What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain

Although CMU has no school of education, it does have strong support for those of us who’d like to become better educators, not just better researchers. There’s the Eberly Center, which bridges the research-about-education that happens on campus, to the education-of-researchers for which most of us are here. And there’s the brand-new Simon Initiative—I’m not fully sure yet what it entails, but I enjoyed the inaugural lecture by Carl Wieman on improving science education.

Amidst all this, I’ve started teaching a summer course (36-309, Experimental Design). While preparing to teach, I’ve read Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (recommended by CMU’s Sciences Teaching Club).

Much of the content is about convincing you to adopt the mindset of a good teachers: You should be interested in the students’ understanding, not just in getting them to regurgitate facts or plug & chug formulas. You should be patient with learners of different types and levels. Assessments for the sake of getting feedback should be frequent and separate from assessments for the sake of labeling the student with a final grade. You want the students to become able to learn independently, so train them to think constructively about their own learning.

Mostly, this is stuff I already agreed with. I really like Bain’s high-level ideas. But I wish there would have been more concrete illustrations of how these ideas work in practice. Practical examples could have replaced a lot of the fluffy language about the opening the students’ minds and hearts, etc.

Still, there are a couple of lists of explicit questions to use when planning your course. No list can cover everything you need to consider—but still, it doesn’t hurt to use such a list, to ensure that at least you haven’t overlooked what’s on it.

Bain also has some lists of “types of learners” or “developmental stages of learning.” It’s often unhelpful to pigeonhole individual students into one bucket or another… but it can be useful to treat these archetypes as if they were user personas, and consider how your lesson plan will work for these users.

Some of these lists, and other excessive notes-to-self, below the break.

