“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 thought process 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 developing 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 a truck has just spilled 1,000 gallons of “Megatoxin” into the campus creek and 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 emphasizing the development of 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.
Though 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.
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