November 13th, 2009

Why It’s So Hard to Get Students to Read the Textbook, and What Happens When They Do

By:

“Do we really need to buy the textbook? It’s so expensive!”

“Can’t you just summarize it for us?”

“Would you just tell us what parts will be on the exam?”

“It was so long and so boring. I couldn’t get through it!”

Quotes like these indicate that many of our students want us to help them with the hard work of extracting difficult material and new vocabulary from their textbooks. They may use the term “boring,” but what they really mean is difficult and time consuming. In turn, we sometimes fall into the trap of summarizing the textbook in our lectures and PowerPoint presentations.

In my experience teaching psychology at the university and community college level, I have been flattered by student praise for “making the concepts seem easy.” Recently, however, I am finding myself troubled by the trend of making it seem easy for students. I have been reminding myself and my students that there are important reasons why they should do the hard work of reading the textbook on their own.

Here are just a few conclusions I’ve made regarding the challenges and importance of getting students to read the textbook.

  • Many of our students are poor readers. They often don’t know how to extract key information from the textbook, even when the textbook is “user friendly” and written at a lower reading level than a standard college text. I discovered this by asking my novice students to read out loud in class. If you’ve never done this, I recommend that you try it.
  • Most of our novice students know little about the structure of their textbook, how the chapters are organized, and how each section is painstakingly validated with current research. Most don’t preview and scan the text before reading, as expert readers usually do.
  • When students grapple with the text before class what happens during class makes much more sense. Such prior preparation results in students having a deeper understanding of key concepts and makes it easier for them to integrate those concepts into their own lives.
  • They learn the difference between informed and uninformed discussion. When students have read the material before class, discussions in class are richer and more fun, not just for the teacher but for the students as well.
  • Coming to class prepared and with some background knowledge transforms students from passive to active learners. They stop doing stenography and start doing the kind of critical thinking that promotes learning.

For these reasons, it is worth the effort it takes to get students to come to class having done the reading!

Excerpted from What Textbook Reading Teaches Students, The Teaching Professor, April 2008.

Tracey E. Ryan is a professor at the University of Bridgeport, CT.


  • Santiago

    Newer textbooks are only filled with the same thing that older textbooks already have. I think its complete bullshit how expensive they are. Its all about the money, and most of them add a bunch of unnecessary information only to make the book seem "professional". Nearly all college students don't care, they only want to pass the class. All these general education classes are a waste of time, only to supply more careers for professors and to make more money for universities. Honestly, do colleges really believe that students are going to remember at least 20% of what they learned in general education classes. I can almost guarantee college students forget about 90% of everything they "learned" in all general ed classes.

  • tiare

    we are in the 21st century and yes students need to know how to read but when you are in high school like me you just get assigned pages to read and write notes on it. so are you telling me instead of people making it easier and saying what parts are more important, teachers are going to spend mounds of money on textbooks for us to read when teachers know that textbooks are way to long and boring and could be simplified some other way. student do not want to read textbooks because they are not interesting and therefore they wont read. teachers always think if you raise the points on the reading that students would actually do them. me personally wouldn't read because it is to hard to stay in my room for 2 hours doing notes that could have been simplified by the teacher creating those power points.

  • Jerry ODell

    I taught statistics for 31 years, and the answer is simple. If you dont read page 1, you won't understand page 2.
    This sequence goes on until you are completely lost by page 5 (unless you get a really meaningless book) —
    say there's a good idea. Write books with no meaning , and you'll make a fortune.
    The sad part is simply that some people can't understand math. Or won't do any work.

    I had to deal with this problem for 31 years. The administration loves the money, tho jwo

    • Mom knows best

      two thumbs up!!!!

  • bmj

    I have a different view — they are boring because they are just plain badly written. Many use a poor, overly wordy writing style, yes especially statistics textbooks, that take simple concepts and hid them behind barricades of obscure writing. This is an example from my daughters textbook tonight (and what brought me to this site):

    "In this way the quantitative content caught in the dot product formalism comes from the analogical multiplication that arises by projecting one vector onto another."

    What the heck does that even mean? OK, I know because I've been a practicing physicist for 30 years, but I knew before reading that sentence. But if I were a student reading that passage, I'd want to throw the book into the lake and run screaming into the dark.