What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard, 2004) by Ken Bain argues that effective teaching should be defined by the learning it enables. That is, the focus in determining whether someone teaches well, or in deciding whether a particular teaching strategy works, should fall on how well students are learning. Bain focuses on a group of teachers widely recognized as highly effective, describing their teaching methods and habits and especially their ways of interacting with students. Covering everything from body language to class assignments to group discussions to academic standards, Bain attempts to show how these teachers have succeeded in bringing about significant learning among their students.
I read this book partially on the recommendation of colleagues, partially because Bain visited UGA last year and I had the chance to have lunch with him and other faculty, and partially, especially, because I wanted ideas and suggestions that might strengthen my teaching this fall term. As a source of ideas and suggestions for improving teaching, this book is partially successful. It is not a teaching “how to” book, but it covers through the teachers it highlights a number of different approaches that I might employ. As an argument for a teaching philosophy that is student-centered and that defines effective teaching on the basis of what students learn, the book is highly successful. There are points with which I don’t agree. Sometimes I think Bain is a bit too optimistic, but in general he forcefully articulates what teaching effectiveness should mean: he contends that what students experience in the classroom matters, that their satisfaction with the course is important, that teaching is not merely presenting a body of knowledge but is more importantly a process of engaging students with that body of knowledge.
A number of the teachers Bain highlights stress to their students early in the course, often on the first day of class, that they must make a commitment to the class: “Even without any formal and public ceremonies of commitment, highly effective teachers approach each class as if they expect students to listen, think, and respond. That expectation appears in scores of little habits: eye contact they make, the enthusiasm in their voice, the willingness to call on students.” (p. 113). I especially liked his attitude towards grading. We should not be so concerned, he argues, with whether the grades in a particular class are too high or low, but with how well students in that class have learned. (Obviously, students are going to be concerned about low grades). Measuring student learning is not so easy. Grades do mean something, however, and I don’t think we can explain away a class in which all students receive high grades by arguing that all the students learned equally well. In my own classes, the best students generally receive the best grades, not because they regurgitate my lectures and the material of the course, but because they have absorbed and analyzed and integrated that knowledge into their thinking and are able to reflect what they have learned in effective writing and in class discussions. There are exceptions of course, and I can recall students who were deeply engaged with a course in which they received B or C grades because they couldn’t articulate what they had learned—they were poor writers, for instance. In an English class (in any class, for that matter) is it wrong to fault poor writers?.
What the Best College Teachers Do provided me with ideas that I’ll try in my class this fall. Most importantly, it reified an attitude towards teaching and towards students that I subscribe to: that teaching should be student centered, and that such teaching does not diminish the rigor or the quality of the course.
One caveat: the book tends to discuss teachers who for the most part teach in fields other than the humanities. Still, humanist teachers can find much of value in the book.