July 24th, 2013

Choosing and Using Textbooks


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.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you, as a teacher, decide whether a textbook is right for your course? Please share your comments below.

27 comments on “Choosing and Using Textbooks

  1. As a student, I hated spending tons of money on textbooks that are revised every few years. I loved the repurchase/reselling options that my college had, because money was tight. This semester I am trying a free textbook that has been made available for an introductory course…and wait to see what students think of the idea. I love my books, and have kept many for years, but not very many "introductions to" kind of textbooks.

  2. Five years ago, the General Psychology course had become a significant problem for students as well as faculty members at Berea College. Although course critique results were generally good, a large number of students were either withdrawing from the course or receiving deficient grades (about 15-20%). We were using one of the popular standard 700 page introductory texts with each faculty member choosing which chapters to skip. Since Berea College students are very sensitive to price, we typically asked students to purchase used copies of recent editions of the text.

    After looking closely at the data, the psychology faculty made the decision to transition to one of the concise versions of the general psychology text and enrich the class with a variety of external activities and materials. We developed multiple versions of a standard multiple choice test to serve as a part of the final exam in every section. In essence, we adopted a flipped pedagogy that required students to come to class prepared to ask questions from the reading, take a quiz individually, and then again in small groups. These initial activities consumed about the first 40 minutes of a 2 hour class period on most days. Afterward, demonstrations, videos, and discussions were used to deepen students' understanding of the material. Undergraduate students majoring in psychology serve as facilitators and collaborators in the conduct of the course as part of their required student labor.

    After 5 years, the evidence suggests that this approach is working well. The DFW rate has been reduced to about 5%; demand for the course is at record levels, and the number of students expressing interest in the psychology major has doubled. Performance on the standardized multiple choice test has remained about the same: 70%, which is not too bad given the test's breadth and specificity. The general structure has been taught to adjunct and sabbatical replacement faculty members and they have used it successfully and also applied it to other courses.

    I think the real advantage of adopting a concise version of the text is that it allows us to cover the entire text (10 chapters), but still leaves room for emphasis and elaboration by each instructor for each of the areas. The price of the text (even new) is about $40 which student really appreciate, and they no longer have to contend with previous students' marks, notes and random highlighting.

  3. I like to make sure that a text is readable and as engaging as possible. In addition, if I assign a reading, I try to make sure that they use and apply this information in class (often with a pre-assignment or set of learning goals that go with the reading). Because of the heavy content (I teach Biology) in most texts available, sometimes the reading is not that long and I use the learning goals or pre-assignments to help them identify what I find important for learning in the course.

    We tried to run a course last year without a text in an introductory science course and it was a struggle. We used readings online and often wrote our own readings. However, the level of readings and the connection between readings was extremely difficult. As much as I don't like the cost of textbooks, we are using one this year for this course and I see a need for a single resource that is at an appropriate level.

  4. There are some ideas that need to be heavily emphasized in Maryellen Weimer's article. A student preparing for a professional career in the field for which the text is required, and who is committed to thorough preparation for their future work should be buying and keeping important textbooks connected to what they need to know.

    As a professor, I hear students say that that they buy textbooks for courses that are never used during the semester. I subscribe to the belief that if we assign a textbook, we should be connecting the textbook information to the content of the course. In my own courses, there are parts of the textbooks that I use, which students must read closely in order to complete assignments/activities required for the courses.

  5. Teaching critical thinking and writing, while our textbooks are not as costly, the issue I have when choosing a text for my subjects is a) will all the essays and stories in the text be read and b) will this be beneficial for students after the subject? Even though the average cost of a critical thinking text is sixty to eighty dollars, there is no value for students to use this text since a) many of the essays and short stories can be found in our library databases, and b) by purchasing the book and paying tuition fees, part of which goes to the subscription of databases, the student has paid copyright twice. So, for three years, I've used persistent links to readings in the library databases, instead of textbooks, and to supplement the theoretical or practical applications of critical thinking and writing, I've used sites like OWL from Purdue University and other credible online resources, or created , my own which other faculty have used. If students want a hard copy, they can print out the article, but many students love the idea of downloading the essays to their smartphones and tablets, using the dictionary and translation options available, the latter being most helpful for ESL learners.

