A Historian Devotes Himself to Urging, and Guiding, Colleagues to Teach Better

Mike Peters

Kenneth R. Bain
February 27, 2011

Listening to historians is what got Kenneth R. Bain, the first fellow of the Andrew W. Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr College, interested in how students learn. "Frankly," he says, "I had some colleagues who had Ph.D.'s in history who couldn't think historically. Their whole approach was just to memorize endless pieces of information."

Along with being a historian who has written several books on 20th-century political history, Mr. Bain, 69, is an expert on how learning takes place at universities, and how academics and administrators can foster better teaching.

This academic year he is passing his insights on to 12 faculty members from Bryn Mawr and nearby Haverford College. Among his ideas: Allow students to work together and to revise their work before grading. Generate assignments that intrigue them, prompt them to learn material thoroughly, and become habituated to disciplinary modes of thought. Be aware not only of the nuances of disciplinary thinking, but also of the social, political, and economic forces that influence learning.

Learning "is not a simple matter," he says. "There's reassurance in acknowledging how complex it really is."

Mr. Bain's fellowship recognizes both his practical work and his research in college-level pedagogy, which he encapsulated in his 2004 book, published by Harvard University Press, What the Best College Teachers Do.

A professor of history at Montclair State University, Mr. Bain also serves as that institution's vice provost for university learning and teaching, and directs the Research Academy for University Learning, which he founded in 2006. He has also founded teaching-and-learning centers at New York, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt Universities.

At each center, he has helped colleagues use research findings on pedagogy to become better instructors and to motivate their students and free them from such impediments as the expectation of failure that burdens students of some socioeconomic backgrounds. He also lends professors a hand in redesigning their courses and syllabi.

While at Bryn Mawr, he will try to spread the word on improved teaching and learning by guest editing Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, a new online journal supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Some of the motivation for his life's work came when he was an undergraduate at Baylor University and a graduate student at the Universities of North Texas and Texas at Austin. Recalling the teaching practices at those three institutions, he says, "I flourished under the best of them and languished under the worst of them."

By the time he started teaching, in the late 1960s, research findings on learning were plentiful, but, he noticed, college instructors largely ignored them. He began reading voraciously about influences on learning, ones "that go far beyond students' native abilities and even beyond what teachers might do," he says. Over time, he came to find especially helpful the work of the social psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan on how to stimulate students' intrinsic appetite for doing well.

Armed with such research, about 20 years ago Mr. Bain set out to entice, urge, and—rarely, he says—pester colleagues to improve their teaching skills and then mentor their colleagues in upgrading theirs.

From the outset, he included students in that process by having them advise professors on what works. One of the places he did that was Northwestern, where he built on the momentum of Gerald Graff, a pioneer there of a national "teaching and learning" movement of the 1980s.

Even though the thinking about teaching has become far more sophisticated over the past two decades, considerable challenges in spreading that knowledge remain. Among them is the defensiveness of many colleagues. And yet, Mr. Bain says, his program at Montclair State has always been overenrolled. From 50 to 60 applicants, it selects 24 a year: 12 tenure-track faculty members and 12 senior professors who serve as mentors.

Meredyth Krych Appelbaum, an assistant professor of psychology who went through Mr. Bain's program at Montclair, says the training helped her realize that students can grapple with complex topics and higher-order reasoning right from the beginning of courses. "The key is to engage them in real issues that are debated in my field, to stimulate natural curiosity and get students invested in their own success," she says by e-mail.

How does Mr. Bain coax his wards to reveal their teaching habits, surrender their syllabi, and get some coaching?

Avoid the specialized jargon of pedagogy research, he advises; instead, use language that colleagues are comfortable with.

And point out how little the disciplinary preparation of instructors has helped them to understand university learning and how best to cultivate it. "That makes it less threatening to them."

He also has a ready argument for administrators wondering how to fit such efforts into tight budgets: "Most universities recognize that in a student-driven academic marketplace, where students have so many choices in where they can go, it is incumbent upon the institution to expend the effort to improve the quality of teaching and learning."