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Career Advice

What the best college students do

Good advice from a legendary scholar.


Ken Bain is legendary within the postsecondary education community, and for good reason. A former director of four teaching and learning centres in the United States, the author of the multiple award-winning What the Best College Teachers Do and the founder, coordinator and lead instructor of the Best Teachers Summer Institute (an excellent three-day immersion in the ideas discussed in his books), he is without question one of the most influential scholars and thinkers about teaching and learning in North America. He is also provost and vice-president for academic affairs at the University of the District of Columbia.

His latest work, What the Best College Students Do – not exactly a sequel but certainly a worthy companion to What the Best College Teachers Do – is limited in its expression of new ideas, but it is a first-rate addition to the scholarship of educational development nonetheless. Dr. Bain’s focus is obvious: “This is a book,” he writes in the introductory chapter, “about creative people and how they became that way. These creative people went to college and emerged from that experience as dynamic and innovative men and women who changed the world in which they live.”

What the book is not is also clear from the start. “I should say right now that this is not about people who made the highest grades in college,” he explains. And when he notes two pages later that Martin Luther King Jr. once received a C in public speaking, the reader understands why. Grades, the author argues convincingly, “often tell us little about a student’s learning.”

What the Best College Students Do, then, is comprised of a series of sustained anecdotes about famous and less famous college graduates from across the U.S. – Stephen Colbert of television fame; Jeff Hawkins, who invented the Palm Pilot; Mary Ann Hopkins, a renowned surgeon who’s worked with Doctors Without Borders in Burundi and Sri Lanka – complemented by Dr. Bain’s analysis of the most current research on teaching, learning and human motivation. The anecdotes are based on interviews that he and his wife, Marsha Bain, conducted.

How they chose their subjects is critical to understanding how they conceive of the “best college students.” We “selected people to follow,” Dr. Bain writes, “only if they obviously learned deeply and subsequently became those highly productive individuals who continued to grow and create … who enjoyed a challenge [and] recognized when old ways would not work … who had fun finding new solutions, who were at ease with themselves.”

Dr. Bain’s training in history is evident as he weaves his compelling narrative through the various stories. He has strong views about contemporary American society – governments, parents and students have become obsessed with grades to the detriment of the deep engagement in and enjoyment of postsecondary education that should inspire and shape the thinking of future leaders of a fair and just society. His exhortations for a greater appreciation of the long-term importance of college learning need to be heard. Whether 21st-century students who are not already inclined to read his book will abide by his advice to focus on learning, personal reflection and inner growth is less clear. (Perhaps the best line in the book is: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflecting on experience.”)

If they do, however, it will almost certainly be because of what Dr. Bain explains about the differences between surface, strategic and deep learning. The surface learner enters the classroom with an interest in determining the bare minimum effort and understanding necessary to pass the course. The strategic learner asks a similar question, replacing only “to pass the course” with “to get an A.” In the years that follow, the strategic learners will retain no more course content than the surface learners. So, while the surface learners might graduate with Cs, and the strategic learners with As, within a year or two both will have an understanding worthy of an F.

It is only the deep learners – those who seek real meaning from the material and question their own thinking process (known to theorists as metacognition) – that gain substantive value from their postsecondary educational experience. Their intrinsic motivation for learning compels them to delve beyond the assigned material.

Real learning, then, is hard work. And the best students are not only willing but genuinely want to work hard. This is a lesson worth recalling, and Dr. Bain deserves praise for bringing it to his readers’ attention.

What the Best College Students Do
by Ken Bain, (Harvard University Press, 2012), 289 pages.

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  1. May King / August 7, 2013 at 16:35

    Dear Dr. Chapnick:

    Thank you for your article about Dr. Bain ‘s book.

    I am sure that this book does not only apply to college students but will also apply to all young adolescent to begin their working life.

    You definitely and acutely point out that:

    Perhaps the best line in the book is: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflecting on experience.”

    Respectfully yours,

    May King

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