on August 1, 2004
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. The book unquestionably draws from a variety of important research articles, but in no way is this a dry read about pedagogical research. Ken Bain tells a good story in each chapter and uses both his experiential base and the literature to bolster his conclusions. What emerges is a practical, wise, and intelligent discussion of the best college teaching that is written in plain English. I read the book in two evenings quite easily. It is unusual to find such a well-written book containing a wealth of knowledge you can take back to the job.
This book is suitable for anyone teaching at the college level. Regardless of whether you are a graduate student preparing to teach for the first time, an experienced educator at the undergraduate level, or a top-flight researcher delivering graduate seminars, I have no doubt there is something we can all learn from each chapter.
Maybe as my final point I will share that I found the book so useful I purchased a copy for all new faculty arriving at my university this year. I can only hope my colleagues find the book as engaging as I do.
on September 10, 2006
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?
The huge emphasis Bain puts on connecting course material to a student's personal concerns makes me wonder what would happen if a professor got up and talked about... the civil war ...computers ...botany. Can't teachers count on the inherent interest of anything?
The advice in the book frequently ignores real world teaching problems. Bain is very positive about take home exams, thinking it's silly to pass up their advantages because of worries about cheating. But these worries are serious.
He's very positive about the idea that every exam should be cumulative, with only the last one counting. A student should be able to miss an exam with impunity. They probably had some good reason. Hmm. In the best of all possible worlds, yes. My students wouldn't come to the exams that didn't count.
Be tolerant of late work, he says; there was probably a good reason. That's not my experience. Students need firm deadlines or some of them will never do any work.
It puzzles me that Bain's best teachers do things in their classrooms that really would be unworkable in mine. There's nothing in the book that addresses this disconnect.
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.
I've also been in environments where students were expected to get A's -- a B-plus was the closest to a failing grade. Students who genuinely wanted to learn were frustrated by whiny, do-nothing classmates who could hardly provide a stimulating classroom conducive to learning.
Most important Bain dismisses evaluations. but in reality, nearly every professor will live or die by student opinion. And great teaching does not always lead to top evaluations. I once heard a talk about an experimental astronomy class, where students engaged in participatory exercises throughout the term. They performed better on tests and appeared to learn far more thoroughly. Yet evaluations were lower than those of conventional classes. Unless the professor has some protection (and even tenured profs can get penalized for weak reports), you can bet he'll go back to the tried and true methods next time.
I had a similar experience myself, while teaching in a large state university. I would overhear students say, "I've never participated as much as I have in your class." One group of students even organized a little party for our class -- and they were commuters. We had a great community and students learned a lot. But the course evaluations had no place to describe these experiences. Students told me openly, "I base my evaluations on the grade I get."
If you're going to read this book, I'd also recommend Rebekah Nathan's Freshman Year. Nathan, the professor who went undercover to learn how students really live, identifies some reasons students continue to be demotivated. For example, Bain notes that an attitude of "Everyone is right" comes at a stage of learning development. But Nathan shows us orientation exercises where everyone shares an opinion -- no judgment, no synthesis, no analysis.
A professor can get lots of good ideas from reading Bain's book. Putting those ideas into practice -- well, that's another book.
What would be far more useful would be a serious study on learning. In Chapter 2, Bain cites studies showing that students don't change beliefs readily. I think he's right. A college sophomore who was studying psychology told me, "I don't like what we're learning. Depression isn't real. I was brought up to think about those who are worse off than I am -- and then I won't be depressed anymore."
Will this student's belief be changed by the "best" teaching? Does she belong in a university at all? These questions should haunt us as we study the real issues of higher education.
on June 21, 2006
Although I like a great deal in this book, underneath it strikes me as basically a re-statement of the innovative teaching manifestos of the 1960s, right down to quoting Jerry Farber (whose book I still have).
Bain's is a book about student control, authenticity, caring, deep learning, involvement, meaning, collaboration, positive expectations, trust, take-home exams, students teaching one another, higher order thinking skills...
