Book Review: What The Best College Teachers Do: Ken Bain

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.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Carolina,

    Your book review was very thought-provoking and perfectly illustrated the importance of caring in teaching and learning. I agree that one of the main parts of a teaching philosophy should be based on the principle of caring for the development of the student, their learning, teaching, and self-evaluation. Moreover, I also agree that the idea of the transmission of knowledge versus knowledge construction is one of the main takeaways that I got from this book. I agree that if a teacher actively engages in and challenges the student to focus on how they can learn to process, interpret, and make meaning of the material, then this demonstrates an elevated level of care for learning and the student. Moreover, this allows for students to take control of their learning and demonstrate their mastery of the material through incorporating new information into new and old mental models while making assessments and evaluations of these new meanings.

    While Bain mentions that it is important to establish trust with students instead of demonstrating power, the one thing he didn’t mention was what the best teachers do when students violate this trust. This added dimension of a violations of the teacher’s trust could have brought a lot of value to the readers as it would have given them some strategies for overcoming this obstacle. I was really intrigued by your inclusion of the fact that the “best” teachers looked for problems with their course before looking at their student preparation or intelligence. This point is interesting to me as well as it makes me think of whether teachers can effectively and adequately balance their evaluative reflections between the individual learner and the collective. This is an important distinction because while it is important to maintain a focus on the learner, it can be counterproductive to the collective to change the course based on a select few. In saying this, I fully support the idea of adapting the situation, material, or course to the learner, but the one question that I have for professors is whether they feel prepared and confident to make this type of decision without causing any harm to both the individual student and the collective of students.

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  2. Hi, Carolina,

    Caring for learning, students and the performance of a teacher’s duties in the classroom facilitates the process of learning for students.

    How might students exhibiting characteristics of anonymity or characteristics of gregariousness in the classroom produce different styles of learning?

    Best regards,

    Tony

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  3. Hi Carolina,

    Wow! What a thorough review. It was great to read. I really like how you focus on all the aspects of caring (learning, student, and performance). It’s easy to say they care, but you don’t often hear what they care about. I don’t think people realize how much caring actually goes into good teaching.

    Do you think that you will be able to use some of Bain’s suggestions in your work or do you think they may need to be adjusted some in order to work in your office?

    See you Saturday,
    Marieke Keller

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  4. Carolina,

    One of my favorite parts is also included in your review. Instructors/Teachers/Professors are lifelong learners, and can always look for ways to improve their teaching, their course and their classroom environment.

    Your critique about transparency is something that I did not even think about. I agreed with so much in this book, that I forgot to be a critical reader and keep an eye out for things that should be important. I wonder if the anonymity is part of their agreement to be used as an example? I’m all for transparency, but perhaps the anonymity allows the reader to project these “best” qualities into their own practices without being hindered by a set of characteristics that they may or may not meet. Does that make sense? I do agree with you, though. Mentioning the types of institution could provide another layer of diversity not included.

    – Erin

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  5. Carolina:

    I was nodding the entire time reading your post: Yes! Your opening spoke to my soul. So often buzzwords like “research”, “tenure-track”, and/or “publications” are beaten into our heads. Often, people ask if a research position is the next step in my career. When I respond with uncertainty, I get the look of “yeah….ok….safe answer”. Overall, like you, I enjoyed this book. Also, like you & Kit, I think we could have received more insight to the actual teachers – more background information. I guess I was more sold on the ideas versus the actual teachers.

    Like others, love the “caring” theme.

    – CB

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  6. Carolina,

    There are many parts to this review that I agree with; the first coming in the first sentence. “student-centered teaching patterns shared amongst a sampling of the best college teachers”. I think this phrase and the inclusion of “student centered teaching patterns” is a perfect summary of what Bain and you discussed about what can make students successful.
    As others noted, Your theme of caring about the student goes a long way in shaping your teaching style and identifying what kind of person/teacher you are. I think that you could even take it step father back. If you as a teacher use “student centered teaching patterns”, then wont caring naturally happen? Is it possible to be student centered and not care about the students? The hardest part of teaching sometimes to get out from behind the wall of “this is what the students need to learn because it is important to the field” and get into more of a mindset of “This is what the students need to learn because it will help them be successful”. I will be the first to admit that I far too often get caught in the first thought process, but because of Bains book I will be trying to be more student centered and therefore caring.

    My only suggestion might be to discuss how you demonstrate some of these caring philosophies in the classroom/office/meetings. I enjoyed reading this post again. Thanks,

    -Charlie

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