Jeffrey Niles's Reviews > What the Best College Teachers Do

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain
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Oct 10, 11

bookshelves: education
Read in March, 2011

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 world views, and he altered our lives forever. It was there that we observed what Bain labels as an outstanding teacher.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain writes to both those who teach and those who have a desire to teach in higher education. He presents a glimpse of some of the best college professors and shows the results of the research which he and his team conducted. The research itself took him into the classrooms of effective teachers who “profoundly helped and encouraged students to learn deeply and remarkably.” The study itself reaches beyond mere professor popularity to evaluate those teachers who profoundly help most of their students to learn. By doing so, he presents a challenge to his audience to pursue and remain devoted to the same.

Ken Bain, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, carefully describes his general approach of study and the methodology which he used. With an introduction describing his process as well as a ten page appendix describing how the study was conducted, the author and his team clarify how the experiment and research took place. After a careful selection of potential teachers and a thorough examination of their methods, what surfaced were fundamental principles that “prevailed and worked well regardless of the academic qualifications of the students” and that worked in a wide array of disciplines over a broad cross section of schools. These principles which affected “exceptional learning” encouraged intellectual development as well as a personal development that expanded a sense of responsibility, the ability to exercise compassion, the aptitude to understand oneself and to change the habits of the inner person so that they would continue to learn.

The conclusions of Bain’s study do not result in a tidy to-do list which teachers may implement, but they do describe the characteristics of those who most effectively fulfill their job as teachers in higher education. Bain summarizes and illustrates these conclusions under six broad questions which also serve as chapter headings for his book.

First, his team examined what the best teachers “know about how we learn” (chapter 2). Here, one of the main tenants of Bain’s conclusions is espoused. The best teachers do not merely dump information into their students to be received, but they understand that “knowledge is constructed” and this construction takes place slowly. He argues for the use of questions in order to create richer understanding and for the necessity of building motivation in one’s students to develop a sense of caring about the subject which they study. The best college teachers create safe environments in which students can learn by the use of their own reasoning combined with the challenge to rethink their assumptions and their understanding of reality.

Dr. Bain then asks how the best college teachers prepare to teach and concludes that they ask what skills, abilities, and qualities the course will develop in the students. The teachers consider the models of understanding which the students bring with them to class as well how the students will best obtain the information from the course. The teachers which Bain studied evaluated each class of students and communicated in a way that anticipated their needs and kept them thinking.

He also asked what teachers expect from their students. He concluded that they expected “more” from their students, but that what they expected was meaningful. They expect that which challenges their students and expands their abilities as well as their thinking. In addition, these teachers taught to the individual students rather than to individual classes.

His fifth chapter, “How Do They Conduct Class?” summarizes seven common principles implemented by the teachers which he studied followed by an examination of how the best teachers treat their students. The overwhelming thrust of this chapter (as is true with the book as a whole) is a healthy emphasis on the student. Scholars around the world teach to promote their intelligence, to develop their ideas, or sometimes just to impress. But the best college teachers focus on learning, both in their own lives and in the lives of their students. They are not satisfied with the recapitulation of ideas; they are propelled by a desire to stimulate learning in the minds and hearts of their students.

Finally, Bain recognizes that the best teachers do not always naturally do what they are best at doing. The best teachers miscommunicate, sometimes grow frustrated, at times they ineffectively convey their material to students, and occasionally they just do not connect. But the best teachers evaluate themselves and they evaluate their students.

Bain recognizes that most teachers want to teach well and be the best that they can in their fields of study. By studying some of the best teachers and what they do, he has revealed that they “conceive of teaching as fostering learning, they believe that if they understand their students and the nature and process of learning better, they can create more successful environments.” Other teachers can emulate this same view and become better at what they do.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain does what the best college teachers do. He understands his teaching audience and those who intend to one day teach. He not only understands how to foster learning in this written environment along with an understanding of his material, but he also understands the process and in his book creates a desire in the reader to be one of the best at what they do. His format is clearly laid out and organized, making his book easy to read and practical to understand.

His study, however, sometimes deals with very subjective material. Students may be an open book, but sometimes the text is written in a different language. Bain’s research is thorough, but the scope of his study naturally hinders completely objective results. How does a teacher know for certain that she has communicated what she truly wanted to communicate? How does one assess what another human beings have really learned? Bain recognizes the subjective nature of his study, of student ratings, and of the flexibility of some methodology. Rightly, he is careful to draw his conclusions from the patterns which he observed and cautiously approaches the more subjective material.

What the Best College Teachers Do is a masterful presentation of one team’s research and the fundamental concepts they observed amidst some of the best college teachers. By observing and critiquing what those teachers did well, Bain sets a set of standards before his audience for them to strive for and emulate. His book does not present a list of to-dos, but as the reader turns the last page, he will likely walk back to his classroom with a desire to do what he does with excellence. And he will approach his students with concepts that will help him to do so more effectively.
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