Thursday, May 21, 2009

What the Best College Teachers Do (A Book Review)

Many librarians in the last ten or fifteen years have found themselves in situations they never dreamed of previously--instruction settings. Generally speaking, individuals who have entered the library profession may have done so in part because they did not want to teach or stand in front of people to give presentations. While this may have been possible 40 to 50 years ago, it no longer holds true. Academic librarians need to learn about teaching issues just as much as their full-time faculty colleagues across campus. Ken Bain's book What the Best College Teachers Do is a great place to start learning about teaching and learning issues, because it explores his findings from a longitudinal study on a large sample of the best college teachers.

First, a good college teacher must be knowledgeable in his/her discipline; however, expert knowledge of one's field does not automatically qualify a person to become a great teacher. He writes: "The people in our study, unlike so many others have used their knowledge to develop techniques for grasping fundamental principles and organizing concepts that others can use to begin building their own understanding and abilities" (16). Certainly, in-depth understandings of a topic can give anyone a great deal of confidence, but the best teachers actively seek for ways in which they can lead others to similar understandings.

Great teachers do not want to create a pandemonium of parrots. No, they honestly want to influence students to become lifelong learners who passionately explore the big questions of life. Bain says: "While others, for example, talk about transmitting knowledge and building a storehouse of information in the students' brains, our subjects talk about helping learners grapple with ideas and information to construct their understanding" (16). Teaching is not an easy thing to do, but Bain asserts that people can learn how to become better teachers. In fact, that is the main purpose of his book: "Most of all, I hope readers will take away from this book the conviction that good teaching can be learned" (21).

This book challenges the idea that someone is either born a good teacher or they are not. For inexperienced and experienced teachers alike, it can be temptingly easy to fault the students when a class does not go well. Student attitudes and preparations can make a huge difference, but Bain claims that the best college teacher "didn't blame their students for any of the difficulties they faced" (19). Instead they tended to examine what had happened and then modify their approach to achieve better results.

The seven chapters and epilogue focus on key teaching issues:
1. Definitions of the best teachers
2. What they know about learners and students
3. How they prepare to teach
4. Their expectations of students
5. How they conduct class
6. How they treat students
7. How they evaluate students and themselves
Epilogue: What we can learn from them

I highly recommend that librarians with teaching responsibilities pick up this book and consider how they can use its principles to improve library instruction. Bain writes in a very accessible manner and constantly pulls quotes and anecdotes from interviews while making observations and conclusions throughout the book.

Teachers in all fields of study can begin to do what the best teachers do. Bain concludes: "Excellent teachers develop their abilities through constant self-evaluation, reflection, and the willingness to change" (172).


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