A Review of Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 207 Hardcover $18.38

By juxtaposing illustrations of effective and ineffective teaching within higher education across different disciplines, Ken Bain, the President of the Best Teachers Institute, suggests a new focus for how teachers think and conceptualize their teaching techniques and strategies. As a well-renowned scholar that has written on issues pertaining to higher education teaching and learning such as deep and sustained learning and the creation of natural critical learning environments, Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) spans across several disciplines of higher education, covering how teachers in different disciplines facilitate transformational learning through learning-centered teaching. Although it is very subjective, it is a masterful and engaging narrative of the best teaching and learning practices and the progressive thinking of how successful educators conceptualize their teaching. Bain possesses outstanding control of this complex narrative which is full of pedagogical nuances that are self-reflective and thought-provoking. These nuances perfectly demonstrated how carefully constructed personal narratives from successful teachers functioned as self-reflective mechanisms to help readers form appraisals of their own teaching approaches and strategies while helping them understand that effective teaching can be learned.

While all seven chapters (excluding the Epilogue) can stand alone, together they cohere chronologically, conceptually, and thematically to illustrate how Bain exposes the intricacies of the US higher education pedagogical framework through the perspective of highly successful and effective teachers. Bain traces his fundamental issue and argument by demonstrating higher education’s evolving relationship and engagement with the ideal of teaching and learning being a developmental process that shifts from “transmitting” knowledge to knowledge construction. Although Bain explores this transition, the most interesting and extensive perspective of this transformational shift is the role of intersectionality, reflection, self-evaluation, and willingness to change in teaching and learning within higher education. Moreover, Bain manages to control an unwieldy mass of material and coherently group seemingly purposeful illustrations and ideas to propel the narrative of professors succeeding in helping students learn in ways that sustain a substantial positive influence on students’ thoughts, actions, and feelings. These illustrations, ideas, and conclusions emerge as markers and categories of distinction between effective and ineffective teaching and learning. In the process, these techniques, strategies, and approaches that might have been overlooked emerge with clarity.

This book is structured along six broad questions that serve not only as the chapter titles for the book, but also as the basis for the conclusions drawn from the responses of the “outstanding” teachers that were included in the study. The first chapter of this book functions as an introduction to teaching and learning within higher education and transitions into the major conclusions of Bain’s study. The second chapter focuses on specific conclusions that were drawn from teachers’ responses to what they knew and understood. The third chapter focuses on a close examination of the patterns of questions that effective teachers used to form the initial starting point and foundation of their preparation for teaching students. Subsequently, the fourth chapter carefully explores the pedagogical practices and thinking of professors to assess the expectations that the “best” teachers had of their students. Moreover, the fifth chapter discusses the various methods the “best” professors use in their instructional methods to create learning opportunities that help build a natural critical learning environment. The sixth chapter focuses on how these teachers treated their students. Last, the seventh chapter discusses how professors use different evaluation and assessment methods for feedback on their teaching, how they use the evaluation of students to help establish reflective assessment of their teaching and the student’s learning, and how they design and approach grading to keep the focus on real learning objectives.

The first chapter of Bain’s book is a cursory but pivotal overview of the major conclusions of the study as it effectively sets the foundation for how “outstanding” teachers think about their practices and strategies. The assertions made in this chapter align with my perspective that effective teachers and administrators have the ability to help students develop and implement techniques for better comprehension of fundamental principles, organize concepts to help construct individualized understanding and provocative insights, and simplify and clarify complex ideas. This ability stresses the importance of beginning with questions about student learning objectives and development rather than about what the teacher or administrator will do. While the first chapter introduces the main conclusions formed from the questions asked of effective teachers, the second chapter provides a unique and interesting cognitively-driven perspective of how knowledge is constructed, mental models change slowly, and the critical role of questions and caring in how teachers understand how students learn. I agree that people learn best when they ask questions that demonstrate genuine interest or express a desire to accomplish a goal that is contingent upon reconciling, explaining, modifying, or integrating new knowledge with old. I believe that through this process, students make the shift from focusing on “transmitting” knowledge to stimulating knowledge construction through “deep” learning rather than “surface” learning. Thus, students begin to understand and remember what they have learned because they have not only mastered concepts but are using their reasoning ability to integrate these concepts.

In the third chapter, Bain successfully illustrates how teaching can be anything that teachers do to foster and encourage learning through a strong concern for and understanding of the development of students. This point resonated with my view of teaching as it is the crux of my teaching philosophy that stresses that teaching can occur and be conducted within an academic and nonacademic context. That is, teaching is not an isolated action that can only happen in the classroom but can occur outside the classroom through the actions of others that are not functioning within the traditional role of a teacher. The fourth chapter serves as a summative juncture that ties together several of the earlier threads by describing how learning takes place not when students perform well on examinations but when they evaluate how they think and behave well beyond the classroom. It is a crucial part of the book because it allows the audience to reflect on the focus of teaching within both the present and future context. Moreover, it provides a strong and convincing argument that the future of effective teaching centers on the need for students to confront important concepts and ideas that allow students to see them from a variety of perspectives and to build their own understanding of the material. This confrontation will help students shift their focus from making the grade to thinking about personal goals of development and “deep” learning that is meaningful both inside and outside of the classroom. Last, the seventh chapter serves as a revelation to readers by explain the overall working framework of how effective teachers operate within a learning-centered approach that views evaluation and assessment as supportively intertwined to deliberately benefit learning. The readers have an understanding that students should prepare themselves intellectually, to concentrate on what they understand and how they reason with what they comprehend. Moreover, the goal should be to establish congruity between the intellectual objectives of the course and those that the evaluation mechanism assesses. Thus, these mechanisms of evaluation and assessment should function as extensions of the kind of work that is already occurring.

