The Best Teachers Ask Big Questions

Great teachers transform how students think and live long after the final exam

Who were your best college teachers? Which changed your thinking or your life? How did they do it?

Techniques aren’t what distinguish a great teacher, Dr. Ken Bain found in a 15-year study of 63 highly successful college teachers (What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press 2004). He’s vice provost for instruction and director of the Teaching and Learning Resource Center at Montclair State University NJ.

Great teachers may lecture, assign small group projects or use the Socratic method. They may teach at elite universities or community colleges, with all class sizes and all sorts of students. They exist in every discipline.

What they have in common is results. They transform how students think and live long after the final exam. They do it by targeting what’s most important to learn in their discipline and how students are most likely to learn it.

That’s less obvious than it sounds. “I taught for 20 years before I looked at the theory of how people learn,” he told some 250 participants, mostly women, at a daylong seminar at Carroll College WI in August, sponsored by the Wiscon-sin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Successful teachers in his study hadn’t read the learning theory literature but had reached similar conclusions from their own experience.

Deep learning

Memorization gets an A in some courses but seldom lasts. Understanding is harder and more durable.

“What we do as human beings is construct knowledge,” he said. It starts in the crib. Babies take in sensory input and try to make sense of it. We build mental models to put new input in context and use the models to interpret new information. Deep learning transforms mental models, or paradigms. “In higher education we want our students to engage in an unnatural task. We want our students to throw out the mental models they have or at least challenge them,” he said.

Introductory physics students came in thinking about motion as Aristotle did, not Newton, let alone Einstein. A post-test showed the course didn’t change their thinking. They amassed facts but their model of motion was still pre-Newtonian.

Beginning history students think about past events in terms of today. Some assume it’s all about names and dates. Great history teachers get students to think about context, arguments and evidence, bias and perspective, cause and effect, inevitability and personal influence.

Changing paradigms is hard and slow. Like most of us, students dismiss information that doesn’t fit into their mental models. They have to face a situation where their mental model doesn’t work. And then they have to care enough to work it through with guidance by a supportive teacher.

Big questions

You can’t make a student care. Grades, threats and rewards can get them to study, but not to transform the way they think. The best teachers raise questions the students care about. Such questions exist in every field if we’re willing to think big.

 Humans are naturally curious, as preschool children show. In school we beat it out of them. Most of us who pursue scholarly questions were drawn there by an earlier interest in other questions.

What are the big questions in your field, ones that really matter? “You have to appeal to their fundamental curiosity and the questions you care about,” he said. Students do care about answers to the big questions:

  • What is the nature of justice?
  • How do we know what we know?
  • Where do we fit in the universe?
  • Why are some people rich and some poor? • How does your brain work?
  • What is the chemistry of life?
  • Who am I and why am I here?

Bain started a diplomatic history course by discussing Woodrow Wilson’s actions right after World War I in relation to what happened at Versailles and the League of Nations. Could different actions have prevented World War II? Can people avoid wars? Can humans control their destiny?

Successful teachers keep big questions at the forefront throughout the course, noting how every detail applies. A math teacher invites students to interrupt class at any time to ask “Who gives a damn?” Then he stops to explain how the current point affects the larger issues of the course.


Dr. Nancy MacLean learned that 85% of her women’s history students at Northwestern University IL knew of The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (1995). Changing her plans, she offered the option of writing a historical analysis of the book, drawing on as many course materials as possible to place it in historical context.

Some teachers say students can’t grapple with a subject until they learn the basics. Great teachers know the two go hand in hand. Students absorb even the most basic content best by applying it.

Piano teachers don’t keep children away from the keyboard because they don’t yet play well. Coaches don’t keep players off the ball field until they pass a test on the rules. Neither does it make sense to silence students because they don’t yet know enough for scholarly discourse.

Having posed the question, successful teachers let their students discover the answer. Dr. Donald Saari draws math students at the University of California Irvine through the process of inventing ways to find the area under a curve. They feel they’ve invented calculus.

Invitation to the feast

Vanderbilt University TN classics professor Dr. Susan Wiltshire compares her class to a banquet, with students as invited guests. She draws them into discussion in the spirit of a dinner host, making each guest feel included. She offers up intellectual appetizers and entrees as an appealing spread.

Unlike the list of requirements that makes up a typical syllabus, a great teacher extends an offer. These are the questions this course will help you answer. Here’s what you’ll be able to do by the end of the course.