  6. As a student and an instructor I have the experience of buying textbooks and not using the majority of the book. As an instructor I know that the students have spent their money on buying the text and I try to use at least 90% of the book. They are not as thick as the ones required for psychology. The Master program that I am now in the progress of completing has varied in it's use of books. Some teachers use the book and some just use the topics and require other readings from other resources to complete the assignment. Books are getting more expensive because the book companies need to make money and they know that students are finding other methods of obtaining the material needed for the class.

  7. In grad school, I was part of teaching an introductory Western Civilizations course — a class of about 200, with two lectures a week, plus weekly discussion sessions of about 18 led by TAs (like me). One semester we tried assigning no textbook, or any other books, but strictly online readings. The professor covered basic factual material in the lectures, the same as was his approach under normal circumstances. In discussion, we expanded on the material with a focus on primary-source readings, as we would have anyway.

    This was a great learning experience for me. We concluded there were few downsides to not using any books. Lectures were unchanged; I might still be using this approach if I preferred to use class time for factual lectures, as my supervisor did. Discussion sessions were unchanged; I've never gone back to assigning a source reader, and much prefer the flexibility of choosing exactly what readings I want to assign individually. The students thought it was great. The one drawback they reported was in studying for exams; they discovered if they had missed classes, or failed to take good notes in lecture, or had trouble understanding the material, they didn't have a clear source of information to refer to. This problem could probably have been addressed with a bit of coaching. At the end of the day, for a course structured like this one, we found the textbook was completely dispensable.

  8. As an instructor, I struggle with the content of the textbook and how to incorporate the relevant information into my classes. Is it possible to get a copy of the article in Teaching of Psychology? I would be interested in reading this. Does anyone know how?

    • You could order it through your university inter library loan program if your library doesn't carry a subscription.

  9. Has anyone surveyed the students? I have been thinking about doing this to ask them what features they like and dislike about a textbook, probably after they have completed the course and are familiar with the material, what they need to know and how they need to think about it. Then a side-by-side comparison of texts might be interesting, although I imagine it would depend on the instructor and how they teach.

  10. " . . . another post peppered with questions"? Another brilliant, thoughtful, valuable and incisive post. One that has taken the first step towards finding answers to so many questions that good teachers ask themselves implicitly, every semester but which most never really confront. I am in the process of making those decisions right now and I am going to read the post again.

  11. As an EMT instructor we use the textbook to cover the concepts. We review the concepts for clarity in class so that time can be spent on practical skills, or sometimes discussions of current events that pertain to our field. Unfortunately I have found most students do not come to class having competed the reading. For our program I think part of the problem is the format of the reading material. Yes we need a book but our textbooks tend to be three inches thick. Books this large are not easy to carry and study from. Students have commented to that effect. In our electronic age I think this is something to consider. An ebook is easier to pull out at lunch and read. When choosing a textbook I think this is also something we need to give consideration to. It also tends to help to reduce the cost of the textbook.

    When it comes to course content I refer back to Elliot Eisner and his Null Curriculum and use his teachings as my guide as to what is and is not important.

  12. As a Psychology instructor, I tried several textbooks and found out the students do not read the subject material or do not purchase the book because of the expense. In my General Psychology class, I am using the Think Psychology book because it is less expensive and the students seems to like the looks of it. In my Saturday Developmental Psychology class, I am going back to the Quick books because it has the necessary information and it only cost $10, plus I use current information along with it.

    As for the eBooks, I did a survey in three of my classes and the students said they like to hold something in their hand. There might be three or four in each class that would like to see eBooks as an option right now.

  13. This is a great post and reflects a concern of mine as a professor–particularly of introductory courses to students who have never encountered this area before in H.S. I think the best comment I can provide is to reiterate what I heard from a colleague (and thus cannot verify its truth) that textbooks were modeled after encyclopedias. When we think about encyclopedias' purposes, we understand that a reference volume is very different from a volume aimed at helping students gain foundational knowledge. And studies seem to be proving that they retain very little from these introductory courses. Well, imagine trying to memorize 600 pages…

  14. I've never used a "textbook" in teaching–except in a few instances where I was "required" to and then "used" it only in so far as necessary to fulfill my obligations–and, frankly, I wouldn't really know how to. It seems like the only thing that a traditional "textbook" could be used for is "covering the material," which has very little to do with learning and very little to do with how I try to teach my courses.