That's truly grand and wonderful, except to those of us who have lived and worked for a few decades with the limitations of some of those concepts. They magical concepts, but magic turns out not to be enough.
To make these attractive ideas sound even better, Bain sets up, throughout the book, a straw man who teaches "a frozen body of dogma," in terms like: traditional, conventional, habitual, memorizing, recognize the correct answer, details, orthodox (p. 114), surface learning, bulemic learning (!), counting off for late work, frozen artifacts, using "old yellowed notes in the teacher's mind" (158).
It is truly weird to see such a substantial book setting up a false opposite and ridiculing him/her/us. By contrast, Bain never considers what happens when well-meaning teachers take his concepts to excess. (And they/we certainly do.)
The book does not address certain concepts vital to teaching and learning, and I miss them -- such as willpower, setting priorities, managing time, developing and improving skills, practice and repetition, hard work, relentless effort, self-sacrifice, commitment to excellence, competition based on achievement, professionalism, responsibility, internalizing values, gaining content knowledge, self-discipline, ethics, and self-directed learning skills in the sense of Knowles.
Part of the reason seems to be acceptance by Bain and the teachers studied of the concept of Higher Order Thinking Skills, developed from Bloom's cognitive taxonomy. First of all, the HOTS idea devalues its foundation -- content knowledge through comprehension and recall. Second, the cognitive taxonomy rests invisibly upon the taxonomy of affective skills, less known, more important. That's about commitment, participation, and the disciplined internalization of values -- more or less "professionalism."
Four-fifths of the teachers studied for this book came from rather elite institutions ("research institutions"), and even though Bain claims these concepts work well anywhere, I'm not convinced.
With eager, accessible, willing students (think Northwestern, NYU, Harvard), an amazing variety of teaching approaches work well. But many of these concepts do not work easily or well with college students who are underprepared, undermotivated, and do not know how to succeed in the classroom. And may not want to.
Would an ordinary teacher put down this book and know how to teach better? That's not a sure thing. Will good teachers improve from it? I'd like to hear from you.
For a very different book, a "what do I cook for dinner" kind of book on teaching, take a look at Barbara Gross Davis' "Tools for Teaching," the kind of practical, how-to book that you need alongside Bain's invigorating, inspiring, glorious ideas. Davis gives you a list of things to do the first day of class, and it goes on from there.
I don't want to discourage you from reading Bain's book. It's worth reading.
on June 19, 2005
This is a review of What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain.
Bain, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at NYU, did a study of outstanding college-level teachers. For example, the students of calculus teacher Dan Saari of UC Irvine obtain a disproportionately large percentage of the A's on their school's college-wide calculus final. The medical students of cell biologist Jeanette Norden of Vanderbilt do far better than the national average on their board exams. In other cases, the success is in principle less clearly demonstrable. (How would one "prove" that a philosophy or English professor taught exceptionally well?) But Bain and his colleagues were particularly interested in professors whose students said changed the way they think, and sparked a lifelong interest in the subject.
Bain wanted to find out what such outstanding teachers had in common. The basic lesson he arrived at is easy to formulate (although challenging to implement). Mediocre and bad teachers typically subscribe to a "transmission model" of education, in which teaching is a matter of transmitting knowledge from the professor's brain to the students' brains. Outstanding teachers, in contrast, assume a "learning model" of education. The teacher who subscribes to a learning model is constantly searching to find what her students need to learn, constantly adjusts to meet those needs, and always responds to students' failures with efforts to teach better.
This might seem like an obvious point, but it is not. Speaking as someone who has been teaching for about twenty years, it is very easy to get into the mindset that says, "I put the knowledge out there. It's the students' job to pick it up." I have not myself fallen into that mindset (not most of the time, anyway), but many teachers do.
