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"In an ideal world..."
on July 30, 2006
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.