Teaching at its Best

A dear friend, a retired professor, recently told me that he always was challenged with teaching until he read Nilson’s Teaching at its Best. This had me intrigued. My friend’s teaching evaluations were solid, he was well-regarded by his colleagues, and I had heard from more than a few students that he was strong in the classroom. I don’t believe that strong teaching is something that faculty are born with. It’s a skill, like many other skills, and it can be taught and honed. It needs ongoing attention. But could one book make that much of a difference when it comes to college teaching?

Linda B. Nilson is the emerita director of Clemson University’s Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation. She holds a doctorate in sociology and throughout her career she’s led the charge for research-based inquiry into what makes for more effective teaching. Nilson has been a leading voice in the POD Network, probably the nation’s most influential organization when it comes to pedagogy in higher education. Teaching at its Best is now in its fourth edition. As conditions have changed and research has learned more, Nilson has updated and adapted with the times.

Teaching at its Best is a comprehensive resource. It’s akin to spending time with an extremely wise, very experienced faculty colleague. One does not read the book in one sitting. It is not a text that one zips through. Instead, it’s a very carefully laid out compendium of virtually every aspect of teaching a class, from preparation through grading. It helps from the most basic to interesting scenarios. Nilson’s perspective and use of research are reliable guides, making it clear that best practices are grounded in intentionality. They do not just happen. Best practices are tested, assessed, reviewed and considered. And then reconsidered. Sometimes research results are crystal clear. Other times they require interpretation. Supporting all, though, is an ongoing commitment to teaching as a professional practice, grounded in philosophy and done with theory, research and analysis.

The book is accessibly well-written, encouraging, thought-provoking, and helpful. It is impossible to read Teaching at its Best and not learn something new that could make one a more effective teacher. While I currently cannot spend time in the classroom, if that were to change, I would turn to Nilson’s book. Immediately. I would also ask professors who knew the book what parts of the book they found to be most valuable. Teaching at its Best is quite the resource – and it is easy to see why my friend found it so helpful. Thanks for the recommendation!

David Potash

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