A further conclusion of the book is that the attitude of the professor is far more important than any other aspect of teaching. Pedagogic styles vary greatly among outstanding professors. Some lecture, others do not. (Interestingly, none lectures exclusively.) Some have outgoing personalities, some are shy. Some argue with their students, others are more collegial. (Significantly, no outstanding teachers humiliate their students or make them afraid to argue. It follows from this study that someone like "Professor Kingsfield" of the Paper Chase is the very worst kind of teacher.) Outstanding teachers have a style that goes beyond simple technique, but is not (for that reason) unlearnable. In particular, outstanding teachers are extremely knowledgeable about their subject, but at the same time they manifest humility (that they do not know everything themselves, and that their teaching can always improve), respect (for their students as humans, whom they never humiliate), faith (that their students can learn if given the right opportunity), and trust (that their students will make an honest effort, given the right environment).
The difficulties of achieving real learning are vividly illustrated by a study conducted by two physicists who tested students at the beginning of introductory physics courses on their understanding of the motion of physical bodies. Unsurprisingly, the students "entered the course with an elementary, intuitive theory about the physical world, what the physicists called 'a cross between Aristotelian and 14th-century impetus ideas'" (22). After the students had completed the course, they tested them again. Surprisingly, most students had exactly the same ideas about motion that they had entered the course with, including a number of students who got A's. Wait, it gets worse! The physicists conducted interviews with some of the students, and performed experiments in front of them demonstrating that their views were mistaken. "What they heard astonished them: many of the students still refused to give up their mistaken ideas about motion" (23). Part of what this illustrates is that professors need to develop an awareness of what mental models the students bring to the course and of how these models may interfere with learning. Then the teachers have to devise methods for encouraging the students to dismantle these models for themselves, and get better ones.
Of course, some students face additional challenges. In one experiment, two otherwise comparable groups of African-American students were given a portion of the Graduate Record Examination. One group was told that it tested their ability, while the other group was told that it was a "laboratory task that was used to study how certain problems are generally solved" (70). The former students performed significantly less well. Apparently, stereotyping produces performance anxiety that can adversely affect students. Even more stunning (I thought), in another study, three groups of Asian American women were given the same math test. Prior to the test, one group was given a questionnaire that included a question identifying their race, one group had a questionnaire that included a question identifying their gender, and the third group's questionnaire mentioned neither. The group with the racial question performed the best (responding apparently to the reverse stereotype that Asians are good at math), and the group with the gender question performed the worst (responding to the stereotype that women are worse at math).
What kind of learning are we trying to promote in our students? One group of psychologists has identified four levels of understanding that students can go through. (1) "Received knowers" are students who expect there to be definitive answers that they can regurgitate on tests or in papers, ideally word-for-word. Received knowers may eventually become aware of the fact that, in many areas, there are no simple right or wrong answers. They then typically graduate to being (2) "subjective knowers." Subjective knowers regard everything as simply a matter of opinion. If they get a low grade, their initial reaction is that it represents nothing but the professor's subjective (and annoyingly punitive) personal opinion. (3) "Procedural knowers" are the students who have learned to "play the game." They have learned that there are standards internal to intellectual disciplines, and they have learned to meet those standards. But for procedural knowers, it's still just a game. Like the students in the physics class who get an A but continue to think the same way about motion, procedural knowers never really internalize the standards. (4) Those who do internalize the standards of the discipline have achieved "commitment." But commitment is not just mindless acceptance of the standards. The student who is committed thinks deeply and critically about those standards. Within the level of commitment, the study distinguished between "separate knowers," who like to remain skeptical and critical, and "connected knowers," who try to understand other views sympathetically and synthetically. (Interestingly, more women than men seem to prefer being connected knowers. This implies that different techniques may be needed to guide male and female students to the fourth level, and that they may manifest having achieved this level in different ways.)
How can we achieve these goals? Empirical testing shows that extrinsic rewards for behavior that are seen as manipulative tend to decrease long-term interest in an activity, whereas intrinsic rewards (finding something interesting in itself) and positive verbal reinforcement stimulate and maintain interest. This applies to grading as a motivator as well. Students motivated by grades learn less effectively and have less long-term interest in the subject than those motivated either by the intrinsic interest of the topic or praise.
