College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Reviews What the Best College Teachers Do
Ken Bain
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004

Reviewed by Steven C. Ibbotson

Whether a newcomer to teaching or an experienced professor, one can easily understand why What the Best College Teachers Do received the annual Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for outstanding book on education and society from Harvard University Press. Ken Bain's experiences in directing teaching centres at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and New York University provide an expertise and depth of insight that make this book a must-read for anyone involved in higher education.

The author's central thesis is that the best teachers facilitate learning in ways that make sustained, substantial, and positive influence on students' personal and intellectual development. Using primarily qualitative evidence gathered from interviews with the teachers, their colleagues and students, as well as the instructors' presentations, course-related documents, and observations, sixty-three individuals from a variety of institutions met the two criteria for excellence. The first criterion was that "most of their students were highly satisfied with the teaching and inspired by it to continue to learn" (p. 7). Secondly, instructors needed to demonstrate "strong evidence of helping and encouraging their students to learn in ways that usually win praise and respect from both disciplinary colleagues and the broader academic community."

The answer to six major questions forms the outline of the book:

  1. What do the best teachers know and understand?
  2. How do they prepare to teach?
  3. What do they expect of their students?
  4. What do they do when they teach?
  5. How do they treat students?
  6. How do they check their progress and evaluate their efforts?

The book revolves around the concept of creating a "natural critical learning environment." By "natural," Bain explains how the best college teachers help students connect the themes of the course to current issues or topics. For example, students in a women's history course indicated their interest in a recent book titled The Rules. Consequently, the professor used this popular book to interact with various course themes. Similarly, going beyond surface information in answering questions means that the instructor structures the course material in a way that often challenges both long-standing concepts within a particular academic discipline and a student's personal values. Thus, the best college teachers facilitate an atmosphere where this critical reflection can take place. Founded on the assumption that teaching is more than transmitting information, each chapter eventually leads to the conclusion that learning occurs most effectively when individual students' perspectives are valued, challenged, nurtured and reflected upon in a manner that helps them understand their field of study and its implications for life situations.

Bain provides insightful observations, analysis, and examples of the underlying values and practices that differentiate between the good and excellent. For example, in regards to setting high standards for students, he explains the difference between building a heavier course workload and "an intricate web of beliefs, conceptions, attitudes, and practices driving the accomplishments of the best teachers and their students." Throughout the book, he carefully articulates the intricacies that distinguish somewhat effective instructors from consistently exceptional professors. He respectfully challenges standard academic practices such as what to cover during the first class, what to include in the syllabus, expectations regarding class attendance, or deducting late marks on assignments. Bain challenges these practices not for the sake of being avant-garde, but in keeping with the rationale of helping students learn deeply. For example, teachers could allow students to re-write papers and only count the "final edition" grade (not the average of the two papers) with the purpose of facilitating critical engagement for the majority of students rather than simply assessing the students who critically evaluate the topic earliest in the course.

Though the research spans many academic disciplines and the book is intentionally targeted to higher education faculty in general, the examples provided to illustrate various concepts are exceptionally practical. The reader would be able to revise a syllabus or reorganize class plans to incorporate the principles and practices with ease. For the new professor who wishes to excel in teaching, the book is inspiring, challenging and functional. What the Best College Teachers Do ultimately examines what the best college teachers believe – about students, about the learning process, about the importance of their field of study, and about how to effectively communicate that passion with lasting impact.

Steven C. Ibbotson is nearing completion of his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership through Gonzaga University. He is a faculty member at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alberta. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology