At just over a decade old, Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do can rightly be named a classic in the literature of teaching and learning in higher education.Cover of What the Best College Teachers Do

It is a simple question: What do the best college teachers do? Bain attempted to answer the question by interviewing students, teachers, and observing college teachers around the country. He and his team considered course materials as well – syllabi, examinations, lecture notes, and samples of student work.

He defined being the best as those professors who had “achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel…We chose teachers because they produced important educational results.”

The results had to be lasting, but came in many forms, strategies, and approaches. Below are a few excerpts of what those professors did.

The best teachers are “fellow students – no, fellow human beings – struggling with the mysteries of the universe, human society, historical development, or whatever.”

The best teachers are the best students. Being willing to learn – to question and grow – is a hallmark of a great teacher.

Yes, you should be a master of your content – teacher credibility is a key to great teaching. But no single person holds the keys to the content in any of our courses. And few exit teaching or masters programs as true experts in their field. Expert status requires not only years of experience and learning, but a willingness to always learn more – new research and new perspectives, better examples and stronger stories.

Show your students that you are still dazzled by your content and be rewarded by their willingness to engage simply because of your contagious enthusiasm.

The best teachers raise the best questions. “The most effective teachers help students keep the larger questions of the course constantly at the forefront.” 

Or to put it in the opposite form, “Many teachers never raise questions; they simply give students answers.”

Answers crush curiosity. If we only ever explain content, we are literally explaining away our students’ curiosity. However, raising compelling, engaging, and real questions about our content – questions we may struggle to fully and completely answer ourselves – creates curiosity and engagement. It creates sustained and substantial learning.

The best college teachers design the learning experiences in their classes around questions. These questions have many names: guiding questions, hinge questions, essential questions. Whatever you title them, a deep understanding of the specific content you are teaching should be required to answer them. The questions should be open ended, thought provoking, and, when appropriate, controversial.

“When students had difficulty in class, the best professors looked for problems in their courses first rather than in their students’ preparation or intelligence.”

Put bluntly, the best teachers don’t blame their students when things go awry.

The paradox is that the best teachers are the best because they address those moments when they are below par. Admitting a mistake, addressing a poorly designed test, taking responsibility for a bad lecture doesn’t make you a bad teacher – according to Bain it makes you one of the best.

How often do you look to the organization and teaching in your class as the reason for your students’ poor performance?

“Highly effective teachers design better learning experiences for their students in part because they conceive of teaching as fostering learning.” 

How we design and facilitate each lesson matters. Higher education has a tendency to focus on the content of the class; the best college teachers focus on how to help their students learn that content. What a course covers means nothing if a student leaves not having learned the content.

As a result the class culture, learning strategies, assignments, and resources used should all be chosen and implemented because they foster learning. Dave Burgess is on the extreme side of this when he describes teaching like cooking. Chefs don’t place a raw steak on a plate and hand it to their customers. They prepare, season, and cook the best ingredients into an irresistible meal. Teachers should consider their classrooms in much the same way: each resource an ingredient, each lesson a meal, and each student a customer with a palate watered by the right seasoning.

Burgess calls it “teaching like a pirate,” but Bain says it’s simply what the best teachers do.

The best teachers understand “that fear and anxiety can reduce the capacity to think, they promote intellectual excitement and curiosity rather than worry and doubt…”

Our goal is not to reduce our class size, to scare them into studying, or let them know we are serious. They know you are serious, otherwise you wouldn’t be standing before them with a graduate degree paired with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Bain outlines the effect that fear, anxiety, and stress have on students. All students. Not just those with test anxiety, or the students who are not prepared for college. We control the emotional and mental thermostat of our classrooms. We can encourage, support, and inspire, or we can increase the likelihood that a student may have to drop out of more than just our class.

Be intentional in how you address your students.

Be intentional in how you describe your class.

Be intentional about when and how you design your assessments.

Be intentional in creating an atmosphere of excitement and curiosity.

As Bain puts it, “The major ideas that animate the best teachers stem from a very basic observation: Human beings are curious animals. People learn naturally while trying to solve problems that concern them.” Create curiosity, and watch your students come to the learning.

“The best teachers plan backward; they begin with the results they hope to foster.”

Many teachers understand this concept as Understanding by Design after the book by the same name.

This is the education form of not putting the cart before the horse: establishing what learning is expected, basing assessments on those core learnings, then planning teaching to that effect. Rather than writing a test the night before students take it, write the test before you give the lecture.

When we, as teachers, know what we want out students to learn, we can teach with greater clarity.

“Lectures from highly effective teachers nearly always have the same five elements of natural critical learning noted above. They begin with a question (sometimes embedded in a story), continue with some attempt to help students understand the significance of the question (connecting it to larger questions, raising it in provocative ways, noting its implications), stimulate students to engage the question critically, make an argument about how to answer that question (complete with evidence, reasoning, and conclusion), and end with questions.”

Lectures are the hallmark of the college classroom. Lectures can also be the bane of a students existence. Poorly planned and presented lectures do less for learning than dry textbooks.

Plan your lectures around a central guiding question. Tell a story, provide examples, or visuals to reinforce what your are explaining. Make connections for students: they are amateurs needing an experts way of thinking so provide it! Answer the question with a clean argument. Present evidence, reasoning, and then pose questions. Require them to answer!

And with that, I had better quit before I publish the entire book on the blog.

Long story short: if you are looking for inspiration, for a spark, a push to innovate, or a few big concepts to adjust your teaching, pick up a copy of What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain.

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