What Textbook Reading Teaches Students

“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 our PowerPoint presentations.

Our students do appreciate a good textbook summary and may even reward us with positive feedback when we highlight text material with flashy, multimedia 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. I decided that the list I’ve created might be useful to others who have students like mine who would rather have me read the text and then tell them what they need to know.

1. 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. Many of my students stumble with the vocabulary and sentence structure. When we require them to read the textbook in advance, we give them the opportunity to improve their reading skills and build vocabulary.

2. 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. We help students understand and appreciate how professional and technical material is formally presented when we require that they read the course text. This will better prepare them for what they will be asked to do later in most professions.

3. Textbooks today are filled with captivating pictures, helpful pedagogy, and interesting, real-life case studies and examples. This is in contrast to many of the textbooks that we read as undergraduates. Textbooks today provide students with many different opportunities for learning, but only if they are read.

4. From careful reading of the text students can come to see the value of having a second professor in the course, the author of their textbook. This second professor repeats what he or she said exactly, as many times as the student needs to read it. And students often get to know the author when the text is written in a personal tone with real-life examples presented from the author’s personal or professional experience.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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!