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

This post is part of a series analyzing What The Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (2004). Read part A and part C.


As you read, identify the author’s perspectives and key findings regarding each of the issues.

1. Introduction: Defining the best

It doesn’t matter if we knew them personally, a teacher can still be memorable. Memorable teachers make us have emotional responses that can be communicated to other people. This study is meant to determine what it takes to be the teacher everyone loved, or regretted not having.

Bain describes the best teachers as “helping students in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel.”

In order to deconstruct the idea of a successful teacher, researchers wanted to study those who are thought highly by their students, colleagues and the broader academic community. Students gave feedback on the course experience and their satisfaction, while colleagues weighed in on the validity of the course’s learning objectives.

The study found patterns in the thinking and best practices among the 63 teachers they studied.

2. What they know about how we learn:

These teachers work hard to know and understand both their students and the big-picture issues of their discipline. They have a natural affinity to understand learning, and have developed methods to help others understand and apply knowledge. They know that students prefer understanding content to “learning for the test”.

Teachers need to keep students motivated in the right ways. They make students want to learn, they don’t bully them into it. By treating students with respect they boost intrinsic motivation and they don’t undercut it with extrinsic incentives. If students learn based on extrinsic motivators like points or prizes, they will struggle to learn when those incentives aren’t in place.

Great teachers take on a developmental view of learning, one that acknowledges that knowledge is constructed, not handed out. They speak to the character of the learner while supporting them as they begin to make informed evaluations on their path to mastery. This takes work, and it can be a lengthy process to shift a learner’s mental model.

3. How they prepare to teach:

Effective teachers take their role seriously and are committed to the learning objectives of a course. They know they may need to provide various ways for students to meet their goals so they position the learning objectives as the foundation for each student’s individual learning experience.

This understanding of learning inherently excludes what the author calls the “transmission model” of teaching. Understanding does not occur when information moves from point A to point B; rather, it often involves nonlinear synthesis of information through reasoning and evaluation.

In order to offer students a number of possible paths to mastery, great teachers ask themselves a number of questions. They need to know what they want students to learn and what skills students will need to develop. They need to know what mental models students bring to class, how they will understand their own learning and when they’ll know they’ve made progress. They need to be able to resolve conflicting understandings and challenges to learning. In short, great teachers help students “learn to learn”.

4. What they expect of their students:

Great teachers expect “more”, but for them the word has a unique definition. “More” does not mean increasing the amount of work students produce, it’s about increasing the quality of student work by facilitating a deeper understanding of the material.

In order to do this, teachers need to confront some unpleasant realities their students may face. For example, minority students experience “stereotype vulnerability”, which is a sort of self-sabotage that occurs when someone is overly concerned with fulfilling a stereotype. A student can perform below their true ability because of self-consciousness, even when everything seems fine on the surface. Successful teachers need to learn to spot and alleviate situations like this in order to set realistic expectations for their students.

The best teachers reject power over their students. They tend to trust them, treat them as contemporaries, and respect the wisdom students bring to the classroom. Using their rich understanding of education, great teachers can help students care deeply about a subject while giving them opportunities to practice their learning on meaningful problems.

Bain summarizes well the attitude of a successful teacher.

“Simply put, the best teachers believe that learning involves both personal and intellectual development and neither the ability to think nor the qualities of being a mature human are immutable.”

Reasoning and critical thinking skills are key to higher-order thinking so teachers must ensure that students are able to assess what they know (and don’t know) and develop their own hypotheses. Students demonstrate mastery when they begin to test their work and make modifications based on what they’ve learned.

When setting expectations, great teachers look beyond their classroom to the broader educational ecosystem. They understand that there are external forces that could hinder the ability of students to meet expectations. School administrators, families and communities may not always prioritize students, so a good teacher is their advocate.

5. How they conduct class:

Effective teachers work to create what Bain calls a natural critical learning environment where students’ knowledge is respected and they are encouraged to explore meaningful problems that challenge their understanding of the world.