Students generally seem to respond best to being given high standards, along with assurances that they can meet them. Indeed, it turns out that students who are "at risk" in science courses actually do significantly better if they are invited into honors courses, rather than being put into remedial classes. This counterintuitive approach apparently works because it signals to students just that combination of high standards and confidence in the student's abilities.
In the chapter on how outstanding teacher conduct classes, Bain identifies the five elements of what he calls a "natural critical learning environment": (1) start with some question that students will find intriguing, (2) help the students to see why this question is important, (3) encourage the students to think actively and critically, rather than just listening and remembering, (4) guide the students to working out an answer, and (5) leave the student with further questions. Some of us have done this intuitively, but even so it is helpful to have the steps laid out explicitly. Although he stresses that good teaching is more than techniques, Bain also provides some helpful tips in this chapter. One should call on shy students the way one "might do so around the dinner table rather than the way they might cross-exam them in a courtroom" (131). When lecturing, use techniques like dramatic pauses, and change one's pace every ten or so minutes. Invite students rather than commanding them: for example, begin the semester asking for a show of hands of who is willing to show up, be on time and intellectually participate in every class.
Scattered throughout the book are a number of other interesting facts. Like many teachers, I have been very skeptical of whether student evaluations are anything other than a popularity contest. (This is not sour grapes: I have more than once received "perfect" ratings from an entire class of students.) However, it turns out that there is empirical evidence that two evaluation questions do correlate with independent measures of student learning: "Did the professor help you learn?" and "Did the professor stimulate your interest in the subject?" (13) On the other hand, a 1993 study showed that student evaluations of teachers based on video clips of a few seconds in length were substantially the same as those they would give after a semester. Bain charitably concludes that students have simply gotten very good at accurately determining who will or will not turn out to be a good teacher. Well, perhaps. But if my snap judgments of students at the beginning of the semester generally correlated with the final grades I assigned them, would you assume I was an insightful teacher, or a superficial and dogmatic one?
Although it occasionally succumbs to vague rhetoric, this book is overall a very useful guide to some of what we know about good college pedagogy.
This is a sweet book that many will find interesting and even, at times, inspiring. It recounts some `best practices' utilized by top teachers. It acknowledges that there are no magic bullet solutions, that the process of teaching is complex and that as teachers we must be ever vigilant and ever open to change. It is broken down into 7 chapters, each of which asks a question, e.g., "How do top teachers prepare to teach?" "What do they expect of their students?" "How do they conduct class?" and so on.
There are helpful ideas here and a few key ones: e.g. it is very important to not only understand your discipline but to also know the key controversies, historical issues, methodological conflicts, and so on within that discipline. The most important idea in the book: abandon `simple transmittal' ideas of teaching and strive, instead, to create a learning community. Make `student learning' the focus of the class.
This is very interesting and, in some ways, cogent. Unfortunately, the book has very little to say about the current state of teaching, the current state of American universities and the administrative challenges to developing a student learning model that could also be evaluated.
In my classes, e.g., there is a wide mix of students--students from different schools, students from different majors, students who are freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. I have students who are highly-motivated auditors, students who are taking the class because it fills a requirement, students who are taking the class because it fits their work schedule, students who couldn't enroll in the closed course that they really wanted to take, and so on. I have A students and I have occasional D students, students who are passionate about the material and students who are in college because they feel that they have to be there, in order to secure the kind of job that will enable them to have the things which they desire.
At the same time, my state mandates the use of a particular teaching evaluation instrument in addition to my departmental evaluation instrument. Evaluations are utilized in assessing junior faculty for promotion, associate professors for promotion to full professor, post-tenure reviews and for all nominees for the multiple teaching awards available within the university and university system.
