The Chronicle of Higher
>From the issue dated April 9, 2004
What Makes Great Teachers Great?
By KEN BAIN
When Ralph Lynn retired as a professor of history at Baylor University
in 1974, dozens of his former students paid him tribute. One student,
Ann Richards, who became the governor of Texas in 1991, wrote that
Lynn's classes were like "magical tours into the great minds and
movements of history." Another student, Hal Wingo, an editor of People
magazine, concluded that Lynn offered the best argument he knew for
human cloning. "Nothing would give me more hope for the future," the
editor explained, "than to think that Ralph Lynn, in all his wisdom and
wit, will be around educating new generations from here to eternity."
What did Lynn do to have such a sustained and substantial influence on
the intellectual and moral development of his students? What do any of
the best professors do to encourage students to achieve remarkable
I and several colleagues from the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence
at Northwestern University studied more than 60 professors from various
disciplines to try to determine what outstanding teachers do inside and
outside their classrooms that might explain their accomplishments. And
when we examined in particular how good teachers conduct class, we found
that they follow several common principles. Specifically, they:
Create a natural critical learning environment. "Natural" because what
matters most is for students to tackle questions and tasks that they
naturally find of interest, make decisions, defend their choices,
sometimes come up short, receive feedback on their efforts, and try
again. "Critical" because by thinking critically, students learn to
reason from evidence and to examine the quality of their reasoning, to
make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful
questions. This is, by far, the most important principle -- the one on
which all others are based and which commands the greatest explanation.
Some teachers create a natural critical learning environment within
lectures; others, with discussions; and still others, with case studies,
role-playing, fieldwork, or a variety of other techniques. The method of
choice depends on many factors, including the course's objectives, the
personalities and cultures of the teachers and students, and the
learning habits of both. But an intriguing question or problem is the
first of five essential elements that make up a good learning
Often the most successful questions are highly provocative: What would
you do if you came home from college and found your father dead and your
mother married to your uncle, and the ghost of your father appeared
saying that he had been murdered? Why did some societies get in boats
and go bother other people, while others stayed at home and tended to
their own affairs? Why are some people poor and other people rich? What
is the chemistry of life? Can people improve their basic intelligence?
The second important element is guidance in helping students understand
the significance of the question. Several years ago, we asked Robert
Solomon, a philosophy and business professor from the University of
Texas, to talk about his teaching to a group of faculty members. Solomon
called his talk "Who Killed Socrates?" and in that title captured much
of the intellectual energy of his inquiry into Socratic pedagogy and why
it isn't used much anymore. When we watched Solomon conduct an
introductory philosophy class on epistemology, he simply stood before
the freshmen and sophomores, looked them in the eye, and asked, "Does
anyone here know anything for sure?" The way he asked the question gave
it meaning. As students cast about for a positive answer, reeling in one
solution and then another, they began to grasp the purpose of this
modern inquiry. Once that happened, their learning could begin.
Many teachers never raise questions; they simply give students answers.
If they do tackle intellectual problems, they often focus only on their
subject and the issues that animate the most sophisticated scholarship
in the field. In contrast, the best teachers tend to embed the
discipline's issues in broader concerns, often taking an
When Dudley Herschbach teaches chemistry at Harvard University, he does
so with a combination of science, history, and poetry, telling stories
about human quests to understand the mysteries of nature. The lesson on
polymers becomes the story of how the development of nylons influenced
the outcome of World War II. He even asks his chemistry students to
write poetry while they struggle to comprehend the concepts and ideas
that scientists have developed.
Good teachers remind students how the current question relates to some
larger issue that already interests them. When Solomon taught an
advanced undergraduate course in existentialism, he began with a story
about life under Nazi rule in occupied France in the early 1940s,
reminding students that even ordinary activities like whispering to a
friend could have had dire consequences in that police state.
Third, the natural critical learning environment engages students in
some higher-order intellectual activity: encouraging them to compare,
apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and
remember. "I want the students to feel like they have invented calculus
and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to
the punch," Donald Saari, a mathematics professor at the University of
California at Irvine, told us. Unlike so many in his discipline, he does
not simply perform calculus in front of the students; rather, he raises
the questions that will help them reason through the process, to see the
nature of the questions, and to think about how to answer them.
