June 25th, 2014

What’s Your Relationship with Your Textbook?


I just read a couple of interesting studies exploring the relationship between the content in texts and the content covered by the teacher. The analysis was of introductory psychology courses and the conclusion not terribly surprising. The lecture and textbook material corresponded closely. If the chapter was long and the coverage extensive, a larger amount of lecture time was devoted to the topic as well.

Reading these studies has made me wonder if we are as thoughtful and purposeful as we should be about the relationship between the teacher and the text. If faculty are basically teaching what’s in the text, does that encourage poor decision-making on the part of students? If they come to class and hear the teacher covering the same material, do they still need to read the book? Or maybe they can do the readings and then just relax during class time?

I hear you. Most students need double exposure to content, and when faculty go over text material, most do much more than simply repeat what’s in the book. They elaborate, add examples, ask questions, and solve problems. But do students understand what the teacher is doing and how that added information can make learning the content easier?

Do we think about the teacher-text relationship when we select course materials? Many times a new textbook prompts changes to the course, but often these revisions don’t go beyond reorganizing what we’ve been doing in class so that it aligns with how the material is sequenced in the text. Or sometimes we do the reverse, reorganize the content in the text so that it follows the order we cover topics in the course; assigning chapters out of order, or selecting several parts of different chapters at the same time. Both of these approaches ignore the question of relationship and end up being realignments that probably benefit the teacher more than the students.

It seems to me the place to start is with a much more thorough analysis of how the textbook approaches the content compared with how we deal with it. What’s similar and different? Where is the text strong and where it is weak? Some texts are strong on concepts and theory but not so good with examples and applications. Where are we at our best and not as good? Some instructors are good with the details. They can explain things clearly and in multiple different ways, but they don’t do as well assembling those knowledge bits into a coherent whole. Sometimes the book does well with problem solutions but is less effective on applications. Does the text take positions, argue for various interpretations? Does the instructor agree or should he be offering alternatives? What happens when the course is flipped and the text now handles material the teacher doesn’t cover?

I was thinking yesterday that the teacher and the text might need to function like dance partners. One leads, the other follows, but their efforts are coordinated. One twirls; the other stays still and provides support. Each has a different job, but with practice they are dancing together effectively (often gracefully).

And while I have been gently chiding us to be more thoughtful about the relationship between content in the text and the content covered by the teacher, students need to be thinking about the relationship as well. They need to discover (not just be told) that the teacher and the text do different things, what those things are, how each promotes learning, and how to use both to advance their learning agenda.

Sounds like more pie in the sky, doesn’t it? Well, that’s where we’d like to have students end up. Could we start moving them in that direction with more purposeful use of the text in class or in online discussions? What about having the book in class, maybe reading a passage now and then, or pointing out how a graph or chart explains something well? Could we ask questions about how the text is dealing with the content as compared with how it’s being talked about in the course podcasts?

But before we deal with students, we might need to start with ourselves. How about a short paragraph that describes how you “dance” with your text? Please share in the comment box.

Griggs, R. A. and Bates, S. C., (2014). Topical coverage in introductory psychology: Textbooks versus lectures. Teaching of Psychology, 41 (2), 144-147.

Homa, N., et. al., (2013). An analysis of learning objectives and content coverage in introductory psychology syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 40 (3), 169-174.