This book is essentially a descriptive report of the findings from a 15 year long qualitative study that asks the question “What do any of the best college and university teachers do to help and encourage students to achieve remarkable learning results?” Data was collected through artifact review of syllabi, course descriptions, learning outcomes, and other information about courses. Student interviews, teacher interviews, class observations, and formative assessments were conducted to gain deeper insights into how these teachers designed their courses, conducted their classes, interacted with their students and encouraged learning. The study used a case study design where each teacher was the subject of the individual case study. In all 63 teachers were included in the final analysis.

The book is broken down into six major sections, which correlate to six sub research questions:

  1. What do they know about how we learn?
  2. How do they prepare to teach?
  3. What do they expect of their students?
  4. How do they conduct class?
  5. How do they treat their students?
  6. How do they evaluate their students and themselves?

It follows up with the Epilogue and the question: What can we learn from them? 

What they found is that the best college teachers have many general traits in common, but they use a wide variety of techniques to teach and evaluate their students learning.  First, they know their discipline well.  They also know that they are still learning, and are open to being challenged.  While many of them have never formally studied human learning, they do understand how human beings learn and are successful in fostering learning. 

When they prepare to teach, they think about what they want their student to learn.  They spend a great deal of time thinking about how they can help their students achieve success.  They believe their students can learn, and they expect them to work fairly and honestly.  They encourage collaboration and open challenging of assumptions. They treat their students with respect.  They challenge them to take responsibility for their own learning. 

These teachers actively evaluated their courses and their effectiveness. They held open discussions with students about whether or not they were effectively learning, and they took responsibility for ensuring they were creating an environment conducive to learning.


Dr. Ken Bain retired in July of 2013 from the University of the District Columbia as the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and a Professor of History and Urban Education. His long career included time at Vanderbilt, Northwestern and NYU, as well as serving as founding director of four major teaching and learning centers: The Center for Teaching Excellence at NYU, the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University and the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair University. (Bain, 2015)


I really enjoyed this book.  While it is not prescriptive, and does not give and tips or tricks for how to be an effective teacher, it does to a good job describing the attitudes, values and methods used by this group of highly effective teachers.  The appendix includes a thorough description about how the study was conducted and how teachers were selected for inclusion in the final analysis.

One of my favorite parts of this book was the discussion of evaluation. This is a contentious subject in higher education. Much of the formal evaluation that is conducted is not beneficial in providing useful information about learning or feedback to teachers in how to improve the learning in their courses. Bain describes a fairly easy 20-minute evaluative process which asks the questions (1) What has been successful in fostering your learning? (2) What changes in the structure of the class or the way the class is conducted would better foster your learning? And (3) How would you characterize the nature of learning in the class?

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who works or teaches in higher education or is planning on working or teaching in higher education.  While it is specifically geared towards the higher education setting it could also be insightful for anyone teaching adults or secondary education. 


Bain, K. (2015, November 15). Ken Bain. Retrieved from Best Teachers Institute:

Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.