An interview with Dr. Ken Bain, keynote speaker for our upcoming conference this Friday

For those of you interested in learning more about Dr. Bain’s work, I’d recommend you begin with this interview.

Dr. Bain talks about a number of themes from his two books on college teaching, What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard UP, 2004) and What the Best College Students Do (Harvard UP, 2012).

Most relevant for our upcoming conference is his discussion of the three major types of learners we encounter. He explains:

Surface learners intend primarily to survive, to get out of the course alive. You can hear it in the language they use. They often resort to what they think will be the easiest approach, namely to memorize stuff to be able to simply repeat it on the examination.

Strategic learners are driven by a desire for recognition, usually in the form of higher grades. They will do what they think is necessary to get those grades, but that is not the same as the deep learner who intends to understand, to think about implications of that comprehension, to think about applications and possibilities, to identify arguments and to distinguish in those arguments between evidence and conclusions. Strategic learners tend not to take risks (for fear it will jeopardize their grade point average) or to learn conceptually. They learn procedurally, how to plug the right number in a formula, or the right words in a particular form of essay.

Deep learners, by contrast, grapple with ideas, concepts, and the implications and applications of those ideas and concepts. John Biggs’s Solo taxonomy [1] helps us conceptualize what that deep learning might entail. The students at his highest (or deepest level) will learn to theorize and hypothesize. They will build new conceptual models and use those models to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. The Kitchener and King reflective judgment model [2] also captures a lot of what deep learners can do, and so does the concept of the adaptive expert. In short, deep learners undergo transformations in the concepts they hold. Their learning has a sustained and substantial influence on the way they will subsequently think, act, and feel.

So the goal here is teaching that produces both cognitive and emotional transformation and increased self-awareness, unlike the more rote or procedural results of the surface or strategic learners.  The best teachers are defined as those who are most effective at producing such transformations of learners, even when working with initially resistant, unprepared, or unmotivated students. As he notes:

some people might have “remarkable success” in moving difficult (and even unprepared or ill-prepared) students to a slightly higher level. The conception is not just based on how deeply students learn, but also on the influence that the teacher has had on their learning. Thus, some people working with students who are already learning deeply might not have as much “remarkable success” as someone who takes a group of disengaged students and turns them into very deep learners, with deep intentions. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the mark of a “remarkable success” in teaching is evidenced not simply by how much the students learned, but also by the effect of the teacher on  students’ subsequent attitudes towards learning.  These are the teachers who get remembered, and who influence students’ learning for the rest of their lives.




[1] Biggs, J., and Collis, K. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press. See

[2] Kitchener, K., King, P. (1994) Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults (Jossey-Bass, Inc.; San Francisco, CA)


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