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What the best college teachers do

In this 2004 book, author Ken Bain discusses why he believes that the best college teachers understand about teaching and learning. Dr. Bain believes the best college teachers understand how their students learn, think deeply about student learning, create meaningful classes and assignments, evaluate what they and students do, and apply that evaluation to future classes.  

Bain’s best teachers have specific thoughts on learning:

Knowledge is constructed, not received.  Bain’s best teachers do not believe that students must “learn the material before they think about it.” The best teachers believe, as cognitive scientist do, that the learner constructs knowledge as they receive it; our brains are both a “storage and processing” unit.  Knowledge consists of facts and processes that link those facts.   As students receive new material, they compare it to what they already know, integrating or deleting information as it enters the brain through the senses.  New information has a better chance of being understood and integrated if the brain already has something to link it to. Information presented without that link is most often deleted.  The take-home message: Memorization without application equals forgetting. The learner must use their own mental process and create their own understanding through active engagement with the material.

Mental models change slowly.  Bain’s best teachers believe that “deep” learning takes time.  Students can learn “superficially”, or just enough to memorize for the test, very quickly.  Changing their mental model takes time. Best teachers helped student change their mental model by constructing classroom activities that challenge the student just enough to make them think about their current mental model.  They also provided the student with a safe, comfortable classroom environment so that the student would be emotionally able to grapple with the challenge. They gave them plenty of opportunities to practice their new mental model, giving them constructive feedback along the way. The take-home message:  Learning for understanding takes time, the proper classroom environment, and activities that help the student construct their own understanding of the information.

Questions are crucial. Questions help students construct knowledge by helping them to understand the holes in their thinking. Questions help students think actively, especially questions that forcing the student to do more than just recall facts.  The take-message:  Question for understanding. Ask questions that force students to apply the material to the discipline, or even every-day life.

Caring is crucial. Students will learn material that they care about. They will learn material that helps them solve problems in their discipline or everyday life. If the material isn’t relevant to them, it has little chance of being learned. The take-home message:  Motivation isn’t necessarily entertaining the student; it is crafting classroom activities and assignments that force the student to problem-solve.

Bain believes that the best college teachers create what he calls “a natural critical learning environment in which they embed the skills and information they wish to teach in assignments that the students will find fascinating.” They create an environment in which the student feels challenged, safe, gets plenty of practice and feedback and is able to relate what they know to what is being learned.


  • Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teacher do. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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