The CATL Book Club is offered every semester to promote professional development, discussion and reflection while learning more about learning, teaching and educational issues. We choose books with a variety of related topics including innovative teaching techniques, learning processes and changes in higher education. Discussions take place every semester and are lively and thought provoking.
If you're interested in taking part in our next Book Club, you can email the CATL or watch your email for our announcement. Also if you have a book you'd like us to consider as a future reading, please email us.
Below, you can find our most recent book selection and a link to our previous Book Club titles, all of which are available for loan from the CATL Library.
What the Best College Students Do
The author of the best-selling book What the Best College Teachers Do is back with more humane, doable, and inspiring help, this time for students who want to get the most out of college - and every other educational enterprise, too.
Combining academic research on learning and motivation with insights drawn from interviews with people who have won Nobel Prizes, Emmys, fame, or the admiration of people in their field, Ken Bain identifies the key attitudes that distinguished the best college students from their peers.
- Learn more about Ken Bain
- Read a review of What the Best College Students Do in Inside Higher Ed
- Read an interview with Ken Bain in the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Portal
Book Review: By Alison Staudinger
What the Best College Students Do follows the 2004 What the Best College Teachers do, although in this text Ken Bain offers the stories of learners rather than teachers. As someone who works to educate the best and not-best college students, the book is interesting, but ultimately sidesteps larger questions to its detriment. I suspect that these broader issues ultimately limit its usefulness as even a guide for new college students.
This text profiles exemplary learners (Ch. 1-2), integrates these profiles with neurological and social science research on learning (Ch. 3-6), asks about creativity and liberal arts education (Ch. 7) and draws inferences from these two areas to suggest an action plan for would-be deep learners (Ch. 8). The central premise is that deep learners, or the “best” college students, take charge of their own learning and follow their intellectual curiosity down a self-reflective and internally motivated path. What ties profiles he includes together is that the students are “creative people who went to college and emerged from that experience as dynamic and innovative men and women who changed the world in which they lived” (4).
As a teacher, I was most interested in the lack of correlation between grades and learning; this helped me reconsider how I measure success in my classrooms and which students I recognize as leaders. I began to wonder if I am asking students to perform as surface learners while criticizing them for not reading or thinking more deeply. I will use questions he tells students to use when choosing classes (229) to examine my own assignments and learning goals. And I will use his discussion of how to read, study and write well to orient some of my assignments, particularly in freshman seminars where these deep learning habits can best take root (232-257).
Yet, a question that submerged throughout this book remains unanswered: does the higher education system cultivate lifelong learners? While this is also the question that interests me as a teacher, Bain’s focus on the individual student and his or her development means that it cannot be answered here. And it is hard not to wonder if the habits of metacognition and curiosity that Bain’s exemplars show come from their educative experiences prior to college. While Bain was careful to choose many examples of students who began their career poor or with the disadvantages of racial minorities in the United States, he does not speak to the generally stark educational and other inequalities of class and race in the United States.
Second, Bain is unclear about what it is that lifelong learners gain, at some points suggesting they are fuller and better human beings, but in others suggesting that they will find worldly success. Indeed, the fact that his examples are rather wildly successful, both as human beings and commercially, help him sidestep the question of whether lifelong learning helps one flourish. What if it is possible that deep learning is not related in any meaningful way to success under Capitalism? One might charge Bain with selection bias, in that he profiles interesting and successful people who went to college; the examples of prominent drop-outs like Bill Gates suggest that college prompt critics of higher education to dismiss its value. While Bain is adamant that “good grades don’t necessarily tell us what you know,” there is an underlying suggestion that even those who do poorly in college, if they develop themselves in the right way, will be successful, or even change the world (9). Bain roots this claim in an understanding of deep learning as a process of uncovering and questioning our assumptions, such that “when we place ourselves in an environment in which many of our mental models do not work, we have greater capacity to build new models, to expand our understanding and our capacity to create” (71). Defenders of higher education have so far not been able to convince others that college is this environment.
We might also ask if the type of creative success experienced by Bain’s graduates, who for the most part left college in the 1990s and early 2000s, is attainable for the class of 2013 and beyond, who face massive unemployment and debt, and who are the first products of the mandatory testing regimes implemented through No Child Left Behind. If our students are not doing “what the best college students do,” this is in part a frank recognition of the realities of unemployment and poverty. I can imagine some of my students reading this text and feeling burdened by yet an additional pressure in their already hectic lives. This might reflect the differences between the college experience of most students and that of those in the book, who are for the most part “traditional” students who attend after high school, without full time jobs or families. Indeed, Bain acknowledges these pressures, saying that “deep learning requires time, and that’s a luxury many believe they cannot afford” (258).
What if instead of directing individuals to surmount obstacles we asked about how to make universities places where students with families and jobs could have the space to develop intellectual curiosity and fail safely? What if it were less financially disastrous to not get a job right out of college? What if we lessen educational and income inequality so that more of our students would show up to the University ready for lifetime learning? The question is how we can insure that this type of education is available to all, not how can individual students position themselves to learn deeply in spite of systems designed to reward surface learning.
It may seem unfair to fault a book for not being the one you wanted to read, but the individualistic focus on this text is evocative of the crisis in higher education, which elides normative or structural questions about universities or learning in favor of advocating practices that work for individual students, many of them exceptionally gifted or privileged. We should use What the Best College Students Do to jumpstart conversations about the structural challenges to deep learning in higher education, and at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.