Review of “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain

“What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain

This is my first attempt at a review. I’m starting to look at getting published as part of my professional development, and I think writing reviews is an interesting option. Writing reviews on my blog is a good way to test the waters in that regard! Another part of my professional development is self-directed learning, and I like to look for material that has an audience outside librarianship. I think this helps me stretch as a librarian, and it makes sense to get ideas and guidance from as many areas as possible. I chose this book to read after seeing it recommended on a listserv. The version I read was published in 2004, but there is a 2012 edition as well.

I enjoyed reading this book for several reasons. It was well-written, it had a lot of lists (and I’m a sucker for them!), and he thoroughly explained his methodology throughout the book. I appreciated the last point because I feel that any work making a claim to impart knowledge on the best of something should document how that determination was made. Bain used a combination of methods such as surveys, focus groups, anecdotal evidence, performance measures and observation to come to his conclusion. He used a lot of concrete examples of how different teachers work with students both in an out of the classroom. It’s very inspiring stuff.

That being said, some of it didn’t apply to the work I currently do. I only teach one shot sessions at this stage in my career, so some of the advice and information that applied to building over a semester, grading, and testing was not applicable. I recognize that in the future I may have the opportunity to teach all or part of a semester long course, so I still made an effort to read and digest those sections of the text. It’s a short book, so I don’t want to get too in detail about the contents.

The biggest lesson I took from the text was that students have mental models and perceptions about everything, and if you don’t work to change these you won’t have had a significant impact on the student. Bain gave many examples of how to identify these perceptions and how to help students overcome, modify, or confirm them. One of the notes I made as I read says “all students come to an educational situation with ingrained stereotypes and expectations based on past experience; need to motivate and encourage students to achieve their goals without triggering these negative pressures”. Anyone who teaches should take time to think about who their students are and what they are bringing with them when they step in your class. This will inform how you build activities and lessons, interact with students in class, and react to their successes or failures.

Bain also discussed the spectrum of scholarship and how we need to teach students how to be successful in a discipline, which incorporates much more than factual knowledge. This reminded me of my AP Psychology teacher in high school. In our first class she introduced a method for taking notes where you read an article in sections and highlight the important parts. After each section you go back to what you highlighted and make notes on the side. At the end of the article you can go back through your highlights and notes to add anything else that came up after reading. We were graded on how well we did this. Looking back I realize what an enormous amount of effort she put into teaching us this skill, and how valuable it was to me for the rest of my academic career. Taking the time to teach a skill like note taking may seem like a distraction from the necessities of learning facts, but in actuality these skills will make it easier for students to incorporate and assimilate knowledge throughout the course and their lives.

Throughout the book it becomes clear that Bain favors a Socratic-style method of asking scaffolded questions of the students and guiding their struggle to come up with answers.  One quote I copied summed this up nicely -“In the discussion, the teachers asked students what they thought about important issues and problems and why. As ideas began to flow, they pressed them for evidence, questioned them about the nature of the evidence, invoked arguments from the resources, encouraged and allowed students to challenge each other, pointed out agreements and disagreements in belief and attitude, and raised appropriate questions.” p. 127-128

The most important thing I can do now that I review my experience reading the book is tie it back to what I do.  Another note I made was “it’s likely more important for me to teach students the value of authority in research and  this will inspire them to want to know the mechanics of database and catalog searching.” I have started to incorporate this philosophy into some of my instruction, especially in higher level classes. I can’t expect students to choose academic sources if they haven’t first begun to think critically about the research process and the value of authoritative sources. Another theme that came up was using storytelling and other methods to get the students to relax and accept your information. Bain gave examples of how teachers would share their struggles in the discipline with students. This is another technique I try to use when possible. When I discuss academic journals and the peer review process I always tell students that when I was a freshman in college I didn’t understand a lot of the jargon in the articles, but that by the time I was a senior I used them almost exclusively.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who teaches at a college level, even if you aren’t a faculty member. I can see how it would also be useful to college staff who work with students as advisors, as tutors or in student services. There are a lot of fundamental ideas about how people learn, what they bring with them to any situation, and the barriers to successful learning that apply to a much broader audience than college faculty.


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