We have, in short, committed ourselves to a number of things (easily-administered evaluation systems, `access', `diverse populations', `nontraditional students', etc.) that complicate the advice offered by Dr. Bain. We know, for example, that student evaluations are radically flawed. The numbers skew up in small, elective courses, skew down in large, required courses. They do not, by any stretch of the imagination, measure student learning. They encourage `consumerism'.
On the other hand, the kind of apparatus which Dr. Bain envisions to actually measure student learning--looking closely at all course materials, sitting in on more than one or two classes, studying student papers and exams to measure the degree of their learning, and so on is simply not `administrable' given the size and complexity of the operation. Each of us can develop a sense of what our students have learned and that is very important; the focus on that learning is very important. Our evaluation systems, department- , college- and campus-wide, however, are very, very crude and they may actually hinder learning, in some important respects. They are, however, fully institutionalized.
In the late 60's I taught at West Point. All students, by class, took the same courses; these courses were required; they all had 15 students per section; the students were `sectioned' by merit (i.e. prior performance). Each class was resectioned multiple times in the course of a semester (usually 3 times), so that each instructor knew the level of quality of a class, saw the final work from the previous sectioning period, and could actually assess whether or not the previous sectioning period's instructor had contributed to the student's learning or not. We had a floating instructor so that we were freed up to visit one another's classes on a regular basis. The institution was constantly visited by high school guidance counsellors, senior officers, etc., so that `class visitations' were an everyday occurrence and not disruptive. All of our classes were taught at the same time. In yearling (sophomore) comparative literature (more like `world literature' actually) the classes were all in the early afternoon, right after physical training, hot showers and many-caloried lunches, so that attention spans were more or less even across the 15 sections of the course.
We also rotated the preparation of lesson plans for each block of instruction, so that each of us could see the kind of planning that the other instructors were capable of producing. Our rating officer (i.e. the boss) regularly examined papers that we had graded and evaluated our acuity and the quality of our comments. This is the only kind of structure in which evaluation of instruction can be conducted with anything approaching the kind of reliability that I would consider serious.
Needless to say, there is nothing in civilian undergraduate education that is remotely like this in 2011. That does not mean that we cannot have superb teaching. My point is that we have already institutionalized a whole host of practices which need to be taken into account when we talk, seriously, about teaching. We begin with existing structures--the results of 40+ years of budgetary/policy decisions; then we can consider significant changes.
These wider contexts are almost wholly ignored in Dr. Bain's book. To take but a single point: the vast majority of key (for me, language-centered) education in the regional public institution which most students attend is conducted by contingent faculty. These faculty survive or `fail' based on student evaluations. That fact results in educational practices, some, perhaps many, of which run counter to Dr. Bain's recommendations. I support Dr. Bain's recommendations, at least the great majority of them, but given the academic contexts which we have created they strike me as almost other-worldly.
As a relatively new college instructor I've been absorbing many of these books on the best teaching methods. But there is an undeniable pattern in the genre, in that these books reflect the ideal world achieved by veteran professors who have gained the opportunity to experiment with small classes in elite institutions with open-minded administrators. Those of us without those luxuries are still waiting for our own comprehensive guide to college teaching - not just from the book market but sometimes from our own departments.
As is usual in books of this nature, we learn the best methods for teaching the best students in receptive college environments that allow for personalized strategies. But grittier realities like large classes in auditoriums, taught by instructors faced with unyielding departmental requirements and the oversight of old-school administrators (and maybe even governments for public universities), are treated as exceptions, regardless of the fact that most college students and instructors start out in these environments.
Granted, Ken Bain does a pretty good job discussing the latest theories of teaching and offering exemplary war stories from the best professors at elite institutions. Much of the book is actually quite informative for those interested in the latest pedagogical theories. But the unfortunate trends of the genre keep damaging this book's true usefulness for a major percentage of its intended audience. Items of interest for less pampered college instructors pop up occasionally and briefly, like a single subsection in Chapter 5 on how to use your voice in a lecture hall, but the book keeps collapsing into buzzwords and new-age ideals like "learning-based approach" and "critical learning environment." Bain also continuously tells us how great it is for professors to accept late assignments, offer take-home exams, or treat students to dinner every week, as if his entire audience has such flexibility.