  • p.18: “a ‘natural critical learning environment’ … people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality … learners feel a sense of control over their education; work collaboratively with others; believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any summative judgment of their effort.”
  • p.19: “the teachers we studied have some systematic program—some more elaborate than others—to assess their own efforts and to make appropriate changes”
  • p.23: Halloun and Hestenes’ pair of 1985 articles (one, two) showed how even the best students in Physics 101 rarely learned the underlying concepts well. They were able to plug & chug from test questions through formulas to answers, but they weren’t able to make qualitative predictions about what would happen—and even if the professors demonstrated that their predictions were wrong, they still explained themselves using their old misconceptions about motion instead of with correct physics.
    So it’s important to consider: What misconceptions do students carry with them into our classroom? How can we force them to confront and change these wrong ideas, not just learn to plug & chug?
  • p.25: “they have an unusually keen sense of the histories of their disciplines, including the controversies that have swirled within them, and that understanding seems to help them reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields … They know what has to come first, and they can distinguish between foundational concepts and elaborations or illustrations of ideas. They realize where people are likely to face difficulties developing their own comprehension, and they can use that understanding to simplify and clarify complex topics for others, tell the right story, or raise a powerfully provocative question.”
  • p.27: “Mental Models Change Slowly … learners must (1) face a situation in which their mental model will not work (that is, will not help them explain or do something); (2) care that it does not work strongly enough to stop and grapple with the issue at hand; and (3) be able to handle the emotional trauma that sometimes accompanies challenges to longstanding beliefs.”
  • p.30: worse teachers say “that the ‘weak students’ simply had difficulty ‘holding very much in their memory banks'”; better teachers focus on understanding the structure of how facts fit together and on applying them to problems: not simple memorization of facts, but ability to use those facts as a tool (which helps with memorization but also with so much more)
  • p.31: “we can successfully stimulate our students to ask their own questions … we want them, along the way, to develop their own set of rich and important questions about our discipline and our subject matter.”
    Several of my current professors are particularly good about training us to ask good questions about every definition or theorem we encounter in class, for example: How does this apply in trivial cases? What happens if you take limits of sequences? What is a “counterexample” to the theorem if the assumptions aren’t met?
  • p.36: On the first day of class: “Rather than laying out a set of requirements for students, they usually talk about the promises of the course, about the kinds of questions the discipline will help students answer, or about the intellectual, emotional, or physical abilities that it will help them develop. To be sure, they also explain what students will be doing to realize those promises—what many of us call the requirements—but they avoid the language of demands and use the vocabulary of promises instead. They invite, rather than command…”
  • p.38: “the principle of ‘WGAD’—‘Who gives a damn?’ At the beginning of his courses, he tells his students that they are free to ask him this question on any day during the course … He will stop and explain to his students why the material under consideration at that moment—however abstruse and miniscule a piece of the big picture it may be—is important, and how it relates to the larger questions and issues of the course.”
  • p.40: three types of learner:
    * “deep learners” “respond to the challenge of mastering something, getting inside a subject and trying to understand it in all its complexity.”
    * “bulimic learners” want to do well out of a competitive nature; they will cram for the test successfully, but purge the facts afterwards (with no interest in remembering/understanding the content later). Help these students by avoiding a competitive class environment.
    * “performance-avoiders” fear failure, so they memorize but never probe deeper or invest themselves further. Help these students by finding ways to boost their self-confidence.
  • p.42: “I often have students … who do not yet realize the potential they have for learning and the unique contributions they can make.”
    That’s a nice attitude 🙂
  • p.42: four developmental stages of learning:
    * “received knowers” think learning is just about memorizing the right answers received from experts, in a “banking model”
    * “subjective knowers” realize experts disagree and so they assume that knowledge is just a matter of opinion
    * “procedural knowers” learn the subtler criteria for making judgments and learn to play the game for doing well in the discipline, at least in the classroom, though the content doesn’t affect them outside class
    * “commitment” is the stage where students become independent learners, consciously thinking about their thinking, in two flavors: “separate knowers” detach from ideas and remain skeptical, while “connected knowers” “bias themselves in favor of the thing they are examining” (?)
    People can move back and forth among these four stages, and they certainly can be at different stages in different disciplines: e.g. hopefully I’m a “committed” statistician, but I admit I’m still a “subjective knower” when it comes to art history.
  • p.49: four broad questions to ask yourself when preparing to teach:
    “(1) What should my students be able to do intellectually, physically, or emotionally as a result of their learning? (2) How can I best help and encourage them to develop those abilities and the habits of the heart and mind to use them? (3) How can my students and I best understand the nature, quality, and progress of their learning? and (4) How can I evaluate my efforts to foster that learning?”
  • p.50: thirteen specific questions to ask as you prep a course:
    “1. What big questions will my course help students answer, or what skills, abilities, or qualities will it help them develop, and how will I encourage my students’ interest in these questions and abilities?
    2. What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer the questions that the course raises?
    3. What mental models are students likely to bring with them that I will want them to challenge? How can I help them construct that intellectual challenge?
    4. What information will my students need to understand in order to answer the important questions of the course and challenge their assumptions? How will they best obtain that information?
    5. How will I help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using evidence and reason to answer them?
    6. How will I confront my students with conflicting problems (maybe even conflicting claims about the truth) and encourage them to grapple (perhaps collaboratively) with the issues?
    7. How will I find out what they know already and what they expect from the course, and how will I reconcile any differences between my expectations and theirs?
    8. How will I help students learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning and thinking, and to read more effectively, analytically, and actively?
    9. How will I find out how students are learning before assessing them, and how will I provide feedback before—and separate from—any assessment of them?
    10. How will I communicate with students in a way that will keep them thinking?
    11. How will I spell out the intellectual and professional standards I will be using in assessing students’ work, and why do I use those standards? How will I help students learn to assess their own work using those standards?
