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What the Best College Teachers Do

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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 lecture notes matter less than the special way teachers comprehend the subject and value human learning. Whether historians or physicists, in El Paso or St. Paul, the best teachers know their subjects inside and out--but they also know how to engage and challenge students and to provoke impassioned responses. Most of all, they believe two things fervently: that teaching matters and that students can learn.

In stories both humorous and touching, Bain describes examples of ingenuity and compassion, of students' discoveries of new ideas and the depth of their own potential. What the Best College Teachers Do is a treasure trove of insight and inspiration for first-year teachers and seasoned educators.

207 pages, Hardcover

First published April 30, 2004

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Ken Bain

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 269 reviews
Profile Image for Heather.
519 reviews24 followers
August 11, 2011
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 extrapolates some points which, to me, seem ridiculously obvious. Would anyone reading this book be enlightened by reading that good teachers care more about student learning than building their own personal reputations?

I did appreciate some of the points Dr. Bain drew from his findings. Socratic questioning is a method which at times has been forgotten, but here it is praised. Additionally, the theme of structuring courses "backward"--determining the end goals and then the ways in which they will be accomplished--is a refreshing reminder of good practice, although, again, the point may seem rather obvious. All course testing being cumulative was another idea that intrigued me. Finally, I admired the emphasis on the trust relationship between teacher and student which promises the great rewards of learning while expecting responsibility from the learner.

Toward the end, though, the edu-jargon truly began to irk me. Classes must be "student-centered." Teachers should emphasize "learning" over "performance." Students should learn "facts" only in the context of also learning to reason with the facts. These points are not entirely misguided, but Dr. Bain insists that the goal of students learning should take precedence over nearly every variable. One particular example of this stood out to me. Dr. Bain is quite clearly opposed to the practice of docking points for late work, and holds that so long as the student demonstrates that he has done the work well (thus demonstrating that he has learned what the professor hoped to teach), he should receive a grade based only on the work. After all, runs his example, is the Sistine chapel any the less a worthy work because Michelangelo didn't finish it on time? Well, no. But Pope Julius viewed Michelangelo himself less favorably because of this fact.

I think, actually, I am in agreement with Dr. Bain more than it currently appears to me, but what prevents me from accepting his research and suggestions more heartily is the confusing fact that he will state unequivocally in one place that there is no one formula or method that good teachers use, and then a page later he will advocate some specific formula or method. If this book were summarized in one sentence, it might be: The best college teachers care deeply about their students and do whatever they can to help each of them learn. Who will quibble with that? I certainly won't. On the other hand, I also could have told you that without reading 190 pages on the topic.
Profile Image for Jeanne.
933 reviews63 followers
July 13, 2019
Some people watch every football game because they follow a team. I rarely watch any sport – unless I am in the room with someone who is watching – but I love watching the Olympics, where amateurs at the top of their sport compete. It's not just sports, though, I love watching people who excel at whatever they do, particularly when they perform with passion and write/speak about what they do in a thoughtful way. Watching excellence in any form can bring me to tears. (Good tears.)

Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do meets this aim for me and, although I appear to have first read this 10-15 years ago (my copy is marked up in my hand), Best College Teachersstill has a freshness that I generally find only in a first read – and also a familiarity that was comforting.

How did Bain define "best college teachers"? He focused not on what they did, but on how their students were transformed by their time together. These best college teachers "achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel" (p. 5). As many teachers tend to focus on performance on exams or grades as a measure of their success, this is an interesting definition. He was particularly interested in those faculty who were able to help students exceed expectations.

The students of these faculty didn't talk only about what they learned or remembered, but what they came to understand. They talked about courses that "transformed their lives," "changed everything," and even "messed with their heads." If you've ever taken a course with one of these unusual faculty members, you can probably articulate some pieces of what they did differently, although may not have really understood other parts.

According to Bain, the best teachers focus on a "sustained and substantial influence" on how people think, act, and feel. They consider their goals rather than only the things they want to teach. They expect a lot from their students, but primarily in terms of "the kind of thinking and acting expected for life" (p. 18). They help students learn by asking them to consider beautiful or important questions and problems, that will "help them grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality...in challenging yet supportive conditions [where] learners feel a sense of control...; work collaboratively...; believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners" throughout the process, rather than only in a final grade or judgment (p. 18). They are able to motivate students to grapple with ideas in a safe environment, rather than only to parrot for an exam (or a grade). Bain described these teachers as treating students with simple decency and approaching life and teaching with a sense of awe and curiosity.

