Book By: Ken Bain
Review By: Patrice Noel
Academic Support Center
Clemson University


In his quest to discover what the best college teachers do, Ken Bain and his colleagues conducted a qualitative study of 63 of the nation’s best college professors.  To receive consideration for Bain’s selective study, college professors must have “achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act and feel” (p. 5).  Not a small task.  All professors included in the study offered extensive evidence to support that students were highly satisfied with their teaching and that the professor encouraged and assisted students to achieve deep learning.  As part of the study, multiple forms of evidence were collected and analyzed including student evaluations and testimonies, student performance on professional exams, statements from colleagues regarding students’ level of preparation for subsequent coursework, teaching awards, and course observations. 

So, what do the best college teachers do?  While Bain does not develop a simple, succinct answer to the question, he does identify and illustrate themes and patterns displayed by the best college professors.  To illustrate the identified themes and patterns, Bain provides countless examples of superior teaching in multiple disciplines across a variety of campuses. For example, one theme is that the best college teachers believe students want to and can learn. Another is that they treat students with simple human decency. 

Throughout the book, Bain contends that one size does not fit all in terms of achieving exceptional student learning.  This premise provides hope and encouragement for all who aspire to become superior college teachers.  The book does not attempt to be a simple “how-to”, because, as Bain notes, superior teaching is more than a collection of tips, techniques and strategies.  Rather, the book leads the reader into the minds of the best college teachers as it highlights their unique approaches to learning, course preparation, expectations of their students, course management, treatment of students and student evaluations. 

For those who accept that academic advising is teaching, Bain provides ample opportunities to reflect upon the ideas and concepts necessary for ongoing development. Although Bain does not address advising specifically, he provides themes and patterns easily transferred to advising issues, especially as they pertain to expectations and treatment of students. Academic advisors should find this book both intriguing and energizing with its descriptions of optimal learning environments created by exemplary teachers; the learning environment that advisors continually seek for their students.  The valuable lessons provided within this book outweigh Bain’s disheartening reminder that the teachers studied are the exceptions, not the rule; that much work still needs to be done, both in the classroom and out, to achieve the remarkable success our students deserve.


What the best college teachers do. (2004). Book by Bain, Ken. Review by Patrice Noel. Harvard University Press.  207 pp., $21.95. ISBN 0-674-01325-5.

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