What the Best Teachers Do, Matters

The next several postings in the …Matters series will focus on the question What do the best teachers do. We’ll base the posts on Ken Bain’s 2004 book “What the Best College Teachers Do,” winner of the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize awarded annually by Harvard for an outstanding book on education and society.

In the mid-80’s, Ken Bain, then a professor of history and Director of the Center for Teaching in the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University, began a 15-year research project that attempted to answer the question “What do the best college teachers do?” Bain and his colleagues studied nearly one hundred college and university teachers with proven records of effectiveness – those who had the most sustained, substantial, and positive influence on the way students thought and acted (Bain, pg. 5). Once these outstanding teachers were identified, the researchers examined their practice through classroom observations, conversations with the teachers and their students, examination of course material and student artifacts, and small group analysis. Based on their findings, Bain and his colleagues identified six broad patterns of thinking and practice common to these outstanding teachers (Bain, pp. 15-19):

The best teachers:

  1. Know their subjects extremely well
  2. Treat their lectures, discussion sections, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual work
  3. Expect great learning results from their students
  4. Create “natural critical learning environments”
  5. Treat students with respect and trust
  6. Continually assess their effectiveness and make appropriate changes

The big question is … Can what these outstanding teachers do inform OUR teaching practices? We believe the answer is a resounding YES. To that end, we’ll devote the next several blog entries to examining each of the six areas of practice and offer practical ideas on how to strengthen what you already do and, perhaps, adopt a handful of new practices.

We leave you this month with a question for reflection: Is the ability to teach effectively innate or can it be developed? Can anyone become an outstanding teacher?


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. (1st ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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