A fourth aspect of a good learning environment is that it helps students
themselves answer the question. The professors we studied often raised
important inquiries but challenged students to develop their own
explanations and defend them. And finally, a good learning environment
leaves students wondering: "What's the next question?" and "What can we
In the 1990s, the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern
began working with several professors to develop highly interactive
multimedia programs that tried to create this natural critical
environment. For example, Larry Silver, a professor of art history at
the University of Pennsylvania, has developed software called "Is It a
Rembrandt?," which engages each student in becoming a museum's top art
investigator and determining the authenticity of three of Rembrandt's
paintings. To do so, the students must examine the paintings and build a
case to support their conclusions. They can inspect each piece of art,
compare it to similar works, view the curator's files, or go to the
conservation lab. At each turn, they encounter questions, but they
decide which ones to pursue, picking their own path through the
material. When, for example, the students have been drawn into a close
examination of the brushwork on the face of the painting Old Man With a
Gorget, they can ask whether Rembrandt's students also mixed brushwork
styles in their paintings. If they do, Professor Silver appears on the
screen to tell them about "bravura display," and the students can then
ask, "What is bravura brush stroke?"
Slowly, the students build their understanding of the art world in which
Rembrandt worked and of the critics, collectors, scholars, and
controversies that have emerged over the years around the work of the
Dutch master, his students, and his imitators. They build a vocabulary
for thinking about various issues, an understanding of technical details
and procedures, and an ability to use a vast array of historical facts.
In short, they learn to think like a good art historian, to appreciate
the questions that the discipline pursues, to frame important questions
of their own, and to determine the kinds of evidence that might help
Gerald Mead, a professor emeritus of French at Northwestern, developed a
similar program for his course on the history of modern France called
"Invitation to a Revolution," which invites students to travel to the
late 18th century to see if they can avoid the excesses of the French
Revolution. In Deborah Brown's physics course students can use a program
that challenges them to build an elevator. In Jean Goodwin's course on
free speech, students can act as Supreme Court justices to decide a
tricky actual case that asks whether people can be held legally
responsible for the long-range consequences of their speech.
We saw the same kind of learning environments created in classes that
used simulations, case studies, problems, fieldwork, and even lectures.
We saw them when Chad Richardson's students in sociology at the
University of Texas-Pan American did ethnographic research on their own
cultures, and when Charlie Cannon's landscape-architecture students at
the Rhode Island School of Design struggled with how to treat pollution
in New York Harbor. Edward Muir, a professor of Italian Renaissance
history at Northwestern, recreates trials from that era to help students
develop an understanding of the period and how to use evidence to draw
historical conclusions. The mathematician Donald Saari takes a roll of
toilet paper into class, asks students how they will calculate its
volume, then nudges them toward breaking that problem into its simplest
components. Jeanette Norden, a professor of cell and developmental
biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, confronts her students
with actual people who have suffered some malady, challenging the future
physicians to think through real cases.
We found no great teachers who relied solely on lectures -- not even
highly gifted ones -- but we did find people whose lectures were highly
interactive and helped students learn because they raised questions and
won students' attention to those issues. Many professors organize the
class into small groups and charge them with working collaboratively
outside of class to confront the intellectual problems of the course.
With some topics they might give students a written "lecture" to read in
class, asking them to identify its central arguments and conclusions.
Because students can read in 15 minutes what it takes 50 minutes to say
in a lecture, they could then gather in their groups to discuss the
material for another 15 minutes. In the final 20 minutes the instructor
can entertain questions, clarify misunderstandings, and suggest how
students can learn more.
In all these examples, students encounter safe yet challenging
conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again
without facing a summary evaluation.
Get students' attention and keep it. Teaching is, "above all, about
commanding attention and holding it," Michael Sandel, a Harvard
political theorist, has said. "Our task is not unlike that of a
commercial for a soft drink or any other product." The only difference,
he continued, is that "we want to grasp students and direct their
attention someplace else." Teachers succeed in grabbing students'
attention by beginning a lecture with a provocative question or problem
that raises issues in ways that students had never thought about before,
or by using stimulating case studies or goal-based scenarios.
Start with the students rather than the discipline. Every year more than
700 students crowd into Sandel's classroom at Harvard to take his course
on justice, in which he asks them to imagine the following scenario: You
are the driver of a runaway trolley car that is approaching five men who
are working on the track. You cannot stop the train, and it seems
destined to run over the men and kill them. As you speed down the track
toward this waiting tragedy, you notice a side track where you can steer
the trolley car if you choose to do so. The only problem is that one man
is working on that track and the train will undoubtedly kill him if it
goes that way. What would you choose to do, he asks the students? Do you
turn the car onto the side track, killing one person but saving five
others? What would be most just and why? Often the students have no
difficulty deciding that they would take out the one life to save the
Sandel then introduces a wrinkle to the story. Suppose, he says, that
you are not on the train but standing on an overpass watching it speed
toward the five workers. As you watch this disaster in the making, you
notice a large man standing next to you, also peering over the railing
of the overpass. You quickly calculate that if you push this person over
the railing, he will land on the track in front of the train. He will
die, but his body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would it be
just to give that person a shove?
