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What the Best Teachers Do

By Ken Bain
Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, New York University

When I neared the end of my first semester of teaching, more than 30 years ago, I began to prepare the final examination. In the days before giving the test, I talked with several colleagues about the kinds of questions I might ask. We met over lunch or coffee and toyed with this item and that one, building clever little puzzles that intrigued us and promised to confound the students. Our efforts paid rich dividends, stumping most of the people who took the exam. I had set high standards and put my students through their paces — or at least so I thought at the time.

That examination, however, like many others I have encountered since then, said little about the intellectual or personal achievements of my students. It did not even tell me much, if anything, about my teaching. Most regrettable, it encouraged strategic learning rather than deep thinking. It emphasized reproduction of what I had told the class rather than the ability to reason with concepts and information, and it encouraged students merely to focus on guessing which questions I might ask. Like so many teachers, I failed to understand that testing and grading are not incidental acts that come at the end of teaching but powerful aspects of education that have an enormous influence on the entire enterprise of helping and encouraging students to learn. Without an adequate assessment, neither teachers nor students can comprehend the progress the learners are making, and instructors can little understand whether their efforts are best suited to their students and objectives. A teacher can even quite inadvertently undermine all else that might be done to create the best learning environments, often fostering strategic learning.

Unfortunately, many of the traditional practices in testing and grading and even the emerging methods of evaluating teaching do little better than I did then, and often without any appreciation for the shortfalls. Much of the conventional wisdom on grading students—what we can call assessment—often seems trapped in a morass of secondary considerations that have little to do with learning. Many examinations may capture the students’ ability to take certain kinds of tests but reflect little about the way students think. (One famous study of physics students found that they could ace the final examination yet still think about motion in pre-Newtonian terms). Meanwhile, discussions of how to appraise teaching — what we can call evaluation — largely center on the merits and demerits of student rating forms. At best, they concentrate on whether teachers use acceptable methods of instruction. At worst, they produce much hand-ringing and the surrendered pronouncement that evaluation of teaching can’t be done.

For the last 15 years I’ve studied the practices and thinking of nearly a hundred outstanding college teachers, people who have had considerable success in helping and encouraging their students to achieve remarkable learning results. We found people who have broken with tradition to forge fundamentally different approaches to both assessment and evaluation, and in those differences to answer questions that have long plagued conversations about such matters (see K. Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004). In the brief space of this article, I can’t do justice to the rich fabric of their ideas (you’ll have to read the book), but I can share some of their fundamental approaches.

In the hands of the best teachers, evaluation and assessment become intertwined, supporting each other in ways that deliberately benefit learning. When they assess their students, they do so in part to test their own efforts to facilitate learning. When they evaluate their teaching, they do so by looking at learning, both the objectives and the outcomes. The outstanding teachers used assessment to help students learn, not just to rate and rank them. Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard Nobel Laureate in chemistry, told us, “I want to help [students] learn something about themselves so they can become better learners and thinkers. I’m not interested in just adding up so many scores like a cash register.” Examinations and assignments become a way to help students understand their progress in learning, and they also help evaluate teaching. “I use each examination,” Jeanette Norden, a Vanderbilt biologist explained, “to tell me how well I helped my students learn. If I see a pattern of misunderstanding, I will have to do something to ‘re-teach’ the material.”

In contrast, many traditional teachers with whom we spoke clearly thought about grades as a way, as one professor put it, “to separate the sheep from the goats.” The notion that the “goats” might reflect something about the teacher’s abilities apparently didn’t occur to them, and didn’t even make sense in their ideas about teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation. In those conceptions, schooling is primarily a way to certify, to pick the best and brightest rather than to help all students learn better. “I think,” one teacher told us, “that many of my colleagues think that their chief responsibility is to find ability rather than to encourage its development.”

Equally important, the teachers in our study stress learning rather than performance. To understand this learning-based approach, let’s contrast it with the more traditional, performance-based thinking. In that conventional model, students’ grades come primarily from their ability to comply with the dictates of the course. In the best of circumstances, those demands may have originated with some reasonable learning considerations, but the origins are sometimes forgotten as the requirements take on a life of their own. In the worst cases, the requirements stem from what appears to be the convenience of the professor rather than from the legitimate learning goals of the students. In all cases, a grade emerges from how well students perform the required tasks within the dictates of the course.

In a learning-centered approach, however, the questions change. Rather than asking if the student said anything in class or did a certain assignment and made a certain score, the professor asks what we will call the fundamental assessment question: What kind of intellectual and personal development do I want my students to enjoy in this class, and what evidence might I collect about the nature and progress of their development? Note several points about this question. First, it assumes that learning is a developmental process rather than only a question of acquisition. Learning entails primarily intellectual and personal changes that people undergo as they develop new understandings and reasoning abilities. Second, grading becomes not a means to rank but a way to communicate with students. Evidence about learning might come from an examination, a paper, a project, or a conversation, but it is that learning, rather than a score, that professors try to characterize and communicate.

In scores of examples, we found an emphasis on learning rather than on performance. Not all teachers followed the same practices, but they often broke with convention, stripping away the layers of tradition that had turned education into an obstacle course. Grades represented an assessment of students’ thinking, not whether they met some arbitrary rule. “The quality of the work doesn’t change because it is late,” one professor explained. “Was the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel any less beautiful because it ran behind schedule?” That approach also meant that students couldn’t rack up points for simply playing the game. While many of the teachers we studied provided students with multiple ways to demonstrate their thinking, they avoided what one person called “arbitrary extra credit,” points given to students for doing something that reflected little if anything about their learning (filling out the online ratings of the class, for example).

Most important, the teachers in our study tended to have a strong sense of humility when it came to grades. “I am not infallible,” one professor told us in a sentiment we encountered repeatedly, “and I recognize the enormous difficulty of understanding someone’s intellectual growth, but my students and I must try to do that. In fact, that’s part of my educational mission: to help students try to understand their own learning. In the end, I simply make the best judgment I can.” That humility spilled into both their conception of assessment as a carefully reasoned judgment and the limits they placed on the meaning of grades. “I’m not judging anyone,” one professor told us, “I’m merely trying to understand something about learning so I can help students continue to learn.”

To appreciate the wisdom of these principles and how they help create powerful learning environments, you must explore the particular practices of these outstanding teachers. Do they use criterion-based approaches to grading or grade on a curve? How do they provide feedback to students? Do they use comprehensive exams? How do they keep students focused on the learning rather than on the grade? How do these principles influence their approaches to the evaluation of teaching? For three days this summer, participants in an international institute on “What the Best Teachers Do” will have an opportunity to meet and work with some of the outstanding teachers from our study. Drop me an e-mail at, and I’ll send you information about that seventh annual program. It will run from June 23 to June 25, and will be our first program in the New York City area (previous programs were in Chicago or at the University of Sydney in Australia) and the first since the publication of the book

This article contains excerpts from Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, winner of the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for an Outstanding Book on Education and Society. Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission. Any reprints of this article in any form (including electronic) must be done without any changes or deletions and must contain this paragraph.