    I would be happy to be wrong or only partially correct about this. Are there "textbooks" that are designed for and/or can be easily applied towards actual, in-depth learning? How does one use them?

    Of course, I do assign books (actual books) and individual articles, chapters, and other media, all intended to be used in some way and intentionally and individually selected.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  15. A good point is brought up that students think they have to memorize all 600 pages, which is impossible. The latest EMS textbook even references that students will not remember everything and the importance of having reference guides available to use in the field. It is up to the instructor/dept. to choose what they consider to be the important concepts and make sure the students understand those concepts. One of my college professors in education would have us summarize our reading in either a paragraph or a sentence. I consider textbooks to be a tool in the learning process, they serve two purposes 1)Introducing concepts to be taught 2)Reference/study Guide.

  16. This summer I taught my intro-ethics course using a rather large anthology, (appr. 800 pages), but it's such a standard in the field and hasn't been rewritten that often, it's available relatively cheap for new (appr. $60) and much cheaper than that as a semester rental ($15 from Chegg I believe). So from a price perspective we're nowhere near in the neighborhood of those psych books. But I have this thing about book aesthetics; I want a book students can tuck into a purse and read on the subway or at least curl up on the couch with, rather than something they must sit at a desk with and plow through for Serious Study. But maybe this is the difference between humanities and science? I set essays and selections that I expect to be lived with a little, with the students turning the arguments and thoughts over in their head and ultimately deciding whether they agree or not.

    In the fall I'm going back to my old approach of a combination of scanned selections from library books (all within fair use of course) and journal articles accessible electronically through the library's website, paired with one small book about the size and length of a novel. I priced it and even if they choose to print out the reading, it will run them about $30 combined with the required book, which I consider reasonable. One thing I will miss about the anthology, though: its extra readings were great starting points for student outside research. I think that, along with the goal of giving professors flexibility, is a big part of why textbooks (or at least anthologies) are so long.

  17. Virtually no one voluntarily reads something designed to be a textbook. Textbooks are written for a captive student market, but even more, to help instructors who aren't well-versed in the subject to teach the class – in extreme cases, to teach the class for the instructor.

    So I always tried to find books that were written for a broader audience, that were written so that people *wanted* to read the book, that could reasonably be on the shelves of an ordinary bookstore. These lack the pedagogical paraphernalia of textbooks, but I didn't need or use that despite teaching a very wide range of classes.

    In this era of "tl;dr" ("too long; didn't read") we need books no larger than the size of the average novel (90k-100k words). A massive textbook is guaranteed to be unread even if purchased, and often won't be bought by many students. The same can be said for very expensive ones, many students won't buy them.

    In other words, "just say no" to books written to be textbooks, sold by textbook companies for exorbitant amounts, technically "revised" each year so that students cannot buy a used textbook. It's in large part a racket that can only exist because instructors buy into it.

  18. My way of operating is to build the text book as we go … I provide a binder and dividers and then the learenrs and I work together to decide what we think is valueable material to develop our skills. These can include journal materials, multi media resources and learning activities that have brought the source material together to help them to build their skills and knowledge about their teaching practice. Their 'text books' are littered with their critical reflections on their thinking and experience of this approach. What this post has prompted me to do is to the follow up with the learners to see what they value with this 'text book' now!

  19. My bias against textbooks stems from my desire to design my course based on current research in the field, my current inquiry, and my current student population. Relying on textbook editor/s (no matter how intelligent) to choose the mixture and sequence of primary and secondary sources would compromise the quality of my instruction. It would also make the job of teaching incredibly boring. My students use one or two "actual" books (to quote Paul T. Corrigan), a myriad of scanned articles and chapters, and blogs/websites from practitioners in the field. Isn't "rigor" about all of us, teachers and students, being active, critical researchers?