These teachers recognize that "teaching is engaging students, engineering an environment in which they learn" (p. 49) Bain describes these teachers as having a growth mindset about their skills as a teacher and their students' skills as learners (although writing before Dweck's Mindset was written). Teaching isn't easy (although some parts may be). These "best" teachers recognize that it is often a struggle to identify good goals, strategies for meeting those goals, and engaging students in this process.

The best teaching can be found not in particular practices or rules but in the attitudes of the teachers, in their faith in their students' abilities to achieve, in their willingness to take their students seriously and to let them assume control of their own education, and in their commitment to let all policies and practices flow from central learning objectives and from a mutual respect and agreement between students and teachers. (p. 79)

[My daughters' biology teacher when they were freshmen in high school was not a "best." He asked about the Great Men of Science – and meant just that – using aged mimeographs when no one else did. They had to forbid me from going in to complain.]

In case you can't tell, I found What the Best College Teachers Do engaging and inspiring, both because it points toward a high bar, but also because Bain described a strategy for clearing (or nearing) that high bar.
Profile Image for Seth.
49 reviews1 follower
August 5, 2007
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 anecdotes, no clear generalizations seemed to be drawn -- other than that good teachers care about their discipline and their students in a passionate way.

Well. Duh.

While I found Ken Bain's discussion of the practices of the "best" teachers fascinating, and I felt like it did open up some interesting avenues of inquiry for me, I finished the book really concerned by the lack of clear explanation for how Bain chose these teachers as "the best." While he discusses the process in broad terms at the start, he tries to articulate that these "best" educators are so good because of the educational impact that they have. What is never entirely clear is what quantifiable, measurable impact was his criteria for this selection. I was left with the judge's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it" -- which isn't entirely useful in thinking about my teaching. Sure, I'll know it when I see it done right, but until then, what should I be aiming for? It's not like I'm at a loss about this, but it seemed like a very weak, and crucial, link in Bain's thesis.
Profile Image for Michael Meeuwis.
315 reviews1 follower
August 18, 2014
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 actively doing some of the negative things the book warns against. Partially, I suspect, this may be because some of the ideas that the book puts forward, like student-centric learning (and the various forms of "learning" vs. "teaching" or "lecturing"), creating on-campus teaching institutions, and the like all became quite popular in the years since this book was published. Partially, I suspect, part of why this book now seems a trifle obvious is that everyone agrees with what it's putting forward.

But there are bigger flaws here, many shared with other books I've read about college teaching; and they're related to that obviousness. For starters, the bulk of the examples come from Harvard and Northwestern--institutions that are great places to pursue undergraduate degrees, but not in any sense representative of the great mass of college teaching done. The other example, appearing less frequently, is a school dealing primarily in first-generation students from underresourced groups. These two poles of the teaching experience appear, duly, in every such book; here, the same approach (be student-centric, respect backgrounds, acknowledge the experience students bring to the classroom) is recommended for each. My question: would anyone thoughtful enough to read a book about teaching be Goofus--be the sort of person who, say, wouldn't acknowledge how different class or racial experiences might inform classroom performance, and be respectful of them? Too often, this book seemed to be patting people on the back for doing things (being respectful) that everyone should just do.

I'm a frustrating reader of these books, because I don't really know what I want out of them: a philosophy? Some practical tips? A bit of both? But in this case: the philosophy seems obvious; the practical examples are drawn from a narrow range of schools and classes; and the tone borders on "Highlights for University Instructors," with obvious bad practices and obvious good practices listed with much insight. I'm finding more books of this type are not superior to a two-page photocopy of their core technique suggestions; here, that photocopy wouldn't even reach a quarter of the first page.
Profile Image for Jerzy.
469 reviews105 followers
August 11, 2014
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 train them to think constructively about their own learning.

Mostly, this is stuff I already knew and agreed with. I really like Bain's high-level ideas. But I wish there would have been more concrete illustrations of how these ideas work in practice. Practical examples could have replaced a lot of the fluffy language about the opening the students' minds and hearts, etc.

Still, there are a couple of lists of explicit questions to use when planning your course. No list can cover everything you need to consider---but still, it doesn't hurt to use such a list, to ensure that at least you haven't overlooked what's on it.