    12. How will the students and I best understand the nature, progress, and quality of their learning?
    13. How will I create a natural critical learning environment in which I embed the skills and information I wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) that students will find fascinating—authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality? How will I create a safe environment in which students can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again?”
  • p.57: regarding #9 above: “The modern system of grading—the idea of assigning a number or letter to someone’s learning—is, of course, a fairly recent invention in higher education. It gained increasing popularity only in the twentieth century as the culture sought ways to certify competence in an increasingly complex and technical world. Within its system, the professor holds a dual role, first, to help students learn, and second, to tell society how much learning has taken place.”
  • p.59: quote by Paul Travis, regarding #11 above: “If students can’t learn to judge the quality of their own work, then they haven’t really learned.”
  • p.64: The example of a collaborative studio project makes a lot of sense for industrial designers and landscape architects. But I would love to see it applied in other areas, including statistics! If we could reserve a studio space that students could use all semester long, I bet we could create some awesome statistics projects, whether it’s for a class on survey data collection, data visualization, or just analyzing a dataset. We do already do team projects in stats classes, but if we had a fixed studio space where the team work is always done and the teams can keep whiteboards of ideas and printouts of results, I can imagine the studio hours would be great: every week the students present a project update in front of each other and give each other feedback, then the professors make their way around the room talking to each group in more detail.
    Does anyone do this in statistics already?
  • p.73: regarding research on stereotypes (e.g. racial stereotyping of students, or of themselves by the students): researchers Steele and Cohen encouraged minority students to submit essays to a journal, then graded their first drafts harshly. The students were more likely to revise and resubmit if the grading was framed as: “the journal has high standards but with some revisions they could meet them.” It was not enough to just say this could be good enough with revision—the key seemed to be the combination of assurance and high standards.
  • p.75: “the teacher would explain what the students would be doing to realize those promises … They could decide to pursue the goals on their own, without taking the course, but if they decided to stay in the class, they needed to do certain things to achieve.”
    So, explicitly start off class by reminding everyone they have a choice about whether to be here, and that your expectations are linked to their choice to stay.
  • p.93: similarly, from a drama teacher who gives critical but helpful and nonjudgmental feedback: “You must want to do this and be willing to spend the time it takes to develop your character. But the choice is yours.”
  • p.102: “Donald Saari uses a combination of stories and questions to challenge students to think critically about calculus. ‘When I finish this process,’ he explained, ‘I want the students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.'”
    Nice way to think about the Socratic method.
  • p.103: At the end of a class, ask your students (or encourage them to ask themselves): “What major conclusions did you draw? What questions remain in your mind?”
  • p.105: In a good class, the students learn to marshal evidence for an argument in the same way that experts in the field do it. “In short, they learn to think like a good art historian, to understand and appreciate the questions that the discipline pursues, to frame important questions of their own, and to understand the kinds of evidence that might help resolve controversies and how to use that evidence to do so. … Even if the case is strong, new questions always remain. Any conclusion simply opens other areas of possible investigation.”
  • p.107: five elements of natural critical learning: “They begin with a question (sometimes embedded in a story), continue with some attempt to help students understand the significance of the question (connecting it to larger questions, raising it in provocative ways, noting its implications), stimulate students to engage the question critically, make an argument about how to answer that question (complete with evidence, reasoning, and conclusion), and end with questions. The only exception? Sometimes the best teachers leave out their own answers whereas less successful lecturers often include only that element, an answer to a question that no one has raised.”
  • p.113: Start off the class by seeking a commitment from your students: Explain the promise of what they will learn, if they in turn promise to meet the obligations that you’ve explained are necessary for them to learn it.
  • p.122: warm vs. cool language, from Paul Heinrich: “‘There was this story about this little girl and three bears and how she went to their house when they were gone and tasted and tried everything and then they came home and discovered her.’ That language is cool. It doesn’t tell the story and assumes that the listener has either already heard the story or would be bored at its telling. It is … ‘detached, less emotional, less descriptive.’ In contrast … we could just tell the story … That language is warm. It’s involved; it tells the whole story rather than just referring to it … Warm language tends to be in the present tense, but ‘even if the past tense is used, the intent is always to take the listener into the moment and work slowly through it ‘from the inside.””
  • p.130: “think/pair/square/share”: Start a discussion by having students spend a moment working/thinking individually; then talk to a partner; then pair up the pairs; then finally discuss as a class all together.
  • p.155: Admit that homework deadlines may be arbitrary, but “if they didn’t meet the deadline, he simply wouldn’t be able to provide them with helpful comments before they did the next assignment.”
  • p.156: Don’t focus too much on assigning specific numbers to make your grades “objective.” “Missing was any sense of intellectual definition, of critique, of saying to students, here is what makes your contribution valuable, here is how you have developed, and here are ways in which you can continue to mature.”
  • p.162: “the best teachers see examinations as extensions of the kind of work that is already taking place in the course. Teachers prepare students to do certain kinds of intellectual work, not to be good test-takers. The examinations ask students to do that work.”
  • p.162: “the teachers in our study tended to have a strong sense of humility when it came to grades.”
  • p.169: Regarding teaching evaluations: “a teacher should think about teaching … as a serious intellectual act, a kind of scholarship, a creation; he or she should then develop a case, complete with evidence, exploring the intellectual … meaning and qualities of that teaching. … To evaluate teaching we then assess the argument.”
  • p.177: “Dudley Herschbach has suggested that every dissertation should contain a chapter on how to help other people learn the subject of that study.”
  • p.198: Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual seems worth reading: “he interrupts his lectures in physics by assigning small conceptual problems that students can do without making any calculations. He first asks students to work independently … He also asks students to rate their own confidence in their answer. After a few minutes, he asks the students to turn to a neighbor, compare and discuss answers, possibly change their answers, and re-rate their confidence. He discovered that both the number of right answers and the confidence ratings go up after this exercise.”


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