Interesting, Intriguing, or Beautiful? Reflecting on Ken Bain’s Message to UofL Faculty

MKB3 Marie Kendall Brown, Ph.D., is assistant director for teaching and learning at the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning.



Dr. Ken Bain, author of the critically acclaimed books What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do, ignited the spark of critical reflection during his visit to UofL last week as part of the 2014 Celebration of Teaching and Learning.  Over two days he spoke with nearly 400 faculty, staff and students.  As Dr. Bain notes, “You don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on experience” (2012, p. 161).  Join me as I share some of my favorite “take-aways”…

What is Learning?

Learning is moving from the specific to the general and starts with questions that feel immediate and authentic to students’ lives.  Deep approaches to learning are most likely to happen when learners (not faculty) believe that what is being learned is interesting, intriguing, or beautiful.  As educators we need to help students translate their questions to the larger theoretical or disciplinary-centric questions in our respective fields of study.  When we start with the questions that our learners have, we can meet them where they are.

Three Approaches to Learning

Dr. Bain described three primary approaches to learning: surface, strategic, and deep.  These approaches are conditioned, and strategic thinking (e.g., learners who intend to make good grades, focus on product vs. process, and don’t learn conceptually) is prevalent among today’s learners.  As a society, we now need adaptive experts who are DEEP learners in every field.  Teaching others to deeply learn something new requires sustained work.  It’s about focusing on the process of learning and adapting ideas in various contexts, not following a single route to solve a problem or create a product.

Toward Conceptual Thinking

Teaching for conceptual thinking and fundamental shifts in mindset requires that we create a kind of “cognitive dissonance” in our learners so they recognize that their current mental models don’t always work.  It is this cognitive dissonance that opens the door for re-framing or rethinking old belief systems that don’t serve students anymore.  That is the only way to help learners integrate existing ideas and new thinking.  Dr. Bain’s ideas dovetail nicely with the university’s commitment to fostering critical thinking and authentic engagement with our students through Ideas to Action (i2a).  Learn more here.

Beyond Face-to-Face

As you may know, health issues prevented Dr. Ken Bain from traveling last week so he presented his sessions using  He told great stories, was interactive, and connected with his audience through effective use of movement, rhythm, and tonality.  One attendee even jokingly noted, “I am sure he made eye contact with ME!”  While we all want to engage and motivate our students, personally and purposefully by “watching their eyes,” Dr. Bain represented a great model for what is possible through the miracle of technology.

  • Here is a link to an interview with Dr. Bain that covers many of the concepts he shared during his visit.  Check it out here:
  • To see a brief summary of tweets, including pictures, from the 2014 Celebration of Teaching and Learning, check out this Storify (a full list can be found by searching the hashtag #CLbrT14).

Thanks to my colleagues Beth Case, Aimee Greene, Patty Payette, and Michelle Rodems for their contributions to this post.


Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tell us what you think.

What are your key insights from reading or listening to Ken Bain?  What are the implications of his ideas for how you teach?

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