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.

  • Rich Martin

    It is no coincidence that the textbooks are generally 15 chapters long and the traditional semester is 15 weeks as well. In an accelerated adult studies program we only have a fraction of that time and we have essentially been flipping the classroom for years as the onus is on the adult student to have read the material prior to class and interacted with it through their assignments so as to be able to engage in an intelligent dialogue with the other students that is facilitated by the instructor. If we don't allow for that facilitated discussion and only come in a teach the text, inevitably the students will not read as they will wait to be spoon-fed the material in class. We, as teachers, need to give them a reason to have read the material prior to class in the form of discussion that goes beyond what the text offers. If they haven't gotten the base material from the text, they will be less likely to be able to follow the in-class discussion which can be a great motivator for them to read for the next class.

  • kentsanders

    Maryellen, thanks for an intriguing post. I don't think most of us tend to give a lot of thought to our relationship with the textbook. Sometimes it's a frustrating relationship when a new edition comes out and it takes a lot of work on our part to change the course. Sometimes we like only parts of a book, and end up frustrating students when we only assign certain chapters. I have often wondered what the relationship between the assignments and classroom activities should be to the textbooks.

  • Guest

    I've never been attracted to textbooks. They are boring conversationalists, and they are not cheap dates. So we don't go out. Instead, I've found hot, young, cheap partners who are made for popular audiences, and online partners make for good relationships too. We've had great relationships.

  • JNeuburger

    Great posting! While I've migrated to be a "bit outside" the classroom, as the director of tutoring, I'd like to add a few points if I may. First, my tutors frequently help students to navigate their texts – as so many do not open the book. Once they do, their grades go up astoundingly. (Surprise!). So, Maryellen, yes, our profession could give more thought to this! Second, I was trained in secondary education, and in teaching there, found a WEALTH of teacher-support materials that came with any textbook. I was surprised to discover the dearth of support materials available when I began college teaching. Let me quickly say that has improved, especially with the availability of online materials (non-print; less cost). Still, I miss the standard and often spectacular supports given to below-college texts. Not only did those supports give a "standard teaching package" of motivation, materials, lesson plans, they also gave a series of "advanced study" or "interesting side bars" for one to explore as class interest allowed. So, here is my plea, in my next post:

  • JNeuburger

    Perhaps it is time for master teachers of any content to offer – hopefully, through publishing websites that perhaps have collaborative teacher chat rooms (?- or something like this) – master lesson plans and enhancement topics. For the first, the basic lesson plans, we could be of tremendous help to novices in our profession (and novices to teaching, an art form, as we all know). In the second, we might create a compendium of G.I.F.T.S (Great Ideas From Teachers) which would lead to more robust tenure applications in the teaching areas, potential research in teaching in the content, and so on. At the least, it might spark some interesting enhancements and projects in a content – you know, those projects and assignments you dream up that really engage students – the ones you cannot focus on until you, too, have mastered the basic content and how to get it explained well.

  • Teresa Johnson

    I've been teaching for 25 years and noticed a significant reduction in students reading (or even buying) the required text for my basic nutrition course- even though the content is well-written, engaging and well-presented by the publisher. I decided to change to an online version of the book that allowed me to add my own lectures, Youtube videos and interactive assignments within the body of the text. I thought this was a fantastic idea; the students hated it. They just do not want to read a book- even one with videos, color photos, interactive assignments that provide immediate feedback on their work. Most want a teacher to tell them what they need to know or do a project/hands on activity or have a guest lecturer or video- live or online. Amazingly many said they wanted a hard copy text- they didn't like an interactive e-book. These are the same students that are constantly on their cell phones, Facebook and the Internet. I find it very difficult to find the right 'dance music' to engage the students. I have assigned scavenger hunts and crossword puzzles I make that pull content from the reading. That helps a little.

  • Russ Hunt

    For a number of years I've used in introductory English courses a strategy I learned from a colleague in psychology: give each student one of the introductory texts I've been sent as examination copies, so that there are a range of texts available, and then invite students to share what their texts have to say about the current topic. Started this after I'd discovered that, back in the 70s, all my European colleagues were amazed to learn that in North America everybody assigned a uniform textbook. They'd never heard of such a thing, and were appalled that we let publishers decide what we'd include in our courses.

  • This is exactly why we are now developing and designing courses without a textbook. If a text is deemed necessary via the curriculum committee, we tell our SMEs to find resources that go "outside" the text. We do not want to be like every other course that uses "that" text and to address that – we offer OERs, articles and eBooks from our library. Add that to the expertise we ask our faculty to bring to the weekly concepts/topics and you have an enriching and unique course for students.