Students are in charge; they can accept or refuse the offer. “No one will shoot you for not taking the course,” Bain said. His mentor, history professor Dr. Ralph Lynn, quipped, “This course will help you to use your head.

If you’re not interested in that, then go to barber school and use someone else’s head.” Accepting the invitation implies doing certain things to achieve the promised results. Each assignment helps students achieve the stated goals. In a larger sense, the invitation is to join the company of scholars. Graduate professors often treat their doctoral students that way. It’s less common in undergraduate classrooms.

Great teachers reflect on the knowledge, skills and questions that professionals in the field require. At a more basic level, even an intro course addresses the same concerns.

Bain distinguished routine and adaptive expertise, which we learn in parallel. Routine expertise lets us recall informa-tion and repeat procedures we’ve done before.

Adaptive expertise lets us apply routine expertise in new and different situations. The adaptive expert “relishes and recognizes the opportunity to invent and explore,” he said.

Both are important. Most college teachers try to build routine expertise. The best also develop students’ adaptive ex-pertise, the difference between a scholar and a pedant. They convey an evolving field. What are the hot issues today? What do scholars argue about?

Then they invite students to gain the skills to join the discussion: to design an experiment, evaluate evidence or debate an ethical issue. “When people are learning they are trying to join a new community which I represent,” he said.

Evaluation and stereotypes

How many academics finish scholarly books and papers on schedule? Yet they routinely lower student grades for late work. That’s for teacher convenience, not because students learned less.

Universities ask teachers to promote and measure student learning, duties that aren’t always compatible. Grades detract from learning if they measure something other than what matters most. Students work strategically for an A instead of passionately pursuing their curiosity.

 Put someone in a room with an interesting puzzle and she’ll work on it until it’s done. Pay her to work on the puzzle and when you stop paying, she stops. External rewards such as money or grades displace internal motivation. Students who learn for a grade quit after the final exam.

Alverno College, a women’s college in Milwaukee WI, has become a leader in outcome-based assessment. Instead of grades the school has a rigorous pass/fail system based on demonstration of achievement. Students rework papers until they reach the standard.

Most schools demand grades. The best teachers interweave grading closely with achievement of the learning objectives. They help students improve on weak performance. They put timeliness in the context of learning: Does this assignment provide necessary background for next week’s classes or affect collaborative work with classmates?

Best teachers care more what students learn by the end of the course than what they knew at week three. Some make their tests cumulative. Each includes material from the beginning of the course and success on the final brings a good grade.

Stereotype vulnerability poses another grading challenge. Supposedly women can’t do math and science, while African Americans and Latinas do poorly at school in general. Knowledge of these stereotypes affects even those confident in their ability, who feel a constant need to prove themselves.

 “How do you make sure students think their work will be fairly and accurately judged?” he asked. How do you build trust? One professor had students turn in papers without names so he graded without knowing who wrote them.

When women and minorities struggle in class, sending them to remedial programs reinforces their insecurity. Most do better put in a more challenging setting with the teacher’s clear confidence they can do it. The best teachers believe in their students and let students know it.

To transform lives

Big questions may go beyond the discipline and so may course content. Dr. Jeanette Norden, professor of cell biol-ogy at Vanderbilt University TN and winner of a national teaching award from the American Association of Medical Colleges, gives students case studies to develop clinical reasoning skills.

 In the early 1990s she decided that wasn’t enough. Long before it was common in med schools, she saw that students didn’t know how to deal with emotions around illness, disability and death. Some doctors protect themselves with cold detachment or escape by drug abuse and suicide.

 She could not teach compassion but she could help students express the compassion that brought them into medicine. She studied grief counseling and brought it to her classes. One day she had students place three cards on their desk: one with the name of a loved one, one with a talent and one with a personal aspiration. She walked around the room and randomly tossed cards in the trash, symbolizing the losses their patients would face.

She invited surviving family members to speak with the class about how doctors had treated them during the loved one’s fatal illness. She brought in a woman who had cared for a husband with Alzheimer’s disease to talk about it.

Faculty who admit their students might learn from such exposure often resist taking time from other material, such as that needed to pass the National Board of Medical Examiners and the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

Far from detracting, Norden’s approach makes other class material more meaningful and memorable. Her students perform extremely well on the national exam. They report how well her classes prepared them for their rotations, the National Boards and their medical careers. Great teachers transform lives.

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