Bain also has some lists of "types of learners" or "developmental stages of learning." It's often unhelpful to pigeonhole individual students into one bucket or another... but it can be useful to treat these archetypes as if they were user personas, and consider how your lesson plan will work for these users.
110 reviews2 followers
December 4, 2012
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 spends almost as much time talking about how it chose people, how good they were, and how good the study was as it does talking about what makes the people effective teachers. Like I said, it does have some good advice, but you have to work to get it.
Profile Image for Richard.
9 reviews
July 14, 2016
During the scenic two-hour shuttle ride from the Calgary Airport to Banff on my way to the Open Education Global conference I managed to plow through the slim little bestseller, What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. Dr. Bain was one of the keynote speakers at the 2015 Virginia Community College System New Horizons Conference and I was really captivated by his talk, which he gave in the midst the keynote audience, wandering table to table like some Vegas crooner. His keynote was essentially a synthesis of his book, citing examples of what the best college teachers do–they focus on knowledge-creation, not knowledge transmission, create learning experiences in their courses, encourage learners’ intrinsic motivation–and how these practices are supported by research in the learning sciences.

However, I found his concluding chapter a bit contradictory. Dr. Bain researched what the best college teachers do, not what the best-trained college teachers do. Many of the teachers he studied learned to be effective “on the job,” through trial and error and, most likely, possessing some natural disposition for good teaching. Yet in the concluding chapter Bain argues that good teaching is not inborn but is in fact a set of skills, based in research, that can be taught. I don’t disagree, but think this point would be much more effective if we could see how teachers trained in the learning sciences arrive at effective teaching more quickly and completely than those who are not. Sadly, perhaps there are not enough teachers trained in this way for a statistical sample.

This book is a reminder to me that, colleges don’t need to be reinvented, run like for-profit corporations, or worse, run by for-profit corporations. Instead, higher education needs to focus fully on supporting effective teaching and learning. We know what works–in fact, Bain summarizes these approaches nicely in his book–so let’s finally, finally help our faculty to do what the best college teachers do.
Profile Image for Gülay Güler.
18 reviews1 follower
September 6, 2022
Universities as "learning" institutions... Professors learn through research, and students learn through professors' teaching..
Profile Image for Dawn Betts-Green.
582 reviews30 followers
February 12, 2018
3.75 stars...An interesting survey of what makes a great college teacher. Not a practical manual by any means, but useful.
Profile Image for Monique.
1,693 reviews
August 24, 2014
This is a reflective report on a qualitative study on exceptional college teaching. Bain is the Vice Provost for instruction, professor of history, and Director of the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University. He has over 20 years of experience researching what exceptional professors do to encourage learning in the classroom. After the completion of his doctorate degree, he realized that he had no idea how to teach or encourage learning of history to his college students. In his efforts to establish a history teaching center, he begin a systematic study of effective college professors. He begin to interview faculty, analyze syllabus, review student evaluations, and ask others about collogues or faculty that inspired them to learn. After years of building on his initial research and several positions where he worked to establish centers of teaching excellence, this study was born. He established a team that studied sixty-three different faculty. They drew qualitative data from a variety of sources that flowed into a comprehensive story rather than sourcing quantitative data. The study used six principal sources of information: formal and/or informal interviews; public presentations or written discussions of their ideas about teaching; syllabi, assignment sheets, statements of grading, lecture notes, and other material prepared for class; classroom observations; students work and reflective small group sessions; and colleagues’ comments to provide judgments on learning objectives and reputations of the students they taught. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded in a way to make the trends visible. The specific questions asked are detailed on pages 184-186. The primary goal of the interviews were to get faculty talking about their teaching and telling stories about their classes. The author noted several limitations of the study while suggesting that any other research method may have resulted in limited candid comments.

So what do the best college faculty do? The author warns that the vast amount of information they reviewed did not produce a quick and fast list on what to do. The concepts that the best faculty use require deep reflection and perhaps a fundamental shift in how one may think about teaching and learning. There are numerous nuggets on how to produce positive learning environments and experiences in the college classroom.