  20. Sorry to be a bit late to the discussion. I did find all the comments most interesting.
    In the history of higher education, textbooks are a 20th century invention. In the 19th century content was "covered" by the lecture; there were no textbooks. Textbooks should have replaced the lecture (perhaps the way online resources and multimedia may be replacing textbooks in the 21st century), allowing faculty to do other things with students in the classroom (active learning). However, many faculty, even today, still lecture – thus duplicating what is covered in the textbook. Students may reasonably argue "why should I read the text book if I'm just going to get it all from the lecture?" We should no longer be lecturing and certainly not wasting time duplicating content that students can and should read in a textbook. Let the textbook supplement classroom activity and other resources and vice versa. If we are going to use a textbook then we should DO something with the textbook content – discuss it, apply it, test on it – but go beyond merely "covering" it in the classroom.

  21. As an adjunct for two schools I have four textbook experiences: Standard curriculum chosen by the school and required for the course; recommended textbook used broadly in the department with strong ties to the tenured faculty; complete freedom to select whatever text I chose, and no book at all. The first option is neither here nor there … I have no choice so I do my best to make the book relevant not just to the class but to later reference work. It is a good book, affordable and valuable so, no problem. The traditional text book was the worst problem. It was way over the heads of my associates level students and I was forced to wonder how other instructors made use of it in their classes – rigor, perhaps, but as often as not this book was a hindrance to learning. When I was free to choose my own text, I went to a regular bookstore as Lewis Pulsipher describes, a highly successful way to use a book. I had flexibility in relating material I found important without either ignoring or being slavish to the text. The students actually read these books … for the most part. In my fourth method I used a technique similar to Rosie Greenfield's, searching out electronic sources that were copyright free and making them available to the class. This worked pretty well, but I only did it once and did not have the opportunity to repeat the endeavor. I saw that though it brought in very valuable primary texts and gave maximum flexibility to selection, tailoring the bulk and accessibility of the reading was much harder than I anticipated, so I would love a chance to try again.

    • Were your four textbook experiences the result of varying approaches in different classes having been prescribed by the administration or because the school allowed the instructor that flexibility?

      • For the most part I had complete flexibility, but it took me awhile to figure that out. I felt at first that I needed to comply with what other faculty members were doing.

  22. After reading this post and comments, I'm feeling as if I live in some sort of alternative universe. I'm a Psychology professor, and I would never in my wildest imaginings deprive my students of a high-level comprehensive textbook. It represents a consistent, thorough, well-illustrated opportunity for them to take responsibility for their own initial learning. I expect them to read every word of its 800 pages, about 18 pages before they come to each class, where we can then clear up any confusions, evaluate ideas, and present additional information. (I teach in a semester system; the shorter "essential" versions mentioned above are designed for quarter systems.) Exams in the course, 4 hourlies and a 3-hour cumulative final, are comprehensive, and anything from the text or class is fair game. Gasp–90% of the students rise to these expectations, earning scores indicating good to excellent mastery. The other 10% drop out, which frankly is fine by me, because it doesn't seem to me that a student who is not willing or able to read 10 pages a day belongs in a college class.
    Yes, the cost of books (text- or otherwise) is high, probably higher than it should be, but a lot of my intro students tell me that they keep their book, both so they can use it for reference in their later courses and as they prepare for the GRE, on which most of them ultimately do very well. We have required universal course evaluation, and the modal scores students give the textbook are "highly readable," "very interesting," and "essential to mastering course content."
    As I said in the beginning, apparently an alternative universe, and yes, I teach at a selective college where all my students are, at least theoretically, capable of reading 10 pages per day. A textbook seems like a very useful, straightforward way to give them a foundation on which to build their continuing learning.

    • Hi Patricia,

      Wow, your alternative universe must be far, far, away; you're responding to a conversation that seemed to have ended over a year ago.

      I think it was Thucydides, a very old Greek philosopher here on Earth who noted long ago that the mind is a fire to be kindled rather than a vessel to be filled.

      While the academic content forms the foundation of our teaching, it is all the other things I do to engage and persuade myr students that brings me the greatest joy.

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