In that exercise Sandel hopes to provoke students to think about
fundamental issues of justice and understand their own thinking in
relationship to that of some of the major philosophers. Throughout the
course, he then embeds all the major philosophical schools and writers
he wishes to consider in contemporary ideological battles intended to
excite the students. His knowledge of the history of ideas helps him
select the proper passage from Mills or Kant; his knowledge of and
concern for the students help him select the political, social, and
moral debates that will engage them. Equally important, he constantly
changes the issues to fit new generations of students.
Most customary instruction follows an organization that stems wholly
from the discipline, a set of topics and subjects that need to be
covered. But many of the best teachers make a deliberate and carefully
measured effort to confront some paradigm or mental model that students
are likely to bring with them to class.
This idea of beginning where the students are rather than where
disciplinary traditions might dictate has another influence on practices
in the classroom: It leads to explanations that start with the simple
and move toward the more complex. "If students have an understanding
that is down here," Jeanette Norden explained, putting her hand close to
the floor, "you don't start with something up here. Some medical
students come in not even knowing what a neuron is -- a neuron is a cell
in the brain -- so you have to begin with that simple notion and then
you can build from there quickly."
Seek commitments. "I tell my students the first day of class that the
decision to take the class is the decision to attend the class every
time it meets," one professor explained. "I also tell them that my
decision to teach the class includes the commitment to offer sessions
worth attending, and I ask them to let me know if they think I'm not
Highly effective teachers approach each class as if they expect students
to listen, think, and respond. That expectation appears in scores of
little habits: the eye contact they make, the enthusiasm in their voice,
the willingness to call on students. It contrasts sharply with
professors who seldom if ever look at their students, who continue on in
some set piece almost as if they do not expect students to listen, and
who never try to generate a discussion or ask for a response because
they don't expect anyone to have any.
Help students learn outside of class. The best professors do in class
what they think will best help their students to learn outside of class,
between one meeting and the next. That approach is different from
deciding to do something simply because it "covers" some subject, but it
might lead to a variety of orthodox approaches: a demonstration that
both confronts existing notions and provokes confrontation with new
ones; a debate that enables students to practice critical thinking and
to realize gaps in their own understanding and reasoning abilities;
group work that asks students to grapple together and helps build a
sense of community.
Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what
students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a
series of intellectual developments through the course, with the goal of
encouraging students to learn on their own, engaging them in deep
thinking. In ordinary classes, instructors might create assignments for
students, but they rarely use the class to help students do the work.
Engage students in disciplinary thinking. The most effective teachers
use class time to help students think about information and ideas the
way scholars in the discipline do. They think about their own thinking
and make students explicitly aware of that process, constantly prodding
them to do the same.
Through such an approach teachers help students build an understanding
of concepts rather than simply perform their discipline in front of
them. While others argue that students must learn (memorize?)
information first and use reasoning only later, the professors we
studied assume that learning facts can occur only when students are
simultaneously engaged in reasoning about those facts.
In class, they might engage students in a highly interactive "lecture"
in which they present a problem and coax students into identifying the
kinds of evidence they would need to consider to solve that problem and
how that evidence might be gathered: "Here's the evidence we've
encountered thus far; what do you make of it? What problems do you see?
What questions would you ask about this evidence? What evidence do we
need to answer those questions, and how will we find or collect that
Create diverse learning experiences. "The brain loves diversity,"
Jeanette Norden told us repeatedly. To feed that appetite, she and other
outstanding teachers conducted class in a multitude of ways. Sometimes
they offered visual information (pictures, diagrams, flowcharts,
timelines, films, or demonstrations); other times, auditory input
(speech or visual symbols of auditory information -- written words and
mathematical notations). Some material was organized inductively, from
facts, data, and experimentation to the general principles; other
things, deductively, by applying principles to specific situations. The
teachers gave students an opportunity to learn sequentially, a piece at
a time; they also gave them space to learn globally, through sudden
insights. Some of the learning involved repetition and familiar methods;
some, innovation and surprises. The very best teachers offered a balance
of the systematic and the messy.
In sum, no one achieves great teaching with only vigorous vocal tones, a
powerful microphone, good posture, strong eye contact, and honorable
intentions. Great teachers are not just great speakers or discussion
leaders; they are, more fundamentally, special kinds of scholars and
thinkers, leading intellectual lives that focus on learning, both theirs
and their students'. They focus on the nature and process of learning,
rather than the performance of the instructor.
Ken Bain is an adjunct professor of history at New York University and
director of the university's Center for Teaching Excellence. He was
formerly director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at
Northwestern University. This article is adapted from his book, What the
Best College Teachers Do, to be published this month by Harvard
University Press. Copyright (c) 2004 by the president and fellows of
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