What the Best College Teachers Ask Themselves

What do you think about as you prepare for your upcoming class or for a course you will teach next semester? What questions do you ask yourself?

Ken Bain, author of the book, "What the Best College Teachers Do," writes about finding a list of questions that he scribbled down as he was preparing to teach his first semester: "Where's the classroom? What textbook will I use? What will I include in my lectures? How many tests will I give?"

His questions are all important. However, as he found himself compiling results of a study he later conducted on 100 of the best college teachers he could find, the list of questions they ask themselves as they prepare to teach a class was quite different. He found 13 questions these teachers ask themselves as they prepare to teach a course. Here are four (with clarification from Faculty Development):

    1. What big questions will my course help students answer? What skills, abilities, or qualities will it help them develop? How will I encourage my students’ interest in these questions and abilities? (Practice backward course planning: envision the end point, then work backwards as you plan your semester.)   

    2. What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer the questions that the course raises? (How does a sculptor, or an architect, or a screenwriter think?)  

    3. What mental models are students likely to bring with them that I will want them to challenge? How can I help them construct that intellectual challenge? (How do they see this discipline before they come into the class? How can I give them experiences that help them refine or correct that view?)

    4. How will I communicate with students in a way that will keep them thinking? (How can I stimulate student involvement, and not focus so much on my own "performance?")

Teachers, of course, need to find their classrooms, and decide what will be in their lectures. But the deep learning—and the inspiring and enjoyable teaching—results from teachers grappling with "big questions" like the four above.

As we move into the final days of the semester, reflect on specific students—one or two "stars," a couple who are passing, and two more who are not. Bear the questions above in mind as you reflect on your own teaching behaviors. Which were successful on each count, and which were not?

Answering these questions will put you on the path to another practice of the best college teachers: "[they] treat their teaching as they likely already treat their own scholarship or artistic creations: as serious and important intellectual and creative work, as an endeavor that benefits from careful observation and close analysis, from revision and refinement, and from dialogues with colleagues and the critiques of peers." (p.21)


Based on Bain, Ken. What The Best College Teachers Do (2004). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. (pp 21, 48-67)