In Dr. Ken Bain’s most recent book, What the Best College Students Do, the eminent education author talks about a conversation he had with a prominent chemical engineer, who took the same course twice—first as an undergraduate and then in graduate school.
“To this day… I don’t understand that material, but I made A’s in both of those classes. I learned to study in the right way and pass the examinations with flying colors, but I never really learned anything,” Bain quotes the engineer as saying.
This epitomizes one of my greatest fears as a high school teacher. I don’t want students to approach learning as a game, where the players are more concerned with getting high grades than finding any genuine, deep, and lasting value in the learning. I recently spoke with Bain, curious to hear more of his thoughts on this matter.
“For the surface student, they’re just interested in surviving and getting out of the course alive,” Bain says. “It’s the student with deep intentions who will intend to… think about the implications of what they understand and the applications and the possibilities of what they understand—and that is the most important idea.”
Truer words have rarely been spoken. In my seven years in the classroom, I’ve taught both kinds of students—but if I had to choose between teaching an “A” surface student who scores well on assessments, but seems little interested in much else, or a “B” student with “deep intentions,” I will always choose the latter. After all, I often question how much grades actually tell us about a student’s true capability or future potential.
Bain took this same thought into account when writing his book. Instead of basing his research on what current students do, he concentrated on people who had already graduated from college to become productive and creative individuals.
“One of the most difficult tasks that educators face is that historically, we’ve not done very well with… the whole task of trying to understand the nature and the progress of our students’ learning, and make reasonable predictions about how people are likely to perform in the future. If you look at those predictions in the historical record, we’re lousy at it,” Bain says.
The more I speak with Bain, the more I’m reaffirmed in my belief that standardized exams also predict little beyond how well one can fill in a bubble. Such assessments don’t gauge a person’s potential or predict future success—not even to the slightest degree. I’m dubious of studies that suggest otherwise.
In fact, I performed poorly on the SAT, and had Brandeis University not taken a “chance” on me during early admissions, I’m sure I would have received numerous rejection letters. I cringe at how many of our best students, as Bain defines them, are denied admission by top colleges and universities.
Those best students, Bain says, have the capacity to look at concepts and material with a “completely unique perspective,” which allows them to create, synthesize, and reason more effectively than surface learners can.
A great student also understands that her intelligence and abilities are highly expandable, “not frozen in time,” predisposed to a fixed maximum potential.
“When a student approaches a course, their fundamental intention should be to understand, not to remember, but to understand,” Bain says, reminding me yet again why I disdain teaching Advanced Placement United States History, which requires a ridiculous amount of rote memorization—and little else.
I’m equally interested in Bain’s explanation that great students accept and even embrace failure, especially when taking control of their own learning. As a teacher, I try my best to encourage students to take bold risks, and whenever possible I don’t penalize failure. Instead of weekly quizzes, I give “challenges,” which allow for several retakes for students to convey mastery. I also give students the opportunity to propose their own research subjects.
“We know that people are most likely to take a deep approach only when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they, the learner[s], have come to regard as important, intriguing, or just beautiful,” Bain says.
These students “realize that the failure doesn’t reflect where they can ultimately be,” Bain also tells me. “It just reflects what they did at any one particular moment. It opens up the possibility of taking the next moment and doing something very differently.”
So, what else do the best students do?
- They understand conceptually, not just procedurally. “Understanding should be the first and foremost task, and then remembering will fall more naturally in line,” Bain says. “You remember things that you understand. You forget easily those things you just memorize.”
- They study over an extended period of time. “You’ll remember much more extensively than if you try to crowd it all into one place,” Bain says.
- They study with someone else. “Studying with someone else and getting them to ask you questions and [press] you on those questions will help them and help you,” Bain says.
I’m eternally grateful for Bain’s work, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough. Buy your copy today.