These methods may well improve student learning if you have the opportunity, but like many of his fellow experts Bain forgot that most of his audience does not enjoy the luxuries enjoyed by the professors studied herein. I plan to be in that stratosphere someday, with my own Chair in a department that offers me free rein in small classes with ultra-modern conveniences. When most of my colleagues and I get to that point, we might finally be in the audience for typical books like this on how to teach college. [~doomsdayer520~]
on September 18, 2005
What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004) is a good read for teachers interested in deepening their understanding of the art and craft of their profession. The book provides an in-depth definition, through field study research, of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Bain's research goes to the heart of what legislators and college accreditors call "assessment" by documenting what "teachers do that truly makes a difference in students' lives, and what any teacher can do to improve" (blurb by Richard Light on back cover). The best performers in any field are the ones most likely looking for ways to improve, but Bain's method does include examples of poor techniques for comparison.
Bain offers numerous examples of highly effective classroom assessment techniques. One idea he offers is the "small group analysis."
"Someone goes into the class while the instructor leaves the room. The consultant divides the students into small groups or pairs and asks each team to spend six or seven minutes discussing three questions: In what ways has the instruction/instructor helped you learn in this course? Can you suggest some changes in the instruction/course that would better help you to learn? If the course/instruction has helped you learn, what is the nature of that learning? Each team receives the questions on paper and is encouraged to take notes of their discussions. After six or seven minutes, the consultant brings the groups back together and gets feedback from some of them while inviting others to share any major additions to or disagreements with what they heard from their colleagues. The whole process takes less than twenty minutes and allows the consultant both to clarify (to ask those questions that we have all wanted to pursue when we read students' comments) and to verify (to find out if there are any divisions in the ranks)" (p. 159).
The book describes the results of scholarly and also intuitive modes of inquiry concerned with more effective teaching and learning for the teacher that wants to help create better learning. This book provides some research-based ideas about how college teachers can use experimentation, research, analysis, and reflection to deepen student learning.
The book is short (178 pages minus appendix etc.) with a conversational style that makes it a quick read in spite of the wealth of information.
on August 19, 2005
I read about this book on a psychology teaching email list that I belong to and it seemed like it would be a great book. It turns out that the recommendations were correct. The author and his colleagues created a study where they followed college teachers form many disciplines and found what exactly made these people "the best college teachers." The author describes what they know about how students learn, how they prepare to teach, what they expect from their students, how they conduct class, how they treat their students, and how they evaluate their students and themselves. This isn't a "how to be a great teacher" book, but it gives many great suggestions for how to improve your teaching and your courses. I highly suggest this book to anyone who is interested in teaching and is interested in how to make their courses more student-centered.
Ken Bain currently directs the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, so he knows what he's talking about. His study of the best teachers and what they do took more than a decade to put together and resulted in several conclusions which are helpfully stated at the beginning of this book: the best teachers, not surprisingly, know their own fields extremely well and think long and hard about how to convey that knowledge. The best teachers don't just teach facts, they teach students how to think. The best teachers respect their students and assume everyone can learn, and they constantly assess and evaluate their own efforts as well as those of their students.
It was enjoyable for me to peruse this volume and compare my own teaching to the models described therein: to nod in agreement when the they matched what I did, to think about improving or modifying my approaches when they did not. After finishing it I can't say I slavishly agree with all of Bain's conclusions or admonitions--I still believe that in my field a certain level of basic technical mastery is essential for further achievement. (And there's nothing wrong that I can see with requiring students to meet deadlines.) However, Bain's work has motivated me to strive to improve how I impart that mastery, and caused me to re-examine "truths" that I thought were self-evident. It's my guess that such soul-searching is what this volume was meant to evoke.
I also suggest reading Patrick Allitt's "I'm the Teacher, You're the Student" for an interesting and rather different perspective on teaching in higher education.