Summary: In this article, we’ll explore 18 characteristics of powerful learning experiences as identified in Ken Bain’s book Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning.
Author: Brendan Lake, D.M.A., M.Ed., is a senior instructional designer with ASU Online and an instructional professional with the ASU School of Music.
Why are some courses a dynamic, meaningful, and lasting experience, while others inspire lukewarm engagement and results despite the instructor’s best efforts? In his excellent new book, Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning, higher-education and pedagogy expert Ken Bain goes beyond typical course checklists and explores how teachers foster a natural critical learning environment, where activities and collaborations are designed around questions and challenges that students are intrinsically curious about and find deep and emotional value in solving.
The book is filled with stories and syllabi of real-life examples of these super courses, and begins with a concise analysis of 18 characteristics that were consistently observed in Bain’s research. Here are the 18 characteristics, paraphrased for brevity, and supplemented with examples that could be used in face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online courses:
Core course design and policy:
- The course is centered around big, interesting, and often beautiful questions, rather than topics or facts, to inspire natural curiosity and authentic applications of the content. Example: A biology instructor might begin Module 1 with the question “Can we grow food in space or other environments beyond Earth?” and then explore plant structures and cells to answer this question, as opposed to beginning with “This week we’ll talk about plant structures” and proceeding to define plant terms and concepts.
- The course provides students with a sense of meaningful control over their own learning. Example: Give students a goal and avenues to explore without explicitly requiring a certain path to reach the goal, and welcome alternative resources or assessments when appropriate. Consider having a statement in your syllabus explaining that your course is a “busywork-free zone” and that if any course activities don’t feel productive, to work with the instructor to find ways to modify or replace them. (Blum & Kohn, 2020)
- The course normalizes early failure as a part of the learning process, with feedback and the opportunity to try again before any judgment is made about the students’ work. Example: Follow up your lectures with an ungraded opportunity to check for understanding with a practice quiz or discussion, and build opportunities for students to submit early drafts of projects solely for constructive feedback. Ungraded opportunities often yield better feedback opportunities, as students are more willing to be open about their knowledge gaps rather than hiding potential errors or seeking out the easiest route to a higher grade.
- The course ensures that student work is evaluated fairly and honestly. Example: Use anonymized grading or transparent and inclusive rubrics when applicable, and welcome dialogue with students about how work was evaluated.
- The course invests students with a goal that is larger than the class or discipline on a “passion-driven adventure.” Example: Include opportunities or challenges beyond the classroom in the curriculum, such as collaborations with local businesses or nonprofits, or invite customizable projects that directly relate to each student’s long-term goals or passions.
- The course allows space for students to develop and share hypotheses or predictions to activate prior knowledge and invent new ways to solve problems before advancing to relevant theories and facts. Example: An art instructor might introduce a discussion or reflection on what art is or isn’t, and why that question is important, before exploring established definitions of art according to well-known 20th century artists, critics, and historians. A history professor may open a lecture on an important battle by describing the two sides and asking students to predict the outcome, and defend why they predict that outcome, before outlining the progression of events.
- The course identifies and challenges the kind of paradigms that students may hold that should be questioned or abandoned, accompanied by exploration of where existing paradigms may not work. Example: A math instructor might examine the question “Are some people inherently good or bad at math?” at the beginning of a math course to identify and discuss fixed mindsets.
- The course helps students to care when their fundamental paradigms do not work. Example: A communications professor explores how misinformation and biases among news sources negatively impact communities, or an education instructor discusses how misconceptions around learning styles negatively impact students.
- The course appeals to students’ emotions as well as to their intellect. Example: Discuss the question of “What’s at stake if you don’t know this material?” and openly discuss what students are hopeful or fearful of in the class or their proposed field.
- The course helps students move from the specific to the general, rather than the general to the specific. Example: Begin a class or module with an anecdote or case study with a surprising outcome before exploring any terms or frameworks. As you introduce each new tidbit of knowledge, circle back and apply it to the opening story to reveal how the surprise could have been predicted.
- The course allows space for students to explore a challenge before having all of the steps or answers to help them problem solve, discover basic information, analyze obstacles and gaps, and help get them physically, emotionally, and mentally involved in the process. Example: A public policy instructor might ask students in their first week to attempt to draft an effective vaccine policy for a mayor’s office to grapple with the complexity and ramifications of their work before having a class lecture or group discussion on what policy elements may be more feasible or effective.
- The course allows, encourages, and facilitates student collaboration with others struggling with the same problems. Example: A physics instructor may ask student groups to collaborate on a complex physics challenge after a lecture. A research methods instructor may ask students to share where they searched for resources for their upcoming annotated bibliography.
- The course empowers students to help each other learn. Example: Include guided peer review opportunities, facilitate the creation of a student study group, or provide an online discussion platform for students to post questions and answers.
- The course welcomes and celebrates the rich diversity of backgrounds that students bring to discussions and collaborations. Example: A journalism instructor might invite students to share their interpretation of how an image influences the narrative of a news article and how their cultural background shapes this interpretation.
Student support and mindset:
- The course helps students believe that their efforts will matter to themselves and others. Example: Create authentic assessments that can be included in a portfolio, ask students to research job or graduate school requirements related to the course, or involve local or community projects as part of a course curriculum.
- The course provides students with emotional, physical, and intellectual assistance when they need it. Example: Openly welcome dialogue with students about challenges they’re experiencing that may prevent them from succeeding, and proactively reach out to students with low scores or engagement.
- The course explicitly leads students to foster a growth mindset. Example: Acknowledge the difficulty of challenges in the course subject, allow students to empathize with each other, and provide multiple cycles of feedback with an encouraging tone on projects.
- The course demonstrates a belief and commitment towards the growth and abilities of all students rather than any perceived notion that the course seeks to rank and divide the innate quality of students. Example: Avoid a comparison of student work, such as grading on a curve or ranking student work, and remind lower-performing students of available support with encouraging feedback.
The most helpful and realistic way to view each of these characteristics is as a spectrum rather than a binary checklist. Each quality can be improved over time based on your course needs and priorities, and if you’re fortunate to have instructional design support, these are great areas to explore with your team.
For a deeper dive on these qualities with authentic examples, Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning is available through Princeton University Press.
Bain, K. (2021). Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning. Princeton University Press.
Blum, S.D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). (First edition. ed.). Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.