What the Best College Teachers Do — But How?

19 Apr

I have been reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do as a part of a reading/discussion group sponsored by our Center for Teaching and Learning. I was glad to see some of my already existing teaching practices validated by the examples in the book, and I’ve been motivated to try techniques discussed such as simulations and real world application assignments. So a year marked by a radical shift in my teaching philosophy and practices has been punctuated by the arguments in this book.

That’s why I think the recent spate of negative Twitter comments by my students has personally hurt me. I’ve been working really hard on my teaching, on helping students achieve writing goals and become lifelong learners.  The composition classes use every mode of communication, every human sense. We talk, we listen, we do. I’ve revamped my lit survey courses so that we make connections between the worlds we read and the worlds we live in through projects, exercises, and conversations. I took midterms and finals out of my upper-level classes and added conference presentations and cultural studies projects.

And it’s hard. It’s so much easier to teach from the same old notes, to lecture rather than devise multiple classroom activities, to grade a test rather than to assess a project. I’m feeling emotionally and intellectually thin (although, unfortunately, that thinness hasn’t manifested physically).

So when in the space of a week, four students from three different classes used our class Twitter feed as a space to complain that comp and British lit are pointless, I just feel defeated. Done. Over. When I’ve worked so hard on these classes, on making them relevant and alive, it just hits me in the gut to hear students say they don’t get it. And they aren’t in my office saying they don’t get it and need help; they are passively-aggressively complaining on Twitter.

In my previous post, I outlined the research/teaching questions that have come from this experience. Today we discussed the last chapter of the Bain book, and I felt myself get angrier and angrier. He says that the best teachers de-emphasize grades and that students go along with that. But how do they get the students to buy into the system? I think one reason these students see the classes as “pointless” is their perception of just that — because the point of the class is application, not a grade, they see it as literally lacking in points for them. Of course they are assessed and they do receive grades, but not in the input-output way of lecture/study guide/test.

How do we help students see their college classes as training in lifelong learning? How do we help them see past the GPA to the bigger goals of critical thinking and communication skills? How do we change university systems so that grades are not the ultimate factor in student success?


Posted by on April 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “What the Best College Teachers Do — But How?

  1. Dr. J

    May 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    we read this book for our teaching and learning center last year, and my big take-away was this importance of attitude, and conversation with the students about moments of difficulty. because of the groups i had in fall, that worked well. this semester? epic fail. no matter what, one class wouldn’t talk. barely read. nothing worked.

    your revisions sound awesome and deeply engaging and enriching. i wonder if you’re having the same backlash one of my teaching fellows colleagues had–the more he broke out of the mold, or their expectations about what the class should be (more traditional class time and assignments), the more he received negative feedback…because they have been trained in those other modes, and we’re asking more of them. to learn and apply, to synthesize and feel, rather than simple learn and prove that learning in a narrow context.

    but, yeah, i know. and my one complaint with these otherwise awesome pedagogy books is how little they connect with our realities as working, teaching profs with multiple preps, many students, and little resources.

    thanks for sharing.

    i think you rock, and i would LOVE your classes.

  2. bk2nocal

    August 11, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I just attended a Diversity Academy at my University and although I was once again reminded of how exciting a classroom CAN be, I was also reminded why I often felt defeated or like it wasn’t worth it. Because a certain number of students will always expect/demand a class that expects/demands little of them. Engagement, although I do believe it makes the classroom experience more rewarding to the majority of students, tends to be a target for those looking for the path of least resistance in their education. We discussed staying strong in the face of criticism and focusing on the majority, not the vocal minority, when making changes to our classrooms. I am not very good at either of these. It sounds like maybe you’ve got the majority in your corner, but the vocal minority is bringing you down.
    I think this is why I’m really happy we have things like the Diversity Academy and your book reading group. Hopefully you can work through some of that frustration and anger with your group rather than just throwing in the towel on making your content more engaging. I know I’ve thrown in the towel in the past, but being in that group at the Academy and having people talk about their experiences, what worked and what didn’t, was both eye opening and reinforcing that it isn’t always my fault when things don’t work for everyone…


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