‘What The Best College Teachers Do’

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Book Review and interview with author Ken Bain

By Carolyn Schurr Levin

Sometimes a book comes along that justifies repeated exploration years, even decades, after it was written.

“What The Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain, is such a book.

What The Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

Although it was published in 2004, its insights are uniquely applicable to journalism professors and college media advisers in 2017.

The book, which has become a top selling book on higher education, has been translated into 12 languages and was the subject of a television documentary series in 2007. It captures the collective scholarship of some of the best teachers in the United States by not just recording how they think but also conceptualizing their practices.

Bain’s premise is simple. During 15 years of study, he looked at what the best educators do to help and encourage students to achieve remarkable learning results.

Of course, that is what we all want – remarkable learning results. We strive, every week, to guide out students to achieve those remarkable results. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a roadmap toward that success? That is where Bain’s book comes in.

“I centrally focus on how people learn and how best to foster that learning,” Bain said in a recent telephone interview from his office at the Best Teachers Institute in New Jersey. The institute, according to its website, “collaborates with faculty and administrators to transform their curricula, courses, and even individual class sessions into powerful new learning experiences for their students.”

Bain’s book and the consulting services and workshops he now provides at the Best Teachers Institute are devoted to sharing how “best to create learning environments in which people are most likely to learn deeply.”

By “learning deeply,” Bain is referring not to students doing well on exams or memorizing the important parts of the curriculum, but rather the kind of learning that “transforms people,” and makes “a sustained, substantial, and positive influence” on how students “think, act, and feel.”

He is not concerned with teachers who are well liked, as measured by course evaluations, peer evaluations or otherwise. His goal is to cultivate teachers who reach students “intellectually and educationally” and who leave them “wanting more.”

So, how is this accomplished?

First, Bain writes, without exception, outstanding teachers know their subject matter extremely well. They are all active and accomplished scholars, artists, or scientists.

For college media advisers, this may mean knowing not just how to craft compelling stories, headlines or leads that catch readers’ or viewers’ attention, but also understanding the broader social, political, ethical and even legal context in which student journalists are operating.

The best teachers “reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields,” says Bain.

Attending CMA and other conferences, sharing issues that arise with other college media advisers on the CMA list serve, and otherwise staying up to date on current issues affecting student media are just some of the ways the best college advisers routinely do this.

Exceptional teachers, Bain continues, “treat their lectures, discussion sessions, problem-based sessions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.”

What do they expect of their students?  The best teachers expect more from their students. More, though, does not mean more assignments, more homework, or even more hours. The best teachers set high standards and convey a strong trust in their students’ abilities to meet them.

Bain refers to a considerable body of research finding that intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivators are critical. In general, the teachers he researched tried to avoid extrinsic motivators and fostered intrinsic ones, moving students toward learning goals and a mastery orientation.

“They gave students as much control over their own education as possible and displayed both a strong interest in their learning and a faith in their abilities,” Bain says.

The best teachers, Bain adds, encourage cooperation and collaboration and know when to step in with the right kind of help at the right time.

“They offered nonjudgmental feedback on students’ work, stressed opportunities to improve, constantly looked  for ways to stimulate advancement, and avoided dividing their students into the sheep and the goats,” he says.

During the recent interview, Bain spoke about a course he taught at Northwestern University 20 years ago. He introduced his students to the idea that although he would provide ongoing feedback, their grades would ultimately be determined by a blind reader, a colleague at another university.

“I was the coach,” he said; “the person providing feedback, not the judge, jury and executioner.” This, in turn, was one of the most successful courses he has taught.

The best teachers create “natural critical learning environments” with collaboration and feedback and that are also challenging, supportive, and encouraging of questions, Bain says, noting that students need  to feel they are in charge of their education and making the decisions. Exceptional teachers can foster this process by asking their students “for a commitment to the class and the learning.”

If you’re not sparking discussion and interest, find out why, Bain says.

Ask yourself what would make it important to them? If the results of quizzes are consistently poor, use an alternative to evaluate learning. Provide feedback to help your students learn.

Most importantly, perhaps, highly effective teachers, Bain says, treat their students with “simple decency.” They look for and appreciate the individual value of each student. They have great faith in students’ ability to achieve. Bain writes that a theme he heard frequently from the professors in his study was “the relationship of trust that develops between me and my students.”

Bain’s advice is simple and yet complex. The key to understanding the best teaching cannot be found in particular practices or rules, but rather in the attitudes of the teachers, in their faith in their students’ abilities to achieve, in their willingness to take their students seriously, and in their commitment to let the central learning objectives flow from a mutual respect between students and teachers.

For more information on Bain’s approach to teaching, the Best Teachers Institute will run its 21st annual summer institute from June 26-28, 2018 in South Orange, New Jersey. More information is available at  http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/summer-institute/.


Carolyn Levin

About the Author: Carolyn Schurr Levin, an attorney specializing in Media Law and the First Amendment, is a professor of journalism and the faculty adviser for the student newspaper at Long Island University, LIU Post. She is also a lecturer and the media law adviser for the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. She has practiced law for over 25 years, including as the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday and the Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media. 

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