Bain’s book, What The Best College Teachers Do (2004) is a collection of student-centered teaching patterns shared amongst a sampling of the best college teachers. I have worked at three large public universities in the South, and one of the similarities between the institutions is that the importance teaching is often overlooked. There is a much larger emphasis on the research that is bringing in external funding, or the professor’s contribution to their field through publications. It was refreshing to read this book which provides tangible approaches and strategies to help guide professors to improve their teaching. I agreed with the main theme of this book which is that the best teachers care. They care about learning, they care about their students, and they care about their performance as teachers.
Care about learning
The best teachers understand that learning is “constructed and not received” (Bain, pg. 26). Additionally, the best teachers recognize students are constructing knowledge using existing mental nodes to interpret new information. With this understanding, the best teachers attempt to challenge their students intellectually. There is also an expectation that their students can learn new facts while simultaneously being able to reason and question the new knowledge. Bain explains this idea in the book by comparing the teaching techniques of two anatomy professors. One professor expects students to commit all facts to memory. The second, and more effective teacher, helps builds students’ understanding of the facts using problem-based learning. Students work out the solutions of true clinical cases and come out with a better grasp of how knowing the fact helped them better understand the problem, or find a solution to the problem. The best teachers also know that learning from mistakes is valuable, so grading is focused on comprehension instead of the expectation that they students get it right the first time. In fact, many of the best teachers provide a mechanism for students to revisit and revise their assessments to demonstrate their mastery of the material.
Along with the knowledge of how students learn, the most effective teachers are interested in what students can “do” intellectually as a result to their learning. In the third chapter, Bain states that “the best teachers plan backward; they begin with the results they hope to foster” (Bain, pg. 50). The expectation is that students come out of the class learning to be critical thinkers in their subject area. This shows me that the best teachers deeply care about their discipline by developing future scholars. Bain uses the example of Chad Richardson who used stories to teach students empathetic and thoughtful comprehension of the Mexican culture in the border region of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Through the story project, he and his students have been able to publish a collection of their work, but Richardson has also directed students in to graduate studies and administration in the field of Sociology.
Care about their students
In chapters four, five, and six, Bain makes the argument that the best teachers care about their students. These effective teachers appreciate and value each students’ unique contribution that they bring to the learning community. They are also interested in adjusting negative stereotypes and have a high expectation of the achievement of their students. Trust is built “through the rejection of power, and setting standards that represented authentic goals rather than schoolwork” (Bain, pg. 74). I found it interesting that when students are having difficulty in class, the best teachers “looked for problems in their courses first rather than in their students’ preparation or intelligence” (Bain, pg. 78). The best teachers are much more focused on the development of students “intellectually, physically, and emotionally” rather than just simply being able to regurgitate facts.
In chapter five, Bain discusses the principles and techniques that the best teachers use when conducting their classes. The principle of creating a natural critical learning environment was new to me and I am interested in seeing how I can integrate it in my work with study abroad. Essentially a critical learning environment starts with a question, provides a support system for students to engage with the question, makes an argument to answer the question, and then ends with a new question. Some of the techniques that foster a successful learning environment were common knowledge, such as keeping students’ attention, helping students learning outside of class, and conducting teaching in a “multitude of ways” (Bain, pg. 114). I loved the example of the “McEvoy-minute around” which allows each student one minute to provide their initial input to a class discussion. It shows the importance that the best teachers believe that every student has a voice, and that voice needs to be heard. The best teachers are life-long learners. With the continual search of knowledge also comes empathy for their own students’ intellectual journey. I appreciated the story of the math professor who conducted an oral examination of a student’s calculus ability, without the student’s knowledge. He was able to pin point that test anxiety, and not a lack of knowledge or ability, was the true reason why his grades were poor on major exams.
Care about their performance as teachers
My favorite story of the book was that of Derrick Bell, the African American Law professor whose journey took him from a teacher at Harvard, to the Dean at the University of Oregon, to a professor at NYU serving on a series of year-long appointments. He left some of his appointments because he felt others were being marginalized. He not only taught social justice, he lived it. Even at 81, with his teaching career spanning forty years, “he still regularly calls the teaching center to ask for suggestions and comments on his work” (Bain, pg. 148). I can assume that Bell shares the same thought that teacher evaluation and student assessment are connected. “When [the best teachers] evaluate their teaching, they do so in part to test their own efforts to facilitate learning” (Bain, pg. 151). They develop assessments to encourage students to think, to question their knowledge, to provide evidence to support their stance. The best teachers provide feedback, and create an environment where they expect students to turn in timely assignments in order to receive those valuable comments. As mentioned earlier, comprehension is the goal, so students oftentimes have the opportunity to resubmit assignments. Based on the student assignments, the best teachers could ascertain if their students are in fact learning the material. The best teachers also evaluate themselves, considering such questions as “am I helping and encouraging the students to learn,” or causing harm by creating a short-term learning environment (Bain, pg. 164).
In summary, I really appreciated this book as my first dive into identifying the most effective teaching practices for successful college professors. This was not a book full of to-do items, but rather a thoughtful study of common schools of thought that support student engagement with new knowledge. People who “may have expected this book to provide them with a few easy tricks that they could apply in their own classrooms” were probably disappointed. (Bain, pg. 174). My only critique with the book, which was so eloquently explained by Kit, is Bain’s lack of transparency in not only his subjects or types of institutions where his professors are employed. I think providing clarity that a considerable effort was made to find the best teachers, not only diverse in nature, but also diverse in their institution types, can only strengthen the main arguments in the book.