An Interview with Ken Bain
BY NANCY GRUND
Ken Bain, vice provost for instruction and director
of Montclair State University’s Research Academy
for University Learning, has authored numerous
publications on U.S. history and the award-winning book, What the Best College Teachers
Do. The book won the 2004 Virginia and Warren
Stone Prize awarded by Harvard University Press
for Outstanding Book on Education and Society. In the last few
years, it has been widely adopted by universities and colleges
around the world for faculty development programs and has been
one of the top selling books on college education. It has been translated into Japanese, Korean, Catalan, Spanish, and Galician.
What makes a great teacher great? Who are the
professors students remember long after graduation?
Ken Bain conducted a 15-year study of nearly 100
college teachers in a wide variety of fields and
universities to find answers of value for all educators.
What was your motivation for writing What The
Best College Teachers Do?
Very good teachers made a terrific influence on me. I was
blessed to have three or four excellent teachers as a graduate
and an undergraduate student, and they made a big difference
in my own intellectual and personal development. And I
wanted to become a better teacher. I started teaching at age
22. I was thrown into it: Here’s the classroom, go for it. I
learned by doing and my students suffered. I kept remembering that experience when I started this study. As an
historian, I wanted to capture histories of outstanding teachers
and their scholarship and teaching.
What was your most surprising finding?
Faculty members, based on their experiences, developed
insights into human learning that are remarkably similar to
insights that have been developed from decades of research
and literature on human learning. They were good learners.
They observed their own learning and that of students.
The reality is they did not read the literature, yet their
insights support it.
What advice would you give senior student
affairs officers (SSAOs) in their work with
students and faculty?
Learn as much as possible about human learning. We are
all in the business of helping other people learn. What are
the conditions under which people are more likely to learn?
What are the social conditions that can influence learning?
Join with faculty on research projects around student
learning. Find the kinds of conditions most likely to produce
learning and use them to create more
SSAOs play a powerful role in this
situation. They are more familiar with
the new paradigm for what it means
to teach. Teaching is a way to create
a learning environment in which to
learn deeply. In creating that environment, look at who is
learning and who is not, what are the demographic patterns—
gender, socioeconomic factors, and social conditions—that
influence students before they ever arrive on your campuses.
We need to understand these factors and create more equitable
learning environments so all students realize their potential.
Work with faculty and become partners. What are the learning
objectives of the educational enterprise? Faculty members have
a huge role in the enterprise, but student affairs officers can
help them to define the issues more clearly and extensively.
What do we want students to be able to do—emotionally and
professionally? Conversations begin in disciplines, but go way
beyond. We need to bring faculty and student affairs together
to see what it means to develop intellectually.
What is an optimal learning environment?
Create a learning environment that mimics the way we
learn naturally and effectively. It is important that it gives
students the ability to think about their own development.
The most effective learning environments foster the ability
to think critically.
What is the future of learning and teaching?
The learning environment will be driven by questions from
students. Part of the task is to help them see questions of
significance and importance, questions they might not see
otherwise. They are most likely to learn by solving problems
that are important to them versus answering questions that
are important to us. Part of our job is to gain and focus their
attention in a direction they may not have considered to open
new horizons for them.
How can we better reach today’s student?
There is no magic formula. We must increase our understanding of learning and of learners. Who are they? What are
their ambitions? Where do they come from socially, personally,
and intellectually? We need to increase conversations about
questions and realize there is a vast and growing body of scholarly literature to inform practice. Faculty and student affairs
staff need to be more aware of how to create a rich environment for students when they engage in conversation.