There are two major points of contention that resonated with me while reading Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004). The notion that actual classroom performance and the manner in which teachers achieved their results was not important was slightly troubling and contradictory with other points raised later in the book. Bain raised this point in the first chapter of the book, but later contradicted this point in the fifth chapter when discussing the employment of teaching crafts in the classroom. Bain indicated that performance in front of students can affect how they learn. This contradiction was troubling because the tests that were used for the study were concerned with what students learned and whether they were highly satisfied with the teaching and it inspired them to learn. Since the tests were focused on student learning and satisfaction, it would make since to acknowledge that performance could impact these perceptions based on the Bain’s statement in the fifth chapter. Furthermore, it seemed counter to the narrative to dedicate an entire chapter to discussing teaching techniques and strategies within the classroom (i.e., warm language, getting students to talk, making explanations, and good talk) if how teachers achieved their results and actual classroom performance of teachers didn’t matter for this study. Another point of contention was that Bain did not acknowledge how performance-based thinking is slightly reflected in learning-centered approaches. While I support the learning-centered approach, there is a need for Bain to acknowledge that some tenets of performance-based thinking are incorporated into learning-centered approaches. I make this point because the ends result of either approach is always a grade that functions to rank students even though the intention of the teacher may be to use it as a way to communicate with the student.

After reading this book, there were many important takeaways that can inform the practices and strategies of teachers and higher education in general. The first takeaway that I had from this reading was that it is impossible to reach every student equally. This lead me to understand Bain’s point that while this book offers recommendations for the best teaching strategies, it is not appropriate to take components of the strategies and techniques mentioned throughout the book and combine them with ineffective teaching habits with the expectation of transforming my teaching. Moreover, I took away that effective teaching should be transformational, wherein teachers and higher education professionals needs to understand that good teaching is learned through systematic and reflective appraisal of individual teaching approaches and strategies to make appropriate changes. Finally, I learned that effective teachers should reflect a strong sense of trust in students, display an investment in the students and their learning instead of power, generate and sustain an ability to carry out the same intellectual, physical, or emotional expectations of their students, and treat their interactions with students as a conversation rather than a performance.

While this book should prove valuable to a wide range of scholars (i.e., graduate students, faculty, student affairs professionals and administrators, and governmental professionals), there are three contributions that could have been incorporated into this book. First, Bain could have acknowledged the role of the learner (student) and their individual characteristics and differences (i.e., student motivation) even though the focus of the book is on teachers. Second, Bain could have included more objectively-based measures, conceptualizations, and definitions of an “outstanding” teacher. There was an extensive use of subjectivity that raised questions and concerns about labeling professors as the “best” or “outstanding.” If the study is going to use subjective-based conceptualizations and definitions, then it might be better to use the terms effective or ineffective teaching practices and strategies to avoid suggesting that other teachers are held in lower regard. Also, this would help to account for the point that even “outstanding” professors can have students that view their experience with this professor as negative or did not have a transformational learning experience with this individual. Last, a macro-level application of these practices and strategies could be incorporated as there was an extensive use of micro-level application of how effective teachers think and the strategies and techniques they use. Some of these strategies seemed to run counter to the overall structure of the higher education system and could be hard for teachers or administrators to implement based on visible and invisible barriers that prevent the circumvention of traditional standards, curriculum, expectations, and practices. Thus, a balance between micro and macro-level application would allow for the audience to fully see the vast impact that these teaching practice and strategies have on various structural levels of institutions of higher education.

4 thoughts on “A Review of Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do”

  1. Akeisha, thank you for your summary and critique of Bain’s book. I found your review insightful and well-thought out, as you provide a great combination of your takeaways and suggestions that Bain, if reading this himself, could incorporate in a second edition.

    Awesome post!

    See you on Saturday!


  2. Hi, Akeisha,

    Thank you for constructing a review of Bain that challenged my capacity for knowledge and understanding regarding goal setting at the next highest level of administration.

    In your opinion, what are the most important tools that Bain discusses to concisely formulate principles of effective teaching and highlight the salience of these teaching principles in the process of learning?

    Best regards,



  3. Akeisha,

    Wow! What a thorough review. I really liked the way you summarized the main themes and Bain’s goal of shifting the views of the process of learning from transmitting knowledge to building knowledge. I also think it’s important that you pointed out Bain’s focus on higher education in the United States. We would do well to remember that we could learn much from other countries views on teaching in colleges and universities. I think your suggestions of helpful contributions to Bain’s book, and I think you make a good argument for each. I would love to hear further thoughts on how you think Bain could incorporate these items effectively. Great job!



  4. Hi Akeisha,

    Thank you for your post! While floating through this book on a cloud, I tended to forget to come down to earth. I love your critiques of Bain and will probably re-read this book with more of a critical lens. Some of the language that he uses made me a little uncomfortable only because I was worried that he would delve into a list of “best practices”. Best practices make me uncomfortable because they are usually generalized statements that are often applied to specialized and specific situations. Language use and word choice is so important and Bain could use some clarification on what he means by “best” and “outstanding”.

    See you in class!


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