April 1, 2015

To adopt or not to adopt a textbook

Posted by Laura Guertin

I'm using this book for a course this semester... but maybe the better question is, why does a textbook matter?

I’m using this book for a course this semester… but maybe the better question is, why does a textbook matter?

Today is April 1st, and today is the deadline for letting my campus bookstore know which textbooks I want to adopt for my courses next semester.  I struggle with this decision every semester.  Surprisingly, it is not the decision of which textbook to adopt, but whether to adopt one at all.  A few years ago, it became very apparent to me that (many?/some?) students just stopped purchasing textbooks (this USA Today article confirms what I’m seeing).  The reasons for this are varied – the increasing costs of textbooks, the size/weight of carrying around textbooks, etc. [For this last point, think of students that must commute via public transportation and fill a backpack with a general chemistry textbook, a calculus textbook, and other textbooks that are inches thick.  Students coming to campus via subway/regional rail/bus are voicing their concerns about the physical impacts on their health (especially their backs) in transporting these heavy books back and forth.]  And the lower cost/lighter weight of a e-textbook option doesn’t seem to be as popular among students as some had hoped (Greenfield, 2013).

For my introductory courses for nonscience majors, where the course does not serve as a foundation or sequence course, I started adopting books written for a general audience.  My hope was that students would purchase an affordable book and read the book throughout the semester. On Twitter, I discovered that I am not the only faculty member that has these same thoughts and struggles with deciding on an appropriate book for a freshman-level course.

I replied to Erik that I have used several books with much success (“success” defined as the students actually reading the book, discussing the book, and telling me that they enjoyed reading it).  For my physical/historical/environmental courses, I have utilized Why Geology Matters, Earth: The Operator’s Manual, Your Inner Fish, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.  Other faculty also offered Erik suggestions.

But there are others that have decided to completely eliminate the textbook – and replace it with a cell phone.  Tessier (2014) compared student learning in an ecology course where one semester used a textbook and another semester utilized cell phones to access information.  He found that “student scores on quizzes and exams did not decrease without a textbook.  In fact, some scores improved significantly.”  Not every faculty member is going to embrace the use of cell phones in the classroom, but other faculty are turning to creating their own wikis and blogs to substitute for the content a textbook would provide.  Some faculty are even allowing students to have a say in which textbook is adopted (Lewis, 1992).  And entire colleges are eliminating textbook costs for students – see Lindsey Tepe’s post on “How to Get a Degree Without Ever Paying for Textbooks.”

Textbooks have served and still serve a valuable purpose in higher education – or do they?  In 2006, a multi-day workshop was held at the National Academy of Sciences titled “Reconsidering the Textbook.”  The 54-invited participants addressed this question: how does a 1200-page introductory science textbook fit into the cultural and learning environment of today’s student?  The initial workshop summary offers some interesting thoughts, but no easy solutions.

Right now, for myself, it boils down to this… for nonscience majors in introductory-level courses, can I still communicate the same content, and perhaps have a greater impact on increasing student engagement and scientific literacy, with a book from the popular press instead of using a traditional college textbook with all of the “bells and whistles” of electronic supplements provided by the publisher?  Or do I need both, a traditional textbook and book from the popular press?  Or neither?  A challenging question – and I have only a few more hours to decide the answer before my book order is due…



Additional sources for exploration

Greenfield, J. (2013). Students still not taking to e-textbooks, new data show. DBW post. (Article online)

Lewis, R. (1992). Textbook adoption: how do professors select the right one? The Scientist. (Article online)

Talbert, R. (2007, March 28). Escaping textbooks. The Chronicle Blog Network – Casting Out Nines. (Post online)

Tessier, J.T. (2014). Eliminating the textbook: learning science with cell phones. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(2): 46-51. (PDF online)

Useful Resources About Textbooks (from the Reconsidering the Textbook workshop, sponsored by NSF in 2006): http://serc.carleton.edu/textbook/resources.html