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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2005

Building Better Teachers

John Hoddinott

What the Best College Teachers Do

Ken Bain. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004; 224 pp; ISBN: 0-674-01325-5, hardcover $21.95 us.
Ken Bain, an historian who studies U.S. foreign policy, is the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. What the Best College Teachers Do won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize, awarded annually by Harvard University Press for an outstanding book on education and society. So why the award?

Its title might suggest the book is another in a long line of self-help works providing teaching tips for faculty — the sort of thing that begins with a digest of educational psychology research findings published over the last century. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to discover it contained the findings of a new research study designed to support the book’s title.

The research synthesizes the work of 63 exceptional teachers of both genders from a range of institutions, career stages and disciplines. The diverse data includes: interviews with teachers, their peers, and students; instructor-prepared course materials; products of student work; and direct observations of teaching in formal and informal settings. Analysis of the data allowed identification of emergent themes and provided a set of anecdotes that enriches the narrative resulting from the analysis. There is no attempt to correlate those themes with the demographic profiles of the participants which is appropriate given the sample size.

Generally the participants — identified as excellent teachers — did what educational psychology research says they should do. They were engaged with their students, encouraged them to collaborate with their peers, they respected diverse forms of learning and had high expectations for learning, etc. Is that not self-fulfilling as the participants selected were excellent teachers? That might be the case if they became excellent through conscious application of the earlier research, but this cohort engaged in those practices because they found them to be the most effective in encouraging learning.

It would be a mistake to regard this book as simply a research report. As the text moves through what the participants know about learning — their preparation for teaching, their conduct of classes, their treatment of students and their learning assessment activities — readers are drawn to reflect on their own practice. By engaging in that reflection readers go part way to satisfying the author when he states: "I hope readers will take away from this book the conviction that good teaching can be learned."

There is one area where Bain, whose approach is more characteristic of the European and Australasian tradition of qualitative research on higher education, breaks with this practice. He does not maintain the distinction between ‘assessment’ of student learning and ‘evaluation’ of instruction and courses. It would be less confusing if he did. However, he still has significant observations to make in these areas.

To do the things this book advocates we need to address several issues. Are our administrative practices supportive of learner-centered pedagogy? Do our assessment practices effectively gauge student learning when we see grading as a means of ranking, not of communicating, with students? To what degree should we evaluate the broader curriculum and assess the personal and intellectual growth of learners over their entire program? Have we explained to our students the graduate attributes we have been encouraging them to develop during those programs? Attending to Bain’s focus on the effective statement of learning outcomes would help.

When the effectiveness of teaching is evaluated is it done from a learning perspective? Bain makes a strong case for the use of teaching portfolios to provide multifaceted evidence on the point but asks the key question: "who will review the cases?" While faculty agreements may give this responsibility to chairpersons or committees, what training do such evaluators receive on what to look for and what standards to uphold? This is especially true if we accept the proposition that "teaching is not just delivering lectures but anything we might do that helps and encourages students to learn."

The book is current in its rejection of the dichotomy between teaching and research — recognizing the place of students in assisting their professors’ research and engaging in their own original investigations, the purpose of which is not simply to demonstrate the achievement of graduate attributes but also to support the collegial environment.

Support of the collegial environment is at the core of the book. By orienting our institutions to be learner-centered, where everyone is fully engaged with the learning process and trusted, we can enhance the everyday experience for all. In an era of increasing accountability, the collateral increases in overall quality as a result of applying the ideas in Bain’s book seems almost incidental. Perhaps this is why it won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize.

John Hoddinott is a biological sciences professor and associate dean of teaching and research at the University of Alberta — Augustana Faculty.