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What the Best College Teachers Do

By Ken Bain
Harvard University Press
224 pages
ISBN: 0-674-01325-5
$21.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

María Dolores Costa

Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
California State University, Los Angeles


What the Best College Teachers Do analyzes teaching in different academic fields, breaking the process down into its core components—knowledge of subject matter, research, scholarship, critical learning environments, learning results, and evaluation—in order to discover what works best (and, by contrast, what simply does not work). The author focuses on professors who turn class time into an adventure of the mind and attempts to get inside the minds of the best university educators. To determine who is or is not qualified to be rated best, the author looks at syllabi, examinations, assignments, lecture, notes, student evaluations, sample student work, teaching philosophies, and small-group analysis of the efforts of specific instructors according to the actual learning outcomes that could be deduced from these materials. The work is inspiring and provides plenty of material for contemplation when planning and assessing ones own teaching (as well as that of one’s colleagues).

Despite the title, this is not, as Bain notes, a rote, “teach by the numbers” work, although something is bound to rub off when analyzing good college teaching. What the best educators have in common is the way they think about their students’ learning. The text points out that although techniques and methodologies vary wildly among the most outstanding instructors, they tend to be highly experimental and open to innovation. One of the author’s concerns is that there be more of a tradition of good teaching at the college level that can be passed on from one generation of professors to the next, and this heritage would have to be based on philosophical approaches to education rather than on specific teaching strategies.

Good college teaching begins, the author reminds us, with the syllabus. The best teachers enumerate in their syllabi the specific skills students will develop in their courses. In listing them, the concentration is not on the subject matter to be covered, but on what the students will be doing, what should be happening in their minds throughout the term, and how they should be developing their intellectual abilities. Syllabi should not be designed to cram into the course as many concepts and subjects as possible, but to ascertain that the students “get it” and that their achievements can be accurately measured. The best college teachers want their students to reason, think critically, understand, apply new information, and analyze their own thinking and the thinking of others. Good teachers, Bain tells us, look at how they themselves accomplish all of these tasks, and then devise course strategies to help the students acquire the same capacities. Rote repetition of facts provided in lectures or in readings will not lead to these abilities, so it should not be the centerpiece of syllabi, exams, or assignments.

An issue that comes up in several contexts is the appraisal of good or bad teaching. According to Bain, student surveys are valuable, only if they are used to gauge the learning students have experienced in the class, rather than the popularity of the instructor. Further, while most peer evaluations of teaching focus on what the professor does in the classroom, the focus should really be on what the students are doing, how they are performing in the classroom, and if and how they are growing intellectually in the course.

Too many college educators focus on covering the material or on forcing students to plug the right answers into questions. For Bain, this is the exactly wrong approach. Students should feel that they are in control of their own learning, working on meaningful projects in the class. This goal should be the focus of all class activities, including examinations, written assignments, and homework. Memorization and busywork do not make for good teaching or effective learning. Bain says that students must take ownership of their own learning because no educator can learn for them. Classes that foster this sense of learning ownership will be more profitable, as will courses in which students can learn to assess their own work.

Giving low grades is not necessarily conducive to good teaching, especially if based solely on rewarding those with correct answers and punishing those who, in the instructor’s estimation, have answered incorrectly. Grading should be truthful in the sense that it precisely measures the accomplishments of the students, but it should not be a disciplinary process designed to penalize those who do not engage in certain behaviors predetermined by the instructor. Bain warns us that there are students who learn to play the game, to plug in the correct responses on exams and in coursework, but who ultimately learn and retain very little from the course. Since that outcome is a failure of class planning and design, syllabi should not overemphasize the information to be covered, but focus what students will or should be doing mentally while they are in the class. Moreover, Bain says that in all academic disciplines, truth is something to be constantly questioned, expanded upon, renewed, and refined. Teaching students simply to supply certain responses sends the wrong message about what people in the field actually do.

Bain also reminds us that labeling certain students as “smart” or “not so bright” can prove to be self-fulfilling prophecies. All students, regardless of what they bring to the class on the first day, are capable of growing and developing. No one should be written off, or educators are not fulfilling their mission. He even recommends that, in some cases, assignments be tailored to individual students based on their own needs and interests.

While reading this book, I thought about my own teaching – the courses that were successful and the ones that were less so. The juxtaposition of my own experiences and the text convinced me that Bain’s conclusions are quite persuasive and that he has done a thorough job of synthesizing the elements of successful college teaching. Professors of all types will benefit from this work, either by refreshing their own already strong teaching or moving toward a more learning-centered approach to course design and implementation.

Posted May 24, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by María Dolores Costa.

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