Choosing and using textbooks

There is no such thing as a perfect textbook – unless perhaps you write one yourself. Going into my third year of teaching I’m certainly not ready to write my own textbook. I am, however, thinking hard about whether the books I’ve been using are the best ones for my classes. I’ve talked here before about the importance of selecting reasonably priced books. Beyond that, however, I want to make sure that the textbooks are helpful to the students and add value to the courses I’m teaching.

The first thing I’ve been thinking about is how I want the students to use the textbook in an intro class, and what it provides for students both in class and in the future. I’ve seen what I would categorize as three main type of books that might be selected for an introductory class.

  1. Short, simply-written, basic books. This type of book doesn’t cover all I expect students to know, but I could reasonably expect students to read it before class. This type of book provides a scaffold to which I provide more examples and in depth material, making a little bit more work upfront for me (a potential negative). A benefit to this type of book is that there’s no confusion about what book material the students need to know (all of it!). Another benefit is that the book is likely to be digestible by most of my students. A negative is that they won’t have a substantive book to refer to later in their college (or out-of-college) career.
  2. The ‘just right’ type of book that provides the level of detail and information that fits the students and the class. I can cover all or most of it, and there aren’t large sections that are above my students’ heads. A benefit to this type of book is that I have to do very little hunting for additional information or examples, but a downside is that the book may be too dense for some of my students.
  3. The complete, exhaustive coverage of the material. This is the type of book you expect students to keep and refer to in upper division classes, or perhaps their future career or in graduate school. There is no way to cover an entire reference-worthy book one class, so using a book like that means you may be only choosing sections to have them read, or telling them they are only responsible for terms or concepts covered in class. These are the types of books I still have sitting on my shelf today – but they aren’t the types of books the average student is going to be able plod through. I worry that these types of books might actually turn students off of learning.

To some degree deciding which of the above three to choose depends on the make-up of your student body and what most of them do with the information they learn in class. My intro class is taken by two different types of students: sophomore departmental majors preparing for our upper-division courses, and upperclassman taking it as an elective from other departments on campus. These students come to the class with vastly different amounts of preparation and interests. I’ve tried teaching with both version number 3 (reference book) and version 2 (“just right”). Interestingly, the book I thought would be “just right” and taught from the first time, which was the book I learned from as an undergraduate, was too much for the students at my College – so even the “just right” book is going to be different for different groups of students.

I’ve also been thinking about how I use the book in class preparation. My first year teaching it was all I could do to get through the material presented in the book, but now I have time to think about incorporating alternate examples and outside sources. Given that there’s an example for each major concept or equation, is it best to go over that particular example in class, to ensure that students fully understand that example and get the information from multiple angles? Or, if I’m more interested in imparting general understanding than particular examples perhaps it’s best to present an alternative. I’ve tried both and received conflicting feedback from students, and I’m not sure yet what leads to the most effective learning for the largest number of students.

Lastly I’ve been thinking about the utility of textbooks for upper division classes. I have been considering getting rid of textbooks altogether (once I’m comfortable with the course design and material) in my senior-level courses. I would transition to a lecture- and primary literature- based format, and have an optional textbook. This would give me a lot more freedom to cover the material I think is most important. However, many of the students in our program (even as seniors) find it difficult to get through primary literature, and focusing on discussion and interpretation of those sources might make it less likely those students learn.

Do you use textbooks in your classes? How do you choose them? How do you use them?

7 thoughts on “Choosing and using textbooks

    • Yes, although not really another ‘category’ of book types, price is very important! In my previous post on the topic I talked about selecting reasonably priced books. We’ve gone to books with paperback/looseleaf options in all of my classes. I also try to choose books that have earlier editions students can get more cheaply.

      • One other useful thing for biomedical courses – many textbooks can be found free using the PubMed Books feature. Many of the standards – Lodish’s Molecular Cell Biology, etc. are in there, and there are several other suitable variations of specialized texts for other courses. My college professors had no idea this was the case so I had the textbooks, but my graduate professors were the first to clue us in so no one spent money they didn’t need to.

  1. In other countries where I’ve been both student and teacher (UK, Australia) textbooks are MUCH less prevalent, usually just a reference in the library that no one buys. So readings have to be carefully chosen and targeted anyway, meaning you can mix and match book types as needed/appropriate.

    Also, I think learning from journal articles is great! But you really do have to teach students HOW to do it. We use a scaffolded approach across the degree, starting in the first year (where you really hold their hands).

  2. I used to have a devil of a time trying to find text books. Typically I teach the intro level courses and have lately been eschewing them altogether since I find them to be completely unnecessary. I teach Philosophy, and can find just about everything I need them to read (or assign them to read rather) online through either the Guttenberg Project or Google books, or else I assign them to research a scholarly journal. I don’t see the need to force them to pay 60 bucks (at least) for a book they are only going to use once, or if they are in the discipline I teach, they aren’t going to be keeping the intro level book anyway no matter what subject.

  3. As a UK-based teacher / student, I found this baffling. I only had three (of 6) intro-courses that had a textbook, and nothing else. Otherwise we were given reading lists of articles and chapters etc and expected to get on with it (with significantly more help in the first year, but still). The idea of still being that ‘spoon-fed’ in your later years would not be acceptable in the institutions I’ve been part of (3 to date). However, without knowing anything about the subject (essay-based / science / mix), it’s hard to judge, as, for example, as they meant to be capable of independently parsing material and coming up with their own opinions (humanities / social science approach?) or do they need a reference book (Science?).
    (And as a student, I found it far more enjoyable to read multiple sources and collate them in my head and see how they interacted, etc. On the other hand, I went into academia, so I’m not exactly an unbiased judge!)

  4. Pingback: Link Round-Up: Teaching - How To Do A Literature Review

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