The July 2013 issue of Teaching of Psychology (40, 3) includes an “objective analysis” of the specifications and content coverage of 13 full-length introductory psychology textbooks. In six pages, teachers get a well-organized overview of introductory texts and a good feel for what those in the field consider important introductory course content. Scholarship like this makes a valuable contribution to the discipline.
The number of pages in these introductory psych texts ranges from 577 to 842, with the average length a little more than 670 pages. The books contain 15 to 17 chapters with 42 pages the average chapter length. In another survey of faculty teaching introductory psychology, respondents reported covering about 68% of the course topics, and a publisher’s survey indicated that somewhere around 20% of students are not buying these introductory texts, possibly because of cost. Some of these books top $200, according to the authors.
An interesting set of details, specific to psychology, yes, but not all that atypical, I’m thinking. The findings encourage us to revisit how textbooks promote learning in these introductory courses, indeed in all our courses. I worry that our use of textbooks is too often habitual. We have them because we’ve always had them. They’re expected. A course wouldn’t have a reputation for rigor without them.
Exploring the role of texts in courses begins with a clear understanding of the relationship between the content presented in class and that covered in the textbook. If what’s presented in class is also covered in the book, do students need both? Why? Do we present the concepts and use the book to support them with examples? Or is it the reverse? Do we hold students responsible for mastering the basics presented in the textbook and use class time to explore topics more deeply or to work on knowledge application? What do we, as teachers, do better than the book? Where does the book trump our efforts? How does the relationship change when the course is online? Should students understand the relationship between the material presented in class and the content covered in the textbook?
If we’re going to ask students to pay a high price for textbooks, then don’t we have an obligation to use them in ways that promote learning? Yes, students have a responsibility here as well. You wouldn’t think someone would shell out several hundred bucks for a book and then hope not to have to open it, but then how thoughtful are students about the role of textbooks in their efforts to learn? Do we establish that the text is a valuable learning resource or do we get stuck on those “Do the reading or you’ll regret it” messages? Do we underscore the value of using the text? Do we defer to it when it contains a clear and concise answer to a question asked in class? Do we bring it to class to show students a helpful table or to read a particularly pithy quote?
Another article in this issue of Teaching of Psychology reviewed five “concise” introductory psychology texts. The books averaged 360 pages and fewer than 14 chapters, so they are not what you would call “short.” However, the review documents that proportional coverage of standard topics was similar to that found in full-length textbooks, which leads to the questions still being avoided in almost every field: What is the right amount of content in these introductory courses? Why do we continue to assume that more is always better?
I suspect that many of you will agree that we have too much material jammed into these and most other courses. Nearly 700 pages of text with all sorts of new terms and ideas is a lot to get through when you’re a student taking more than one course, working more than a few hours, and aren’t an especially good reader. But how often do teachers make the text decision based on the learning needs of students?
It’s another post peppered with questions, I know, but they are ones we need to be asking ourselves, our colleagues and within our programs. We should be talking more about whether the way we choose and use textbooks promotes the kind of learning we value.