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

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


After reading the book, review the book’s key points in relation to your experience and consider the possible explanations for both similarities and differences.

1. In what ways were your initial reflections different from Bain’s conclusions? Why?

My initial reflections were not that much different from Bain’s conclusions, in large part because I’ve worked with innovative teachers at many grade levels for most of my career. I have long reflected on my own academic experiences and how they facilitated learning- or didn’t- and have come to similar conclusions, albeit more casually.

What surprised me when reflecting on my own experience for this exercise was how much easier it is to remember the negative experiences I’ve had as a student than the positive ones. I have had great teachers and I remember them by name, but from a student’s limited perspective it was hard to comprehend exactly what they did to create a smooth learning experience. It was much easier to recall the curmudgeons and ego-driven teachers who interfered with my learning.

2. What have you learned that might help you be a better teacher of college students?

The point made by this study that resonated with me the most is the idea that great teachers reject power over their students. This act is fundamental to creating more inviting learning experiences, environments and relationships between students and course content. It’s the undercurrent of most of the best practices mentioned in this study.

Related to this point is the importance of listening to students. Listening is a refreshing change from the lecture-style often practiced in college classrooms. Teachers can listen actively, through conversations or requests for direct feedback, or passively by observing students actions in the classroom and interactions with each other.

The content from this study that I think is the most practical for the classroom was the most empirical: a breakdown of the “promising syllabus”, the characteristics of a natural critical learning environment and detailing the stages of developmental learning.

3. What implications can you draw for the design of educational interventions for students of any age and for research to test their efficacy?

In the past few decades, there has been a slow shift in education. It has become more commonplace to begin with a learner-centered focus, not a task-based evaluation. Developing an intervention framework that can be applied to a variety of learners and classrooms is critical to making success repeatable. Applying design thinking to education is a good start, but the complete process will likely take many more iterations.

As this study indicates, research on effectiveness should be as broad as possible to match the variability in educational settings. Bain and his team did well to include a large sample size of teachers that spanned different types of colleges and a variety of course content. Evidence was gathered from a wide variety of proven research strategies; interviews, observations, and collection of learning tools.

However, this particular study was designed to identify trends among great teachers, not to study educational success over time. In order to effectively determine the success of educational programs, a longitudinal study would be necessary. Data on student success rates could be used in conjunction with best practices for teachers to develop a framework that could be tested in the classroom.

4. What questions remain?

The main difference between my own perspective and Bain’s is that I have grown to see the classroom as part of a larger system. This book is great at summarizing effective strategies for the classroom, but it doesn’t address how they can be achieved in the real world. I understand the study was not designed to answer these questions, but they are critical to determining what’s next.

This book was interesting, but many of the findings felt a bit ambiguous to be readily applied to the classroom. The focus on qualitative evidence undercuts the fact that quantitative research into improvement is critical in education. Bain and I can agree that grades don’t do much for learning, but academic progress needs to be measured and communicated for reasons beyond personal evolution. Many teachers with great ideas struggle in systems that demand standardized tests, improving grades and quantitative evidence of student progress. Research can be key in helping us make sense of these systems so that great teachers and their students can thrive.