Educational Goals, Instruction, and Assessment | Preparatory Assignment Fall 2015 (part A)

This post is the first in a series analyzing What The Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (2004). Read part B and part C.


Before you read the book reflect on your experience with college teachers.

1. How would you define “the best?”

The best teachers don’t work to serve themselves, or even their colleges; the best teachers work in service of learning. That means they synthesize all aspects of the learning experience: the personalities of their students, the course content, pedagogy and engagement while meeting academic standards.

It’s obvious to students when a teacher neglects one of these components. The class can feel disjointed and can become challenging for the wrong reasons. For example, when it’s clear a teacher is focused on facts to memorize for a test, it’s difficult to feel empowered and respected as a learner, and it’s hard to think critically and retain lasting knowledge.

As a student, I feel better and more committed when I understand that what I’m doing has broader meaning and will benefit my life beyond the classroom. Great teachers can make even the most tedious content meaningful by describing it in the right context. The best teachers I have had work to relate course content to current events and real-life examples. This offers an instant incentive- helping students understand that the skills they are learning are immediately applicable to the world around them.

When I think of a memorable teacher as “the best” I feel emphatic, because the best teachers elicit real emotional responses from their students. An emotional connection with the teacher is critical to nurturing lasting connections to the class material.

Armed with an emotional connection and course content, the best teachers can help students own their learning. Students aren’t likely to invest in their own learning if they know their teachers aren’t invested. When students have the right support, motivation and opportunities to see their learning in practice, they will become more eager (and able) to master the content.

2. What do you think the best college teachers know about how their students learn?

The best college teachers know that not all students learn the same way or at the same pace, so they are prepared to match a variety of learning styles in order to get the content across.

Life shapes the way students learn. Even in homogeneous populations, each student brings different experience to college. Education can vary widely across public and private schools, and students bring their own tendencies as well as those they have picked up along the way.

Life experiences can affect learning in both positive and negative ways, so it’s important for teachers to listen to students and respect what they bring to the classroom. Students should not be treated like they’re ill-equipped to learn. Just because they lack experience in one area doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute to their own learning. It’s up to teachers to understand what those contributions are and to help students apply them. Good teachers address their student’s learning challenges in a seamless way; they don’t put public focus on a struggling student or embarrass them. The best teachers I’ve had constantly ask questions to help learners get themselves “unstuck”.

Successful teachers don’t make assumptions about their students. I’ve had teachers who “knew” that college freshmen acted a certain way, and sophomores another way, and they told the students so. They may have been grandstanding about their many years of teaching, but it had the effect of putting a cap on what I felt I could learn in the course. I was working on my second bachelor’s degree at the time, so even though I was a sophomore I did not fit this description and felt my experience (which should have been a positive thing) had been dismissed.

What do they expect of their students?

The best teachers expect successful students to push beyond their ability and comfort zone to master the material. They understand that discomfort precedes growth, and that new experiences are always opportunities for learning. Despite challenges, effective teachers expect their students to commit to the learning process to make progress.

3. How do you think they prepare to teach?

Successful teachers are best able to reach students when they are strategic in planning their lessons. They need to balance the learning objectives of the course and the learning styles of the students, to determine the most effective way the two can work together.

Great teachers prepare for class by iterating. They know they’re always competing for attention and that students disengage when they’re “talked at”, so they listen in the classroom and act on new information. They use feedback from their experiences in the classroom to design and tweak future lesson plans to make them more interesting to learners.

It is important to understand how society influences students, and great teachers pay attention to pop culture and keep up with technology trends. The best teachers I have had tend to embrace progress and learn about the world their students live in- they don’t dismiss it. The concepts and people students engage with frequently shape how they learn and view the world, and understanding the demographics of the community can offer insight into student perspectives.

Years ago I had a professor who only used a typewriter. He was proud to be a luddite, but it was inefficient and frustrating for students. He didn’t even have an email address until the school made him get one. As a student I was reluctant to learn about building my own future from a person who clung so tightly to the past.

How do they conduct class?

Class should be conducted in a way that respects the learners and the content. A great classroom should be an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions, learning new things and messing up.

Even though teachers and students must meet certain standards, they still must allow time for more than memorization of content. To master concepts, students need time for thinking critically and exploring what they’ve learned. Whether I was studying math or the arts I have always thrived in project-based, rather than test-focused, classes. Those teachers helped me learn by blurring the lines between classwork, homework and real-life problem solving.

I am a big believer in play as an educational tool. I think a playful attitude, creative play and collaborative exercises can help disarm students, making them more open to new learning experiences and relationships. Play also helps students iterate and encourages students to try different approaches to solve a problem. Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered many playful teachers in higher education.

How do they treat their students?

Great teachers are always optimistic about their students. When challenged by a student’s performance, a great teacher will try a variety of approaches until they find a solution. Great teachers don’t take a “my way or the highway” approach in their classroom, they maintain a productive dialogue with their students.

In my experience, the most rewarding relationship with an instructor is one of respect. It is empowering to feel that not only are you capable of learning the material, but you have the potential to make valuable contributions to the field and the future.

How do they evaluate their students and themselves?

Self-awareness is as important for teachers as it is for students. This can be difficult for teachers because they have to assume the role of a learner in order to improve, but must maintain their status as an expert and authority figure. Honest conversations with students can let teachers know what information is having an impact with students and what isn’t.

The best feedback for teachers seems to come from classroom experiences and deliberate conversation. Although I’ve completed a number of them, student evaluations don’t seem to be particularly useful. I’ve had great casual conversations with instructors about the coursework, but more official feedback and surveys seem procedural and they echo the type of “test” great teachers try to avoid. They are usually delivered unenthusiastically, pose generic questions, and aren’t presented as useful to the student experience.

Taking on the role of a learner is a common goal for students and teachers. It’s important for both groups to take an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and determine their objectives and priorities. Awareness is only the first step in changing behavior, so teachers must actively work to define and tackle goals in their classroom. They should map out a path to their goals and determine interim milestones to show they’re making progress.