restricted access What the Best College Teachers Do (review)
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The Journal of Higher Education 76.2 (2005) 237-240

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What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 224p.

There are two things that make a book about college teaching successful. The first is to understand one's audience and then to write in a way that is appealing to that audience; the second is that the work must be based on recognized, substantial research. Without an understanding of the readers by the author, the work will miss its mark and not be carefully read or accepted. Without the substance, the work will be yet another personal perspective, possibly uninformed of the depth and breadth of what we do know about college teaching, and perhaps offering opinions that are inaccurate or advice that is inappropriate for many readers. This book speaks to the higher education community in general, and to college teachers in particular, and college teachers are after all, a lot trained in critical thinking, experienced in their practice, and self-assured in their views on their art and craft. They will not lightly suffer heavy-handed pedantry, irrelevancies, or sloppy scholarship.

Ken Bain is well aware of these two caveats, and his book, What the Best [End Page 237] College Teachers Do, is a fine example of combining substance with an appealing and approachable writing style. The book is based on the author's careful research that dug deeply into the thinking of its subject teachers, and it is rich in the depth of the qualitative data that are reported. It is also rigorous in the quantitative sense because the underlying research Bain refers to is some of the best in the field. Critical to Bain's success (and a reason for any scholar of college teaching and learning to like the book) is that he demonstrates the relationships of the underlying research to the thinking, behaviors, strategies, and justifications provided by the teachers he describes. There are major works that inform Bain's book: guidelines, reviews, and philosophies such as Chickering and Gamson's (1987) 7 Principles for good practice in undergraduate education, Feldman and Paulsen's (2nd ed., 1998) Teaching and learning in the college classroom, Parker Palmer's (1998) The courage to teach, Pascarella and Terenzini's (1991) How college affects students, and Maryellen Weimer's (2002) Learner-centered teaching. Bain wisely avoids a chapter and verse repetition of the conclusions from these works, rightly focusing on why the teachers he describes reflect those conclusions. Whether one is familiar with such resources or not, the end result is the same: a compelling and lively journey through the faculty psyche and into their classrooms, and the clear conclusion that "the best teachers" combine a love of their subjects, a love of teaching, an expectation that meaningful learning will result, and a high regard for those whom they serve.

There has been much (many would say far too much) discussion of the polarizing effect of the teaching vs. research dichotomy, and perhaps as well, there has been more emphasis than necessary on the uniqueness of teaching in the disciplines. This has led some to claim that teaching is so idiosyncratic and context-bound that no conclusions or generalizations are possible. Bain deals succinctly and reasonably with each of these issues. He does not deny the need for research and service, noting that the three traditional areas serve complimentary purposes, and he makes the point that the best teachers share certain characteristics no matter what their disciplines. While their strategies may differ their reasoning is often similar, their underlying philosophies are shared, and their practices have a solid basis in established research on teaching and learning.

What the Best Teachers Do is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with an important aspect of good practice. Bain begins with an introduction that describes his research and the criteria that evolved as benchmarks for the inclusion of individuals as "the best teachers." He notes that a variety of sources were used and that the selection of subjects included ". . . two acid tests . . ." First...