1. What do the best teachers know and understand?
a. They know their subjects extremely well
b. They are active scholars always learning and seeking for way to help students
c. They do what they expect their students to – they learn
d. They know how to simplify and clarify complex subjects
e. Learning has little meaning unless it produces a sustained and substantial influence on the way people think, act, and feel
2. How do they prepare to teach?
a. Exceptional teachers treat their classes like serious intellectual endeavors
b. They develop classes around learning objectives
3. What do they expect of their students?
a. They expect more
4. What do they do when they teach?
a. They construct a critical learning environment that forces students to think outside the box
5. How do they treat students?
a. They trust students
b. They believe that students want to learn
c. They believe that student can learn
d. They treat students with common decency and respect
6. How do they check their progress and evaluate their efforts?
a. They have a systematic program to evaluate their teaching
b. They are always reaching for new ways to be effective
c. They don’t blame their students for their teaching failures
d. They have a strong sense of commitment to the academic community not just personal success in the classroom
e. They have constant conversations with colleagues about how best to educate students
f. They are learners, constantly trying to improve their own efforts to foster students’ development, and never completely satisfied with what they had already achieved
Profile Image for Josh.
799 reviews
June 25, 2010
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 some ways to improve my teaching and will try and make it better next year.
Profile Image for Elise.
318 reviews4 followers
July 7, 2015
Honestly? I took less than a full page of notes. I am not impressed. Spoiler: The best college teachers care about their students, ask them how they are, and listen to the answers. That's it? I hoped for more. I'm not sure of what, but I wanted more.
Profile Image for Lukasz Pruski.
921 reviews109 followers
January 13, 2018
"Knowledge is constructed, not received."

Ken Bain, a professor and higher education administrator, had spent his academic career at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, NYU, and University of the District of Columbia, before he became the founding director of several major teaching and learning centers, currently the President of the Best Teachers Institute. His What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) is a bestseller and a higher-education classic. I have read the book with great interest as I have been teaching university-level math and computer science for over 35 years and in the distant past I was also involved in research on creativity and mathematical problem solving.

The text is the end result of almost a 15-year study which - as the author claims - was conducted observing all rules of the scientific method. The Appendix explains the methodology of the study. Mr. Bain's book does not disappoint even if the reader may doubt if it delivers on the promise of the catchy title. To me, the weakest aspect are the criteria used to select sixty-three outstanding college teachers as the subjects of the study. Outstanding teachers are defined as those who "had achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel." This is so vague that inclusion or exclusion of individual teachers is essentially arbitrary.

The book is organized into chapters that answer six broad questions about the practices of outstanding college teachers: What do they know and understand? How do they prepare? What do they expect of their students? What do they do when they teach? How do they treat their students? How do they assess the students' progress? I agree with virtually all conclusions of the author and if I am less successful in my own teaching than I would like to be it is because I am not conscientious enough to always adhere to all these practices. It is exactly as the author quotes:
"'When my teaching fails,' [...] a professor told us, 'it is because of something I have failed to do.'"
Exactly! Here's a selection of other great quotes from the text:
"[T]eaching is fostering learning and [...] it requires serious intellectual work [...]"
"You don't teach a class. You teach a student."
"Teaching is about commanding attention and holding it.'"
"'The most important aspect of my teaching,' one instructor told us in a theme we heard frequently, 'is the relationship of trust that develops between me and my students.'"

One of the non-obvious observation I particularly agree with emphasizes the difference between great lecturers - professors who use classroom teaching as an opportunity to display their intellectual brilliance - and best teachers who consider teaching an investment in students. I also commend the author for including the Decalogue of critical thinking: a list of ten reasoning abilities and habits of thought that deserves to be printed in large font, framed, and hanged over every teacher's bed.

One topic that I might consider under-emphasized is discussion of the best practices of dealing with largely non-homogeneous classes of students. I have struggled with the ways of individualizing classroom instruction for students of greatly differing levels of preparation and abilities throughout my entire teaching career. I also wish the text were more focused on teaching mathematics. While most of the general guidelines apply to math pedagogy, the discipline clearly has its peculiarities, which would need to be addressed in more detail. And, of course, I smiled when I encountered a reference to Richard Feynman. No book on great teaching can avoid mentioning the name.

Three and a half stars.
Profile Image for Kristina.
6 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2020
I read this for a graduate class on Course Design. I don’t think anyone will be particularly shocked by any of the information in the book but it did make me reflect on the way my college courses were structured. I could count the instructors I consider “good” or “impactful” on one hand, and this material in this book allowed me to work through why. This book also made me rethink the way I approached the process of learning. Perhaps this isn’t helpful for anyone who has years of teaching experience, but I think it is enormously helpful for someone like me who is between having completed their formal education and beginning to teach. What is the purpose of a class? What are the objectives and expectations of your students? Who are these objectives serving? What is your role and what teaching paradigm does it fall into?
Profile Image for AJ.
1,429 reviews111 followers
February 18, 2021
I can't say I was exactly expecting this book to change my life, but I'm amazed at how underwhelming it is. The author states that the contents to the book are universal, but I'd like to see how some of the exceptional professors profiled in the book would handle working at an open-enrollment community college. I don't disagree with anything in the book, but sometimes I can't even get my students to show up to class.
7 reviews
May 8, 2020
Really insightful. Definitely one to re-read before designing and teaching a course eventually.
Profile Image for LeeAnna.
35 reviews8 followers
January 19, 2019
If for no other reason, I come back to this book, at the start of every semester that I teach, to help spur the excitement and intention to be an effective teacher.
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 2 books9 followers
September 15, 2019
A useful study of effective college teachers. Laid out with plenty of practical advice. I took a lot of notes. Here are my favorite clips:

Rather than telling students they are wrong and then providing the 'correct' answers, they often ask questions to help students see their own mistakes.

They believe that students must learn the facts while learning to use them to make decisions about what they understand or what they should do. 'Learning' makes little sense unless it has some sustained influence on the way the learner subsequently thinks, acts, or feels. So they teach the 'facts' in a rich context of problems, issues, and questions.

Some cognitive scientists think that questions are so important that we cannot learn until the right one has been asked: if memory does not ask the question, it will not know where to index the answer. The more questions we ask, the more ways we can index a thought in memory. Better indexing produces greater flexibility, easier recall, and richer understanding.

If we are not seeking an answer to anything, we pay little attention to random information.

If people see certain conduct as a way to get a particular reward or avoid a punishment, then they will engage in those activities only when 'they want the rewards and when they believe the rewards will be forthcoming from the behavior.'

Our outstanding teachers generally avoided using grades to persuade students to study. Instead, they invoked the subject, the questions it raises, and the promises it makes to any learner.

WGAD --> Who gives a damn? At the beginning of his courses, he tells his students that they are free to ask him this question on any day during the course, at any moment in class.

Human beings are curious animals. People learn naturally while trying to solve problems that concern them.

What can I show them? What stories can I tell them? What voices do they need to hear besides mine?

Some would ask the students to bring in two questions to class every week and then use those questions to build a critical conversation.

Exceptional teachers do ask students to take and defend a position in class discussions on in papers and other projects, but they don't just ask them to reason well and then judge their efforts. They provide them with support and constructive criticism, delaying any grading until the students have had plenty of changes to practice and get feedback.

The most effective teachers avoid like the plague the perennially favorite question, "Who can tell me what this article said?"

3 cards, write an aspiration, name of someone they love, and a talent they prize. Then randomly snatch the cards and throw them away. This illustrates the realities of unsafe water and contaminated food.

Learning takes place not when students perform well on exams but when they evaluate how they think and behave well beyond the classroom.

Take an interdisciplinary approach to problems.

At the end of class: What major conclusions did you draw? What questions remain in your mind?

Lectures from highly effective teachers nearly always have the same 5 elements of natural critical learning: 1) They being with a question (sometimes embedded in a story). 2) Continue with some attempt to help students understand the significance of the question (connecting it to larger questions, raising it in provocative ways, noting its implications), 3) Stimulate students to engage the question critically, 4) Make an argument about how to answer that question (complete with evidence, reasoning, and conclusion), and 5) End with questions.

Sometimes the best teachers leave out their own answers whereas less successful lecturers often include only that element, an answer to a question that no one has raised.

The lecture becomes a way to clarify and simplify complex material while engaging important and challenging questions, or to inspire attention to important matters, to provoke, to focus, It is not used as an encyclopedic coverage of some subject, or as a way to impress students with how much the teacher knows.

Some people use highly interactive lectures in which they might occasionally stop and ask students to talk about a topic, to discuss their understanding, or to consider when and how some concept or procedure might be applied. Many organize into small groups and craft assignments.

One teacher often asks students to play the devil's advocate and submit every argument they can imagine against the conclusions he draws in class.

People tend to learn most effectively (in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on the way they act, think, or feel) when 1) they are trying to solve problems that they find intriguing, beautiful, or important; 2) they are able to do so in a challenging yet supportive environment in which they can feel a sense of control over their own education; 3) they can work collaboratively with other learners to grapple with the problems; 4) they believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and 5) they can try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any judgment of their efforts.

Teaching is above all, about commanding attention and holding it.

Teachers succeed in grabbing students' attention by beginning a lecture with a provocative question or problem that raises issues in ways that students had never thought about before, or by using stimulating case studies or goal-based scenarios.

