Kevin Sun

What the Best College Teachers Do (review)

It's somewhat inspiring, but I wish it were more concrete.

January 14, 2021

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain isn't really about what the "best" college teachers do. Instead, it mostly describes their attitude about their course (i.e., they take it seriously) and their students (i.e., be open and have faith in their abilities). So a more accurate title, in my opinion, would be How the Best College Teachers Feel.

In the same vein, it's not very prescriptive either. Instead of saying "you should do X, not Y," it says things like "the best professors do X while the worst professors do Y." And most of the X's and Y's in this book are fairly obvious, or so vague that everyone would agree with them. For example, the best professors speak clearly and care about their students. The worst professors, as you've probably guessed, do not.

The definition of "best" is somewhat subjective, and the book goes to great lengths to describe how these "best" teachers were chosen. Basically, the teachers studied for this book inspired their students to continue learning, and the material they taught is "worthy" of learning. The book admits that these criteria, especially the latter one, are still somewhat subjective. But this didn't really bother me, because I think "measuring" the quality of teachers is inherently a subjective task.

It does makes me wonder though if I've ever had a teacher that this book would consider among the best. No offense to my teachers, of course.

Anyway, the main theme of this book is that knowledge is constructed, not received. That is, merely transmitting information is not effective teaching. Instead, effective teaching involves gathering information about students' existing knowledge and presenting the course material in a way that fits nicely with their prior mental models.

My reaction is that this is much easier said than done, especially when many students don't have mental models, or worse, their existing models are incorrect. For example, most college-level mathematics hardly resembles anything taught in high schools. This, in my opinion, is a tragic failure of the education system, but let's not talk about that here.

When it comes to college teaching, the elephant in the room is student evaluations. According to the book, the "faculty scuttlebutt that pervades many college campuses" states that "the best way to achieve a reputation for good teaching — or at least get high marks from student raters — is to offer a fluff course requiring students to do little work."

I've believed in this so-called scuttlebutt, and I think I still do. In fact, I've often thought of college teaching as finding a tradeoff between "receive good evaluations" and "actually have high expectations for your students." Admittedly, this is a bit cynical.

The book counters the scuttlebutt by pointing out that the "best" teachers simultaneously expect "more" from students and produce great satisfaction. So what's the secret sauce? Apparently, it's "an intricate web of beliefs, conceptions, attitudes, and practices," but here's the summary, which basically says that there's no secret sauce:

I cannot stress enough the simple yet powerful notion that the key to understanding the best teaching can be found not in particular practices or rules but in the attitudes of the teachers, in their faith in their students’ abilities to achieve, in their willingness to take their students seriously and to let them assume control of their own education, and in their commitment to let all policies and practices flow from central learning objectives and from a mutual respect and agreement between students and teachers.

The emphasis in the passage above was from the original text, but I would have emphasized the same words because they are so frustratingly vague. Furthermore, this passage is followed by a bunch of quotes and anecdotes rather than numbers and figures. Not great coming from a book that claims to have done extensive studies.

This doesn't mean it's a useless quote, and I'm sure that studying this stuff is hard. I totally believe that the best teachers have a good attitude, faith, willingness, etc. But it sounds too much like an empathic doctor who's highly skilled at comforting patients when presenting with bad news, but incapable of making a correct medical diagnosis in the first place. Again, too much feeling and not enough doing for me.

Besides, the existence of a truly outstanding professor who can simultaneously "expect more" from their students and receive high evaluations doesn't disprove the scuttlebutt. I would have been impressed if the book provided examples of courses with low exam scores and high student evaluations, but it doesn't.

The book does mention one study I found interesting, published by Ambady and Rosenthal in 1993. They showed students short clips of teachers and asked for evaluations. Then, they compared these evaluations to the ones given by students who took the teachers' courses. The results showed that students can accurately predict a teacher's ratings based on just a few seconds of exposure.

