - scaffolding, caring about your students, being flexible, thinking about essential questions and learning objectives. I also found the writi...more
This book was useful in that it examined what really good teachers have done in the classroom to inspire and motivate students but it ignores the larger issues in terms of what can be done to institutionalize practices so that what examples of teaching excellence become more than isolated instances in single classrooms. It is heartening, however, to see that excellent teachers pay attention to the needs of individual students, creating optimal learning environments and opportunities for each tha...more
Some good stuff here. Because education is my field most of these ideas were not new to me, but for someone who is an expert in history, physics, etc. and doesn't have much background in education I imagine it would be eye-opening and very helpful. Even for me it was a good reminder to make sure I'm practicing what I preach!
Teach to Learn

Ken Bain puts to words a practice of teaching we all should be seeking as both educators as well as fellow humans. Teach not as a way to transfer knowledge but to engage yourself in a process where you learn as much about your student as you want your students to learn about the subject you are teaching. Ken reminds us that our students are people, are unique and bring with them life. We need to learn to integrate our Learning objectives in a students life and experience. We should...more
Todd Miles
Bain gathered an enormous amount of data, most of it based upon interviews with students and teachers in the writing of this book. There is very little in the way of direct application, but it does cause a reevaluation of the paradigms of teaching. Many times I could recognize that what was being described as bad teaching was in fact describing some of my impulses. There was much to stimulate thought regarding the goals of teaching and the manner of achieving those goals. The book actually bette...more
This was a great book, full of solid ideas to use and ideas to make you think. Several of us teachers had a good two-hour discussion today....
Nelson Ossorio
Uno de los mejores libros que habla sobre el arte de enseñar y aprender... Innovar y salir de lo tradicional es la clave.
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“Donald Saari uses a combination of stories and questions to challenge students to think critically about calculus. “When I finish this process,” he explained, “I want the students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.” In essence, he provokes them into inventing ways to find the area under the curve, breaking the process into the smallest concepts (not steps) and raising the questions that will Socratically pull them through the most difficult moments. Unlike so many in his discipline, he does not simply perform calculus in front of the students; rather, he raises the questions that will help them reason through the process, to see the nature of the questions and to think about how to answer them. “I want my students to construct their own understanding,” he explains, “so they can tell a story about how to solve the problem.” 2 likes
“Simply put, the best teachers believe that learning involves both personal and intellectual development and that neither the ability to think nor the qualities of being a mature human are immutable. People can change, and those changes--not just the accumulation of information--represent true learning.” 1 likes
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