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What the Best College Teachers Do [Hardcover]

Ken Bain
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 30, 2004 0674013255 978-0674013254 1

What makes a great teacher great? Who are the professors students remember long after graduation? This book, the conclusion of a fifteen-year study of nearly one hundred college teachers in a wide variety of fields and universities, offers valuable answers for all educators.

The short answer is--it's not what teachers do, it's what they understand. Lesson plans and lecture notes matter less than the special way teachers comprehend the subject and value human learning. Whether historians or physicists, in El Paso or St. Paul, the best teachers know their subjects inside and out--but they also know how to engage and challenge students and to provoke impassioned responses. Most of all, they believe two things fervently: that teaching matters and that students can learn.

In stories both humorous and touching, Bain describes examples of ingenuity and compassion, of students' discoveries of new ideas and the depth of their own potential. What the Best College Teachers Do is a treasure trove of insight and inspiration for first-year teachers and seasoned educators.


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bain’s sound and scholarly yet exuberant promotion of America’s "best college teachers" abounds with jaunty anecdotes and inspiring opinions that make student-centered instruction look not only infectious, but downright imperative. Teachers may enjoy the book’s plummy examples from their peers’ interdisciplinary curricula—such as the Harvard chemistry professor whose "lesson on polymers becomes the story of how the development of nylons influenced the outcome of World War II" or the U Penn art professor whose computer game allows students to determine the authenticity of a questionable Rembrandt. Bain’s most compelling arguments, however, concern the quirks and motivations of today’s college students. Though he acknowledges nationwide trends toward grade inflation, he invokes a 1990 study that suggests students are most driven by "high demands" and prefer "plentiful opportunities to revise and improve their work before it receives a grade." Likewise, the book argues that, even in the cutthroat climate of today’s competitive colleges, students thrive best in cooperative classrooms. The best teachers, Bain avers, understand and exceed such expectations, and use them to create "natural critical learning environments." Easy-to-follow headings—such as "Start with the Students Rather Than the Discipline"—help readers learn to create such environments, too. Inspiring though this slender book will be for college teachers at all levels, it may also delight the general reader with nostalgic reminders of their finest classroom experiences.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

With the strong conviction that good teaching can be learned, and after 15 years of observing teachers in action, Bain undertook an exploration of the essentials of effective teaching. The result is an insightful look at what makes a great teacher, based on a study of three dozen teachers from a cross section of disciplines from medical-school faculties to undergraduate departments. After interviewing students and colleagues, observing classrooms and laboratories, and examining course materials from syllabi to lecture notes, Bain concludes that the quality of teaching is measured not by whether students pass exams but whether they retain the material to such an extent that it influences their thoughts and actions. Bain focuses on what the best teachers know and understand about their subject matter as well as the learning process; how they prepare; what they expect of their students; how they treat students; and how they evaluate student progress. Although this book is aimed at teachers, it is a thoughtful and valuable resource for students and parents as well. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 207 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (May 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674013255
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674013254
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,794 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

President, Best Teachers Institute, Ken Bain spent much of his academic career at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and NYU, before becoming Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of History and Urban Education (National Center for Urban Education), University of the District of Columbia, a post he left in July 2013. He was the founding director of four major teaching and learning centers: the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, and the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair University. In the 1970's and early 80's he was Professor of History at the University of Texas--Pan American, where he also served as director of that school's University Honors Program and as founding director of the History Teaching Center, a pioneering program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities to promote greater collaboration between history teachers on the secondary level and university and college research historians. From 1984 to 1986, he served as director of the National History Teaching Center, which had a similar mission on the national level.

His historical scholarship centers on the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East (principal works include The March to Zion: United States Policy and the Founding of Israel, 1980, 2000), but he has long taken an interest in teaching and learning issues and in recent years has contributed to the scholarship in that area. Internationally recognized for his insights into teaching and learning and for a fifteen-year study of what the best educators do, he has been invited in recent years to present workshops or lectures at over three hundred and fifty universities and events--in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. His learning research has concentrated on a wide range of issues, including deep and sustained learning and the creation of natural critical learning environments.

His now classic book What the Best College Teachers Do. (Harvard University Press, 2004) won the 2004 Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for an outstanding book on education and society, and has been one of the top selling books on higher education. It has been translated into twelve languages and was the subject of an award-winning television documentary series in 2007.

The sequel, What the Best College Students Do, also from Harvard University Press, won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize in 2012, and has become an international best seller.

He has won four major teaching awards, including a teacher-of-the-year award, faculty nomination for the Minnie Piper Foundation Award for outstanding college teacher in Texas in 1980 and 1981, and Honors Professor of the Year Awards in 1985 and 1986. A 1990 national publication named him one of the best teachers in the United States.

He has received awards from the Harry S Truman Library, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the International Studies Association, among others. He is currently completing his third book on U.S. relations with the Middle East (The Last Journey Home: Franklin Roosevelt and the Middle East). He is also working on three books in the "Best" series: What the Best College Administrators Do, What the Best Online Teachers Do, and What the Best K-12 Teachers Do.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
202 of 211 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Read for Those Who Value Teaching August 1, 2004
Format:Hardcover
Ken Bain has written precisely the sort of book I wish someone had shared with me during my graduate school days. Like many of my colleagues, I was left to my own devices inside the college classroom. My solution was to emulate those professors I respected as a student. Other than a few days of preparation in 1990, I never had any sort of systematic training about good classroom performance or how students learn.