The approach we encountered in our study takes into consideration both the discipline and student learning, asking what important troublesome (from the discipline's perspective) notions students are likely to hold and then designing instruction that challenges each on progressively, picking the order that will best help students to develop an integrated understanding of the whole.

They do not think only in terms of teaching their discipline; they think about teaching students to understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate evidence and conclusions.

The brain loves diversity. Offer visual information, auditory input, talk thinks out, interact, reflect independently, etc.

More than anything else, the most successful communicators treated anything they said to their students - whether in 50 minute lectures or in 2 minute explanations - as a conversation rather than a performance.

They learned students names and called on them.

They did not put on a show like some film or TV program that played a fixed script regardless of the reactions it sparked. 200 students in a lecture hall require different levels of energy and projection than 6 students around a seminar table.

The best teaching occurred when people came into their classes filled with intentions to stimulate every student's interests, to communicate clearly and effectively, to help everybody understand, to provoke responses, to foster deep thinking, to engage, and to entertain multiple perspectives.

Teaching is not acting, yet good teachers do expect to affect their audience when they talk: to capture their attention, to inspire, to provoke thoughts an questions.

Tell stories.

For good class discussions: There needs to be something to discuss that the students regarded as important and that required them to solve problems.

The best teachers didn't ask students to discuss readings; they provoked and guided them into discussion ideas, issues, or problems that some article or chapter might help them approach.

Ideas for groups: Students responded best when they thought of the group as an opportunity to work on authentic problems rather than as an obligation to fulfill a class assignment, and when the experience had some honorific quality rather than even the hint of remediation.

Avoid group papers.

In one powerful use of group work, the prof. gives students 4 introductions that other students have written to papers and tells them that 2 of these pieces started papers that eventually won honors while two received a B-minus or lower. He asks the students to read the introductions individually and then to work in their groups to determine which is which and why they rank them as they do.

To get the discussion going, the best teachers usually pose a question and ask students to spend a few minutes collecting their thoughts on paper or otherwise work on the problem individually before talking. They then ask students to share their thoughts (or solutions) with someone sitting nearby ('think then pair'). The students burst into conversation. After a few more minutes, they might ask pairs to pair up ('think/pair/square'). Finally, they bring the entire class together for a full discussion, starting with the ideas already discussed in the smaller venue.

The best teachers ask concluding questions: What have we learned here? What else to we need to know to confirm or reject our hypothesis? What are the implications of our conclusions? What questions remain unanswered? How do we answer those questions?

Some prof's act as if they are 'high priests of arcane mysteries,' playing out an ego game in which they pretend to have special powers most students can only envy. The worst professors act superior to their students.

Everything he asks them to do has a justification and explanation, all tied to their learning.

Lay out the major questions of the final exam on the first day of class.