Creating a natural critical learning environment is key to opening students to growth. These environments can be implemented in a number of ways, but their purpose is to provide a framework where a learner can thrive. The components of such an environment include the identification of a problem, support for understanding it, engagement with higher order intellect, access to the tools needed to solve the problem, and, finally, coming to a conclusion that leads to new questions.

According to the author, students think better in informal environments  That’s because they learn more effectively in safe places where they feel they’re assessed fairly and have the realistic possibility of meeting their goals. In order to put less pressure on students, teachers are encouraged to communicate objectives and expectations clearly and to encourage self-reflection.

6. How they treat their students:

When students are treated with respect and openness in the classroom they are more reflective, more self-assured and better able to master challenging material.

Teachers who truly want to encourage their students show investment in them, not power. They reject the idea that they are superior and put the onus on the student to commit and succeed. Each new student should be approached with openness and each experience viewed as an opportunity for achievement.

In education, this mentality is often called a growth mindset. At its core is the belief that there is always capacity for growth. Education isn’t a zero sum game and there should be no losers. Not only are all learners capable of gaining understanding, but more knowledge can emerge with collective intelligence.

7. How they evaluate their students and themselves:

Goal-setting is key to great teaching. Assessment is not carried out based on arbitrary scoring or regurgitating facts, but it originates from the learning objectives that form the foundation of the course. Achieving these objectives should be a collaborative effort between students and teachers.

Great teachers want to evaluate learning, not rate and rank students. Doing so requires a learner-centered approach that sees learning as a process, not the passing of information. Ideally, grades are not a ranking system for students but a way for teachers to communicate students and better understand relative progress.

Real learning is demonstrated when students can synthesize knowledge into the right information to solve a problem. Since many standardized tests don’t evaluate deep knowledge, teachers should encourage students to understand and observe their own learning. Students shouldn’t spend energy guessing how to pass a test.

Teacher evaluations can be challenging for a number of reasons. Feedback from students can be helpful but it’s not always clear to them when they’re engaged in effective learning. In the end, it’s up to the teacher to seek honest feedback from students and colleagues and to set goals accordingly. Teachers must encourage in themselves what they encourage in their students: the ability to self-assess, determine goals, and plan the steps to meet them.

8. Epilogue: What can we learn from them?

The 63 teachers that participated in this study demonstrate that teaching is both an intellectual exercise and a performance art. Not only must teachers know the material, but they must know how to present it so it meet the needs of their students. Bain observes that, throughout history, the needs of students have been largely ignored in favor of focusing on memorization and recitation. The teachers in this study can help us understand our new paradigm.

The author suggests that a better relationship between educators and researchers might help colleges iterate to improve teaching strategies. Research-based initiatives will help teachers become active participants in their own learning, much like their students should be encouraged to do.

This study took a number of proven approaches to gathering data. Interviews with teachers, students and colleagues, together with classroom observations, paint a well-rounded picture of the work successful teachers do.

The creators of this study admitted to being challenged when defining what “exceptional learning” means. Without this definition, the results of the study are almost entirely qualitative and anecdotal. The author supposes that learning doesn’t benefit from grading, but grades are still a core component in our educational system. It would be interesting to see how these teachers approach grading and to see how students’ grades change over time.

I think research like this can be improved, in part, by balancing qualitative and quantitative results against real-world needs. When budgets, grant funding and scholarships are affected by the grades students get, it’s hard to ignore this perspective on the issue. Throughout the book, I sought more concrete evidence and statistics to elaborate on the successes of these teachers.

Another way to improve future studies would be to research into the ecosystems surrounding education. Go beyond “what” the best teachers do and look at the systems they work among. How do these external factors affect student learning? The next step could be to answer “how” teachers balance the needs of students, parents, school administrators and standards organizations.

Now that we understand the job we need to do, what are the best practices for getting it done?