    • Richard Dewey

      This is exactly the direction our AS in Criminal Justice degree is headed. The content is out there; just need to find it! OER is a viable solution to engaging the student.

  • J Goudy

    When I was teaching in Chicago, we had cohorts from India. The first week the students never had textbooks. The next week, they had textbooks, but they were in paperback. The exact same textbook, in English in paperback. It was a third of the cost. They would have someone buy the textbook back in India and Fedex it back to the states. Saving them lots of money. We say that we are a free capitalistic society, yet it is illegal for our students to buy those paperback textbooks. The internet is rich with material and self publishing content through your learning management system is a better way. Most of my students prefer the cheaper way. With today's technology, the price of textbooks should be going down. Sadly, that is not the case.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    A textbook always has far more material one can cover in lecture, so the problem concerns what to select, emphasize, or supplement. We thus treat the students as audience and the problem then seems to be what to present to our audience and how to present it. I prefer to think that students should be participants, and thus I solve the textbook-lecture problem by never lecturing. Since reading a textbook is a valuable skill, and since students have spent a lot of money on it, I expect students to have read every line of the textbook by the end of the semester. They typically read half a chapter before every class meeting and meet in their small research groups during the first 20 minutes to discuss the material. The students are then expected to either make comments or ask questions about the material in the general discussion. 20% of the final grade is determined by class participation, which is mostly based on the quantity and quality of questions. Since our classes are small, that means that each student is expected to ask several questions per meeting (a student may also get points for good answers or comments). This way they are engaged, they master more of the material, and the emphasis is placed on what truly needs to be explained. I also ask them some questions as well and use my discretion to dwell further into some topics. The greatest value is placed on understanding the evidence (generally experiments) for the hypotheses discussed. At the end of the semester each small research group will demonstrate that understanding by designing an original, doable experiment, and writing a (mock) grant proposal to carry it out. Sometimes the groups do carry out the experiment the following semester. This is what I do in my upper-division psychology courses. I also teach philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. In those classes I use primary texts. I never lecture in them either. Philosophy offers different skills for students to develop. They must demonstrate that they can make plausible interpretations of the texts, and then defend those interpretations by reference to the text and by argument, both orally and in writing. Thus they read the material carefully before the class meeting and then try to answer my probing questions and my challenges. A few weeks into the semester they begin to ask questions and issue challenges of their own. I actually enjoy lecturing and I have been praised as a lecturer. But I restrict my lecturing to presentations of my research at conferences and the like. In the classroom, however, lectures contribute little to most students' education.

  • C. R. White

    I believe textbooks, lectures, and technology go hand-in-hand.

  • Neil Haave

    I teach biochemistry, molecular cell biology, and history and philosophy of biology. Similar to Rich Martin and Gonzales Munevar above I have been transitioning to using the textbook as the lecturer outside of class. Inside class we either discuss the text or use the concepts presented in the text to solve problems. A good textbook facilitates flipping the classroom and promoting student-centered active learning strategies during class meetings. As an instructor, I choose a textbook that best matches what I wish my students to learn in my courses. In my 4th year (senior) courses I use primary and secondary scholarly articles – by their last year students begin to appreciate from where textbook information originates.

  • Michelle

    I teach midwifery in Australia and use a New Zealand/Australia focused text. Many midwifery textbooks are situated in the country of the author and similar subject content can have subtle differences in management dependent on origin. These contrast add to the discussion in class and I urge student not to be accepting of everything they read but to compare, contrast and evaluate what is relevant to their situation and the woman they are caring for.

  • Francis Offiong, PhD

    Thank you for the insightful thought concerning a teacher or instructor's relationship with a textbook.
    First and foremost, it is important to draw lines between a well documented formal educational knowledge and informal educational information which often comes from life experiences or simply learning from others. Secondly, the authors of the textbooks are vis-a -vis the subject matter experts that contribute countless hours to produce and disseminate formalized information, some of which are often based on extensive qualitative and /or quantitative research.
    As a teacher for 25 years in higher education, I strongly believe in teaching my students contents of the course for their base knowledge. I use many examples as they relate to the subject areas of the discussion. The applications of the theories and concepts learned are often interrelated and so are narrated with life experiences to enhance students understanding of the materials. This is often backed up with published articles.
    Conclusively, teachers should build some relationship with textbooks for the benefit of students instead of making up unproven stories to kill the lecture or learning times, Anything short of these would be a disservice to education.