What the Best College Teachers Do






·           Knowledge is constructed, not received

o         Learners learn by integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge.


·           Mental models change slowly.


(i) learners must face a situation in which their mental models of reality will not work, i.e., it will not help them explain or do something.

(ii) learners must care that it does not work strongly enough to stop and grapple with the issue at hand.

(iii) learners must be able to handle the emotional trauma that sometimes accompanies challenges to longstanding beliefs.

o         Teachers must create an expectation failure, i.e., a situation in which existing mental models will lead to faulty expectations.


·           Questions are crucial.

o         Questions help us construct knowledge. They point to holes in our memory structures and are critical for indexing the information that we attain when we develop an answer for that inquiry.

o         People learn deeply when they are trying to solve problems or answer questions which they find important, intriguing or beautiful.

o         We cannot learn until the right question has been asked.

o         Teachers have to stimulate students to ask their own questions. In Higher Education, learners are not in charge of the questions.

·           Caring is crucial

o         People learn best when they ask an important question that they care about answering, or adopt a goal that they want to achieve.

·           Motivation

o         Teachers should avoid extrinsic motivators, such as grades.

o         Teachers must foster intrinsic motivators, moving students towards learning goals and a mastery orientation.

o         Teachers must give students as much control over their own education as possible and must display both a strong interest in their learning and a faith in their abilities.

o         Teachers should offer students non judgmental feedback on their works, offering opportunities to improve.

·           Teachers should take a developmental view of learning.

o         Learning doesn’t just affect what you know, it can transform how you understand the nature of knowing.

§           Received knower: learning is simply a matter of checking with experts, getting the right answers, and memorizing them.

§           Subjective knower: students then find out that experts disagree. As a result, they come to believe that all knowledge is a matter of opinion. To them, an idea is right if it feels right. If they receive low grades, students at this level will often say that the teacher didn’t like their opinion.

§           Procedural knower: they learn to play the game of the discipline. Students recognize that the discipline has criteria for making judgments and they learn how to use those standards in writing their papers. But such knowing does not, however, influence how they think outside of class. They simply give their teachers what they want.

§           Committed knower: students become independent, critical, and creative thinkers, valuing the ideas and ways of thinking to which they are exposed and consciously and consistently try to use them. They become aware of their own thinking and learn to correct it as they go. Two types: (a) separate knower: students like to detach themselves from an idea, remaining objective, even skeptical and always willing to argue about it; (b) connected knower: students look at the merits of other people’s ideas instead of trying to shoot them down. They are not dispassionate, unbiased observers. They deliberately bias themselves in favor of the thing they are examining. Teachers want students to be separate knowers, to be skeptical and adversarial, but sometimes they want them to be connected knowers, to suspend judgment until they have a better understanding of something.

Course preparation


·           What big questions will my course help answer, or what skills, abilities, or qualities will it help them develop, and how will I encourage my students’ interest in these questions and abilities?


·           What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer the questions that the course raises?


·           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?


·           What information will my students need to understand in order to answer the important questions of the course and challenge their assumptions? How will they best obtain that information?


·           How will I help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using evidence and reasons to answer them?


·           How will I confront my students with conflicting problems and encourage them to grapple with the issues?


·           How will I find out what they know already and what they expect from the course, and how will I reconcile any differences between my expectations and theirs?


·           How will I help students learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning and thinking, and to read more effectively, analytically, and actively?


·           How will I find out how students are learning before assessing them, and how will I provide feedback before –and separate from- any assessment of them?


·           How will I communicate with students in a way that will keep them thinking?


·           How will I spell out the intellectual and professional standards I will be using in assessing students’ work, and why do I use those standards? How will I help students learn to assess their own work using those standards?


·           How will the students and I best understand the nature, progress, and quality of their learning?


·           How will I create a natural critical learning environment in which I embed the skills and information I wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) that students will find fascinating –authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality? How will I create a safe environment in which students can try, fail, receive, feedback, and try again?




What to expect from students?



Teachers expect more from students.


Some minority students are vigilant worry that their future will be compromised by society’s perception of their group. The more they care, the more vulnerable they become to stereotype threat.


The key to understanding the best teaching can be found not in particular practices or rules but in the attitudes of the teachers, in their faith in their students’ abilities to achieve, in their willingness to take their students seriously and to let them assume control of their own education, and in their commitment to let all policies and practices flow from central learning objectives and from a mutual respect and agreement between students and teachers.



Intellectual development: What is involved in critical thinking?


1.       Asking how do we know? What is the evidence?

2.       Being aware of gaps in knowledge.

3.       Distinguishing between fact and conjecture.

4.       Distinguishing between an idea and the name of that idea, and providing definitions.

5.       Looking for (hidden) assumptions.

6.       Drawing inferences from data, observations or other evidence, and recognizing when firm inferences cannot be drawn.

7.       Performing hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

8.       Knowing inductive and deductive reasoning.

9.       Intellectual self-reliance.

10.                                    Being aware of own thinking process.


Effective teachers give students many opportunities to use their reasoning abilities as they tackle fascinating problems and receive challenges to their thinking. They ask them to consider the implications of their reasoning.


They treat their courses as windows through which students can begin to see what questions the discipline raises, what information, inquiries, reasoning skills it employs to answer those questions, what intellectual standards it uses to test proposed answers and to weigh conflicting claims about the truth.


They help students assess their own work using those standards, to become aware of how they think within the discipline, and to compare that thinking with the way they reach conclusions in other disciplines. Learning takes place not when students perform well on examinations but when they evaluate how they think and behave beyond the classroom.


In order to engage in meaningful learning, students must (i) care deeply about issues involved in their thinking; and (ii) have ample opportunity to apply their learning to meaningful problems. So, teachers must ask students to solve intellectual problems that students find intriguing, beautiful, and important. Teachers must create a critical natural learning environment where teachers challenge and support students’ efforts by providing them with honest and helpful feedback.