It’s interesting, but I also find it discouraging. Do students give much thought to their evaluations? How much should we rely on those evaluations? Even though the book uses a "detailed and sustained study" rather than "instant impressions" when selecting the "best" teachers, I don't think this is how teachers are evaluated in reality. From the students' perspective, judging a book by its cover basically works.

Again, my main critique of this book is that it doesn't provide actionable advice, but rather, emphasizes the importance of things like attitude, faith, and trust. I understand that there aren't any hard and fast rules, but I wish the book discussed more concrete practices (e.g., take-home exams) and explained when they do/don't work.

As mentioned in the beginning, most of the advice it does give is fairly obvious: things like speak well, learn students' names, ask for anonymized feedback, and give positive reinforcement. But don't come off as manipulative — that's what bad teachers do.

The book does discuss one piece of advice that, although still fairly obvious, I found more interesting: improve your oral communication to stimulate students' thoughts. It describes this as "perhaps the most significant skill" found in the best teachers. This section was like a crash course on lecturing and speaking, and I wish it were longer.

It opens with a bit of a contradiction. Successful communicators treat anything they say to students as a "conversation," not a "performance." However, they also do things like "gestures," "body language," and "begin a point by looking at one student then move their eyes from one person to another before finishing the explanation with someone across the room." And they adjust their voice and tone according to the number of students and the classroom setting. To me, this all sounds quite performative.

The correct resolution of this contradiction is that "oral communication" (in the context of this book) is not a one-way channel, but rather, an active dialogue between the student and teacher. This supports the idea that attending a synchronous teaching session is, in theory, more effective than watching a prerecorded video. In a video, the teacher cannot stimulate students' thoughts in a responsive manner; they must merely perform.

(So to any students reading this: try to take advantage of synchronous lectures by asking questions. Then it's mostly up to the lecturer to turn your question into a thought-stimulating conversation. Of course, results will vary. Maybe there's not enough time for a conversation.)

In my experience, it's easy to succumb from "conversation" to "video-like performance" when you've had the same "conversation" multiple times during a long session of office hours. Students often arrive with similar questions, and even though having a conversation to address these questions is highly effective for each individual, it doesn't do anything for the students waiting in line.

The same problem presents itself on a broader timescale as well. I imagine that, after decades of teaching the same course, the professor has had pretty much every "conversation" they could reasonably have with a student. At that point, it's hard to be genuinely interested in what every student has to say when the professor has heard it all. It's probably tempting to record a lecture and never have to lecture again. But maybe that would violate their contract with the university or something.

Anyway, you can imagine the concrete advice that the book offers about lecturing. Enunciate clearly, minimize distracting tics, reduce slouching and pacing — stuff like that.

What about gesturing towards the students in the back row? I'm not sure about this one. When I was a student, I gravitated towards the back row, and I would have been annoyed if the lecturer paid any attention to me. Perhaps this attitude is unusual among students (I don't think so). Perhaps I should've taken my own advice of asking questions. Or, perhaps an effective lecturer should be perceived as annoying to students in the back? Maybe.

The final thing I'll note about oral communication is the idea of using "warm" and "cool" language; this is a useful framework described in the book. The former is welcoming and emotionally involved, while the latter consists of just stating the facts. Effective speaking often begins with warm language, to invite and intrigue, and ends with cool language, to remind and summarize. It also starts with simple explanations, which might not be entirely accurate, before adding more details and complexity. This supports the main theme of the book, mentioned earlier: knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.

But at the end of the day, if you really want to improve at tennis, you should probably hire a coach and hit a ball rather than read a book titled What the Best Tennis Players Do. It'd be even less useful to read a book titled How the Best Tennis Players Feel, which would be how I'd describe this book in this metaphor.

Of course, that doesn't mean reading this book is a waste of time. Your actions might not change (because there isn't a ton of actionable advice), but maybe your mindset will. And according to the book, that's a big deal.