Peer observations may not be good evidence: prof's tend to give high marks to colleagues who teach the way they do and lower rating to those who do not - regardless of the learning.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Cameron Barham.
101 reviews
December 17, 2022
“While others might be satisfied if student’s perform well on the examinations, the best teachers assume that learning has little meaning unless it produces a sustained and substantial influence on the way people think, act, and feel.”, p. 17
Profile Image for Martijn Vsho.
185 reviews2 followers
February 7, 2017
This review will go through the basic premises and some of the arguments that Bain presents in this book. I also give a reflection on how the book has changed me and my attitude on teaching and learning.
If you want to know the basic premises of this book, Bain briefly goes through them in his first chapter. The overall philosophy of the book is twofold. First, “good teaching can be learned” (21). However, teaching is not a simple formula. Bain strongly believes that these ideas are not just principles to duplicate but rather ideas which teachers must adjust “to who they are and what they teach” (21). He understands that good teaching can greatly vary and that it should adjust to the teacher, course, and students. Second, teaching is not just telling information but “occurs only when learning takes place” (173). Thus the role of a teacher is not to teach but to help students learn and understand. With these two convictions, Bain guides readers through the conclusions of a study he conducted on what the best college teachers do.
One of the most significant insights for me in this book was how Bain redefined teaching and learning. As mentioned above, Bain says that “teaching occurs only when learning takes place” (173). Furthermore, he found that “learning takes place not when students perform well on examinations but when they evaluate how they think and behave well beyond the classroom” (94). This changed the way I looked at learning and teaching and has impacted how I approach my classes, my assignments, my own learning, and even how I think about being a person and student.
My time at college has been one of striving to get the best grades possible. I was good at it because I was capable of simple regurgitation and strategically doing what the teacher wanted. However, Thinking back, I realize how much I did not understand in class and have forgotten mere days after the examinations. While in many of my classes I have attained knowledge, I rarely applied it to other areas of my life or let it affect me beyond the classroom setting.
Bain has changed my approach. I have been inspired to actually learn, to begin evaluating how I think and behave outside the classroom. Already I find myself more engaged in class, wrestling with ideas, and challenging my own thinking. I have come to appreciate the discussion questions in class that challenge beliefs and do not necessarily have a tidy answer. One example of this is the questions posed in my Modern Western Civilization class, such as “Does a belief in superiority contradict the Gospel,” or “Was Columbus a hero or a villain?” My thoughts in class have begun to extend beyond class or homework time and have left me contemplating throughout the day. Bain has successfully changed my mental model of learning and teaching; Learning is finally taking place within me.
It was interesting to see that Bain affirms one of my thoughts about working with people. I have always been skeptical of “formulas” that merely need to be applied because each person and situation is different. While Bain does include some formulaic elements in his book, I was glad to see that he agrees with my skepticism. In his introductory chapter, he says that teachers must “adjust every idea to who they are and what they teach” (21). Thus, while he does present a plethora of principles that the best teachers follow, he realizes that there is also variation between the practices and attitudes of the best teachers. Likewise, it is necessary that I, too, “digest, transform, and individualize” (21) what I read in these pages.
Ultimately, this book is not just for people who want to become better teachers, but also for those who want to become better students.
Profile Image for Elliedakota.
605 reviews1 follower
March 24, 2019
I’ve been teaching college for nearly 30 years, but have just recently started my doctoral work. I loved this book. Am I the best? Nope. But I know where I am on the spectrum, and I always try to improve - mostly by realizing that those who teach for students have a different feel in the classroom than those who teach for themselves. At different times in my career, I’ve been at different points along the range. I’m extremely fortunate now that I get to teach a subject I adore to students who have a genuine interest in learning it. It’s my students who motivate me to keep striving - and that is basically what this book was all about.
Profile Image for Geoffrey Benn.
199 reviews6 followers
April 15, 2014
“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 was accomplished through interviews with the professors and their students, observations of classes (and, in a few cases, entire courses), and analysis of student evaluations and performance.
The findings of the study are presented as a narrative that summarizes how these teachers approach each part of a course – preparation, conducting class, their relationships with and expectations of students, and finally their assessments of both student learning and their own teaching. While there is some discussion about specific approaches in the classroom, the book focuses primarily on the way that these teachers think about teaching. Bain reveals that the thinking of these teachers revolves around facilitating student learning. This sounds more than a bit obvious at first, but when you see it in action through the case studies in the book, it’s actually quite revelatory.
A major key to focusing the classroom on student learning is by working to develop what Bain calls a natural critical learning environment. This occurs when students are motivated to use critical thinking to solve authentic, important-feeling problems in the discipline. This may seem like a lot of jargon, but I’ve definitely seen the impact of authentic problems in classroom. I’ve had great success with a discussion prompt (following a lab on bacteria and bioremediation) in which I tell students that truck has just spilled 1000 gallons of “Megatoxin” into the campus creek and that they need to propose a plan to develop an effective bioremediation strategy.
While providing authentic work is key to motivating students, another important strategy is to emphasize developing skills and abilities over grades. For example, many of the teachers in the study utilize ungraded (!) assignments early in the term as a way to provide feedback to the students and emphasize learning over grades. Throughout the book, Bain contrasts these sorts of student-centric approaches with the commonly used “transmission” model, where the professor imparts knowledge and then uses grades to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While the book is certainly critical of many traditional practices, the overall tone is generally very positive; the focus is on showcasing and analyzing the methods of exceptional teachers, rather than tearing down the work of those that are less successful. I think that this case-study based approach makes the book pleasingly undogmatic. No 12-step plans are offered for becoming like the teachers in the study. Rather, the book presents a framework for thinking about teaching that each practitioner can fill in with their own discipline-specific methods and personal tricks. “What the Best College Teachers Do” has changed the way I think about my teaching and will definitely be a resource that I refer to as I face new challenges in my teaching. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in college education.
Profile Image for L. Marquet.
Author 11 books290 followers
February 4, 2013
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, Director of the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University is attempting to answer that. He has written about it in his 2004 book What the Best College Teachers Do.

The book is based on research done studying (observing, videotaping, interviewing) what the best college teachers do. One could poke holes at the rigor of the study (who defines what “best” is, who identified the “best” teachers, is it anything close to the complete set, and so forth) and claim that the findings are essentially expert opinion. Even so, the book is supremely useful.

The findings are presented along the following lines:
1. Outstanding teachers know their subjects, including the history of their subject, extremely well.
2. Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sessions and classes as serious intellectual endeavors.
3. The best teachers expect more thinking from their students.
4. The best teachers create environments where learners feel a sense of control over their education, work collaboratively with others, believe their work will be considered fairly.
5. Highly effective teachers tend to reflect a strong trust in students.
6. All the best teachers have a systematic program to assess and continue to improve their own efforts.

In the end I was struck that it all amounts to getting people to think. Of course, this is exactly what businesses with knowledge workers are trying to do, so the question that begs to be asked is this: to what degree are these ideas applicable to business leaders, and to what degree should businesses attempt to replicate the best practices, environment of these college professors? In other words, shouldn’t a business that is trying to get people to think feel like a college classroom where we are trying to get people to think?

Criticism of the book has been along the lines of it being “too idealistic,” “not applicable to the real world,” “only would work with highly motivated students in Ivy League schools.” I’m not worried about all of that. However, one area that I did miss was an emphasis on stories. From my speaking experience, I have learned that stories are a wonderful way to make an emotional connection and convey content that people will remember. Bain cites examples where the best teachers have used stories, like Feynman’s frog in the swimming pool, but he doesn’t specifically call it storytelling, he calls it “good explanations.”

Profile Image for Charmin.
815 reviews38 followers
January 18, 2021
1. The first day of class: rather than laying out a set of requirements for students, they usually talk about the promises of the course, about the kinds of questions the discipline will help students answer, or about the intellectual emotional, or physical abilities that it will help them develop.

2. Trust begins to emerge as students and teachers listen to each other. Talk with students about their lives and to share personal moments from his own.

3. Shift power to the students until they had assumed ownership.

4. Highly effective teachers designed better learning experiences for their students in part because they conceive of teaching as fostering learning. Everything they do you sense from their strong concern for an understanding of the development of their students. Assessment of a student flows from primary learning objectives.

5. GRADES: no grading on a curve, makes no sense in this world. Students must meet certain standards of excellence. Grades represent clearly articulated levels of achievement.

6. DEEP LEARNERS said they like courses that push them to explore conceptual meanings and implications, whereas their classmates who were surface learners hated such experiences.
Help students understand the nature of the learning expected.

7. Step one: collect information about students to help them improve and craft learning. Step two: help students understand and use the criteria by which they will be judged. Step three spell out that standard as clearly as possible.

8. Idea: on the first day of class give students a list of 5 to 10 major questions the course will help answer. Been asked the class members to rank their interests in each question.

9. BEST TEACHERS: engage in an extensive examination of their learning objectives, reviewing students' work as a reflection of their learning, analyzing the kinds of standards and methods used in assessing that work. The best teaching is often both an intellectual creation in performing art.

10. Teaching is not just delivering lectures but anything we might do that helps and encourages students to learn without doing them any major harm.

- Take-home exams.
- Share with students secrets about learning.
- Humility.
- Students of life, fellow travelers in search of some small glimpse of the truth.
- Cumulative examinations convey to students that learning is supposed to be permanent.
- Make each test more sophisticated than the last one.
- Examinations asked students to do that work the goal is to establish congruity between the intellectual objectives of the course and those of the exam processes.
- Anonymous feedback after three or four weeks of class.
94 reviews
July 6, 2013
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, and then read Finding Freedom by Patricia Hinchey. Doesn't matter what discipline you specialize in or where you teach: you teach students, not subjects, and even if you're teaching at an Ivy, even if you are certain you have all upper middle class students, these books will make you a better teacher, and your work will help your students become better people. And goodness knows we need more of them.
Profile Image for Lauren.
8 reviews
July 23, 2019
I had a pencil and page flags with me at all times when I was reading this one. Not loads that was super-surprising brand-new information to me, but many well explained points and examples worth being reminded of/remembering.

It was validating to find some of my own thoughts and goals reflected in there, and frustrating trying to apply others to my specific teaching situation. I was looking for something not too heavy to get my brain back into thinking about and evaluating my teaching and it was perfect for that. It’s also motivated me to look around for more books that could help me improve my teaching.
85 reviews8 followers
January 27, 2011
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.
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