“What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain

I’m on a sabbatical and should really be thinking about, reading and writing fiction. However, machinations for next semester have already begun – requests for course outlines and scheduling preferences are already rolling in – and every couple of days I find myself picking up, fondling and opening my copy of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

I first heard about Bain’s book through a brief review in Salon.com a couple of years ago. The review seems to be no longer available, but I remember it saying something along the lines of “This is the best book on college teaching ever written and every college teacher should read it.” I can’t disagree.

Bain created a study in which he defined and observed “outstanding” college teachers, and then explored a series of questions in order to help us understand what makes such a teacher so successful:

1. What do the best teachers know and understand?
2. How do they prepare to teach?
3. What do they expect of their students?
4. What do they do when they teach?
5. How do they treat students?
6. How do they check their [own] progress and evaluate their efforts?

Bain ends the introduction to the book with an inspiring call to personal action and reflection:

I hope this book will inspire readers to make a systematic and reflective appraisal of their own teaching approaches and strategies, asking themselves why they do certain kinds of things and not others….Ideally, readers will treat their teaching as they likely already treat their own scholarship or artistic creations: as serious and important intellectual and creative work, as an endeavor that benefits from careful observation and close analysis, from revision and refinement, and from dialogues with colleagues and the critiques of peers.

The rest of the book enumerates some of the key characteristics the best college teachers have in common: what they know about learning, how they prepare for class, what they expect of and how they treat their students, how they conduct their classes, and how they evaluate their students’ and their own learning. Bain’s general thesis is that “good teaching can be learned” – different teachers need to know themselves and their personalities and adapt their methods, but the fundamentals can be acquired through practice, observation, and self-evaluation.

I’ve read this book repeatedly, more for inspiration than practical help. I find myself tensing in resistance to some of its conclusions. For example, while conducting his study, Bain observed that the best teachers “threw caution to the winds and did what they thought would benefit learning,” even when the structure of their assignments would give more opportunities for cheating (take-home exams, for example.) I would love to throw out my plagiarism contracts and give my students two weeks at home to do every assignment. I really would, but I just can’t. Apparently, if I were one of the best college teachers, my trust in my students would “produce little if any worry…that students might try to trick [me].” I’m not there yet.

However, other points Bain makes, like his assertion that the best college teachers “start with the students rather than the discipline,” are heartening to me. As teachers, we sometimes feel tired, or guilty, or angry, about the fact that students are not capable of doing the things we want them to do. I grumble, and listen to grumbling, about grammatical errors, comprehension difficulties, senseless essay “structure”, and the fact that we can’t teach To the Lighthouse any more. My solution to this problem has always been to find out what students can do, and start from there. One teacher in Bain’s study explains that he always starts with something “students care about, know, or think they know, rather than just lay out a blueprint or an outline or tale or theory.”

All in all, Bain’s general portrait of excellence in teaching rings very true. In reading his descriptions, I sensed that I’d love to be in one of these teachers’ classrooms. I found myself wishing I could be an art history student for a day so I could play Larry Silver’s forgery-spotting game “Is It a Rembrandt?” I wanted to sit in on Dudley Hershbach’s lesson on polymers so I could hear his stories about “how the development of nylons influenced the outcome of War II” and write poetry about chemical concepts.

I don’t want to think about teaching yet. I have two and a half more months of respite, and the break has already done a lot to clear my mind and soothe my nerves. When I’m ready, though, I’m going to pick up What the Best College Teachers Do and read it from cover to cover once more.

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