Ken Bain, Director for the Center of Teaching Excellence at New York University, has provided a valuable resource for all of us in a similar situation. Perhaps the most striking feature of Bain's book is that it is not a how-to approach. If you are looking for a host of specific techniques to apply, then other teaching resources will better suit your needs. Instead, Bain's book looks at the best college teaching from a more bird's eye view to identify the essential characteristics of our best teachers. Some of the key themes include:

- How the best teachers connect content knowledge with real-world practice so that students exhibit learning (change).

- How the best teachers exhibit some combination of 13 goals or targets for preparing to teach.

- What the best teachers expect of their students.

- How the best teachers draw from seven unifying principles to deliver a course.

- The types of invitations that the best teachers extend to their students when attempting to draw them into a learning community.

- How we can learn more about our teaching, and improve, by pursuing a robost course evaluation system.

These are the key themes. Each is developed with a variety of examples that the author has gathered over the years while working at Vandebilt, Northwestern, and now NYU.
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151 of 161 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful, sigh September 10, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If I had to summarize this book in two words, they would be "only connect" (E.M. Forster). Bain advises college teachers to orient their teaching to the students in the room. We--and I say we because I am one--need to know what presuppositions students bring to the class; we need to keep students' attention by connecting the new to the familiar; we need to turn students into learners and thinkers, instead of cramming facts into their heads. Etc. etc.

All this sound like common sense, but in fact it goes against the standard orientation of college teachers. The usual thing is to think first about the subject of the course, about which the teacher is presumably an expert. The subject, and the teacher's deep knowledge of it, steers lectures and exams. The problem is that this can put students to sleep and leave them with an acquaintance with the subject that fades soon after the final exam.

I'm glad I bought this book, I recommend it, and I think it's going to make my own teaching better. All that being said, here are some more negative reactions. What if everything Bain says is actually true? What would that say about the American college student? His advice makes the student sound like a fragile creature who's got to be seduced into an interest in anything outside of himself.

For example, Bain says professors shouldn't use the word "requirements" on the syllabus. They should promise students specific valuable things, but never demand. In fact, he seems to say that the exact way grades are computed shouldn't be stated. What would happen if there were clear and straightforward demands? Would students crumble?
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235 of 260 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "In an ideal world..." July 30, 2006
Format:Hardcover
As a former college professor who does some online teaching from time to time, I was fascinated by Bain's book. Bain identified a number of teachers who made a meaningful impact on student lives. He and his team followed up to ask, "What makes them so great?"

And he has answers. Anyone who's been teaching awhile will not be surprised. Ask questions. Get students involved. Don't just tell -- teach students how to learn. And so on.

But, as other reviewers have noted. Bain's "best" professors appear to dwell among the Olympians of higher education. We don't have a complete list of the "best," but we get references to Harvard and Vanderbilt.

In the real world, the vast majority of today's students enter large state institutions. They begin with large lecture classes. It *is* possible to personalize those classes to some extent but you certainly don't have room for discussion.

Additionally, most students juggle work, family and social pressures along with school. Many spend more time watching television than studying. A friend who won a major teaching award told me, "I don't make students do the reading. I know they won't."

Bain also ignores institutional pressures on faculty. When I taught online for a well-respected university, I was told, "You're expected to give at least a couple of C's and F's in every class."

OK, I said, then we should be fair: we need to let them know there's a forced curve, as Harvard does. No dice. And in this particular class, most students were majors who worked full-time. Their assignments were linked to their jobs. All were motivated to work hard. As Bain says, high grades can also reflect high learning -- but just try and prove it.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth its weight in Gold
First off, a little info about myself:I teach physics and engineering at the pre-U and undergraduate level. Read more
Published 28 days ago by Dr. Lee Chong Yew
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Foundational Knowledge
This book truly understands that the best teachers are both scientists ( possess analytical skills ) and artists (use a variety of medium to express thoughts/ideas and motivate the... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Karen L. Dunlap
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading for College Professors
In college, I had a number of professors that were brilliant, but didn't teach very well. I'd make this required reading for professors, especially those who haven't had education... Read more
Published 1 month ago by John Garcia
5.0 out of 5 stars A very useful and challenging book for any collegue teacher
At first glance, I was very renuent to buy this book. 'Another set of recipes for eliminating chalk and talk teaching', I thought. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Miguel A.
5.0 out of 5 stars Puts Me Back on Tract
Some might say that there is nothing new here, but I think it is a nudge into what we, as college teachers, sometimes forget and need a reminder. Read more
Published 2 months ago by M. Schirack
5.0 out of 5 stars Teach to Learn
Ken Bain puts to words a practice of teaching we all should be seeking as both educators as well as fellow humans. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Steve Sparks
3.0 out of 5 stars too much fluff
This book doesn't contain much content, but rather repeats it's mantra that teaching is a responsibility that involves empowering students through two-way communication. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Nick Del Grosso
5.0 out of 5 stars An Eye-Opening Description of What Makes an Excellent Professor
As someone who's had the experience of teaching undergraduate and adult students in China for over 10 years, I was interested in reading this book in the hopes that it will offer... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Derek
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic work on the characteristics and behaviors of good college...
A few years old, but still very, very good.

Note: this is not exactly a "get in it and drive" book on teaching (Huston's "Teaching What You Don't Know"... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Sherman Dorn
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
Bain presented excellent insights to highly effective teaching techniques. The skills presented in this book are applicable across all disciplines and platforms (face-to-face and... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Barry Chametzky
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