What the Best College Students Do is the title of a book written by Ken Bain whose witty and anecdotal writing attempts to capture the key ingredients of successful learning in academia. Such ingredients can be assumed to apply to other educational settings as well. In an earlier book, the author's analytical inquiry has been devoted to uncovering the key ingredients of effective pedagogy. Not surprisingly, the best practices in the domain of knowledge acquisition and those in the domain of knowledge transmission share many commonalities. Consequently, What the Best College Students Do can be considered the flawless sequel of What the Best College Teachers Do, illustrating that learning and teaching, which are institutionally segregated in traditional educational settings, are closely intertwined. This viewpoint is supported by research evidence which shows that retrieval of existing information from memory (as in teaching) is a 'learning opportunity', which may not only consolidate memory records, but also change such records, adding information and creating new connections.
Several ingredients exist in the recipe that Ken Bain proposes for successful learning (and teaching) in academia (and everywhere else). Yet, a problem solving approach is the overriding theme that seems to define successful learning in students and successful pedagogy in teachers. Namely, when students adopt a problem solving approach, they tackle the novelty of a domain of knowledge packed into the curriculum of a course as an array of interesting puzzles that need to be solved. Solutions are not meaningless to the learner, but they can be applied to his/her life, making it more complete. Thus, discovering a domain of knowledge is not separate, but integral to self-discovery. Of course, one might argue that a journey of self-discovery excessively enhances selfishness and egocentrism, but it does not have to be so if the journey is undertaken with other students whose ability to contribute to the excitement and fulfillment of knowledge acquisition is recognized.
Successful learning in an academic setting is not the endpoint of the journey of knowledge discovery (including knowledge of oneself), but rather one of the starting points. Furthermore, such learning is not conceptualized as mere acquisition of facts, but acquisition and development of problem-solving skills. As problem-solving skills develop, one's curiosity and tolerance of uncertainty become integral aspects of a student's being. Oddly, this ideal form of successful learning seems to have its starting point in a fortuitous accident. A course that a student takes typically becomes the driving force for a cascade of intellectual and emotional changes, all driven by the acquisition of a problem-solving approach to life. This approach then dictates the acquisition of new skills, shapes one's interests, and defines one's career path. All seem to fit a design where the learner is in charge, making him/her capable not only of confronting the challenges that life will inevitably place in his/her path, but also of defining new paths which other people may not have envisioned.
The author is a skillful writer who relies on good anecdotes to capture the reader's attention and create durable memories of key ingredients of successful learning in academic settings. Yet, the knowledge he brings to the informed reader is not surprising or earth-shaking. On the contrary, the content of the What the Best College Students Do can easily be deducted from observing how different students approach knowledge acquisition across the curriculum.
Two other ingredients whose interrelations do not take a center stage in the book deserve to be mentioned more explicitly and discussed more thoroughly: effort and circumstances. Indeed, one must recognize that expertise in any given domain requires that sustained attention and effort be allocated to such a domain. Curiosity is necessary, but insufficient, to maintain in-depth learning. The adoption of a problem-solving approach is likely to lead to passion towards the acquisition of knowledge, thereby fostering industry (including sustained attention and effort) in the learner. Regretfully, not all students are so fortunate to take a course or merely have an experience in college that will substantially change forever their approach to life. One typical answer that is offered to this conundrum by most colleges and universities consists of the implementation across the curriculum of 'learning focused on critical thinking'. The goal of encouraging critical thinking generally translates in instructors methodically asking questions and pointing out materials that extend beyond the information included in the standard curriculum. Several issues, however, are yet to be addressed regarding the effectiveness of this approach: What is the role that the nature, format, and frequency of the questions play in relation to the knowledge that learners already possess? Can instructors' behavior of asking questions be successfully modeled by students in and outside the classroom and across different domains of knowledge? Can frustration, likely to arise initially from not finding 'easy answers', be diminished or even reversed to produce enjoyable learning experiences? How can instructors counteract the surrounding 'quick-fix' culture, whereby answers/solutions are immediately available instead of being laboriously searched?
Of course, the most critical issue is whether asking questions and being of assistance to students while the latter search for answers are sufficient to model learning as a problem-solving approach not only in the classroom, but also in response to life occurrences after college. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a positive answer, but research evidence of transferability of skills suggests caution (see Schmidt & Bjork, 1992). Thus, although What the Best College Students Do is an interesting and valuable introduction to the realm of active, engaged, and effective learning, more research must be conducted before clearly defined pedagogical tools are suggested and implemented to produce a lasting problem-solving approach to acquisition and use of knowledge.
© 2012 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University