Important goals: capacity to comprehend, use evidence to draw conclusions, raise important questions, and understand one’s thinking, i.e., the capacity to think about one’s thinking –to ponder metacognitively- and to correct it in progress.


How to conduct class?




·           Create a natural critical learning environment: Natural: students encounter the skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating, authentic tasks that become intrinsically interesting. Critical: students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while they are thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions.


o         Elements of a natural critical learning environment: (i) intriguing question or problem; (ii) guidance in helping students understand the significance of the question; (iii) engagement of students in some higher-order intellectual activity, e.g., compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize and never only to listen and remember; (iv) help the students answer the questions, challenging students to develop their own explanations and understanding and defending them; and (v) encourage students to think: “What is the next question?”


o         Students learn to think like the scholars in the discipline, to understand and appreciate the questions that the discipline pursues, to frame important questions of their own, and to understand the kinds of evidence that might help resolve controversies and how to use that evidence to do so.


o         Teachers usually begin with a question (sometimes embedded in a story), continue with some attempt to help students understand the significance of the question (connecting it to larger questions, raising it in provocative ways, noting its implications), stimulate students to engage the question critically, make an argument about how to answer that question (complete with evidence, reasoning, and conclusion), and end with questions.


o         Students learn most effectively (in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on the way they act, think, or feel) when: (i) they are trying to solve problems that they find intriguing, important, or beautiful; (ii) they are able to do so in a challenging yet supportive environment in which they can feel a sense of control over their education; (iii) they can work collaboratively to grapple with problems; (iv) they believe their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and (v) they can try, fail, and receive feedback separate from any judgment of their efforts.


·           Get their attention and keep it. Teachers use a provocative question, act, or statement. They motivate students by capturing and keeping their attention for each class.

·           Start with students rather than the discipline.

·           Seek commitments from students.

·           Help students learn outside of class.

·           Engage students in disciplinary thinking. They use class time to help students think about information and ideas they way scholars in the discipline do.

·           Create diverse learning experiences.


Good talk



·           Conversational tones: Anything they say to their students is like a conversation rather than a performance. They speak trying to engage every student.

·           Good intentions: Teachers have a strong intention to help

·           Warm language: They use warm language, i.e., storytelling. They are explicit, complete, and tell the story and make the explanation.

·           Making good explanations: they begin with simple generalizations and then move toward both complexity and specificity. They use familiar language before trying to introduce specialized vocabulary.


Getting students to talk


·           Allow students an opportunity to collect their thoughts and allow students to talk to neighbors before addressing the whole class.

·           Get every student involved early. Teachers call on their students rather than just wait for them to enter the discussion. But they do so with care.




Exploratory questions about a common problem: What is the key problem we face here? What are we trying to solve? What do we need to know that we do not know? What are the key definitions and concepts?

Provoke imagination. Are there any good solutions? What are the possibilities? Teachers hear what the students are thinking.

Stimulate some evaluation of those ideas. What solutions/ideas have we considered? How do we compare solutions? What are the implications of accepting this solution/interpretation? What are the consequences of doing so?

Ask concluding questions. What have we learned here? What else do we need to know to confirm or reject our hypothesis? What are the implications/applications of our conclusions? What questions remain unanswered? How do we answer those questions?


The teachers raise questions that the students had come to regard as significant or, better yet, the students raise those inquiries, often because the teacher has said something or asked them to read or view something that has puzzled, provoked them, or surprised them. During the discussions, the teachers ask students what they think about important issues and problems and why. Teachers then press them for evidence, question them about the nature of evidence, invoke arguments from the resources, encourage and allow them to challenge each other. Think/pair/square/share activities.


How do they treat their students?


There is an elaborate pattern of beliefs, attitudes, conceptions, and perceptions behind the way outstanding teachers treat their students.


How do they evaluate their students?

·           Effective teachers use assessment to help their students learn.


·           Assessment stresses learning rather than performance.


·           In a learning-centered approach, teachers ask 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?

o         Learning is a developmental 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.

o         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 teachers try to characterize and communicate.


·           Teachers think of the learning that students must achieve to earn each possible grade: What kind of abstract reasoning abilities must students develop? What must they come to understand? How must they apply that understanding? To what kinds of problems? What must they be able to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate? What are the criteria by which they will make those evaluations? Into what kinds of conversations should they be able to engage? With whom?


·           The primary goal of assessment is to help students learn to think about their own thinking so that they can use the standards of the discipline or profession to recognize shortcomings and correct their reasoning as they go. In other words, the mission is to help students understand their own learning.


·           Examinations are extensions of the kind of work that takes place in the course.


Evaluation of teaching


·           Teachers take a learning-based approach, asking the fundamental evaluation question: Does the teaching help and encourage students to learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive difference in the way they think, act, or feel –without doing them any major harm?


·           Is the material worth learning? Are my students learning what the course is supposedly teaching? Am I helping and encouraging the students to learn? Have I harmed my students?


·           The teaching must be evaluated using a teaching perspective.


·           The teaching portfolio becomes a scholarly case –evidence and conclusions that answers questions: What have you tried to help and encourage students to learn? Why are those learning objectives worth achieving for the course you are teaching? What strategies did you use? Were those strategies effective in helping students learn? Why or why not? What did your students learn as a result of your teaching? Did you stimulate their interest in the subject?


·           A teacher should think about teaching as a serious intellectual act, a kind of scholarship, a creation; he should then develop a case, complete with evidence, exploring the intellectual meaning and qualities of that teaching. Each case should lay out the argument in an essay.


·           Excellent teachers develop their abilities through constant self-evaluation, reflection, and the willingness to change.