I recently went to a really interesting seminar hosted by Michigan’s Foundational Course Initiative. The seminar was given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He raised a couple of issues that I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar, and that I thought would be worth blogging about. The first is: students are not reading the textbook, even when you try to force them to, and, if they are, it might actually make them less prepared. The second, which I’ll explain more in a future post is: one of our main roles as instructors is to motivate our students, and curiosity is a really important motivator; we can motivate our students by focusing their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding (as long as that gap isn’t too big).
Okay, back to the topic of textbooks. When we overhauled our Intro Bio course, we vastly reduced the amount of reading that we assigned students. We shifted from assigning a whole chapter (or, worse, more than one) for a class period to assigning specific sections or even just writing our own summary of the key things we think students should know when we come into class. And, to motivate students to actually do the reading before they came to class, we included “pre-reading” questions on the quizzes – five per quiz drawn from a larger pool – with the goal of ensuring that they did the prereading.
Students were doing well on the quizzes and they seemed to be helping student learning, so I was feeling pretty good about things from that perspective. But then, in conversations with students, I started to realize that some (many?) of them, even students who were doing well, seemed to be approaching the quizzes in the way that many of us face material we are forced to learn and then quizzed on: they would see the quiz question, then google it, then take a guess and hope for the best.
That was my impression, but I didn’t have real data on it. I asked other instructors who teach in the same course, and our impressions were pretty variable in terms of how we think students are using the textbook. Some thought the readings valuable, others less sure. So, we put it on our list of things to try to collect data on in the fall.
So, when José Vazquez got to the data in this slide:
my jaw dropped. It was even worse than I expected! But then I thought, “Well, maybe he doesn’t really encourage/force them to do the pre-readings the way we do.” Nope. He also gives them quizzes with questions aimed at ensuring they did the reading before glass. When talking to students, he learned that reading the textbook is basically the last thing they do when they’re looking for information.
When he asked them why they behave the way they do, this is what they said:
One of his points was: Students are humans and human brains are really bad at absorbing details, and textbooks are jam packed with details. Fair enough.
More concerningly, Vazquez also said that students who read the textbook before class are most likely less prepared than they would be otherwise due to information overload. Whoa. I’d love to think more about this part — my (admittedly limited) searching didn’t turn up much about this possibility.
This morning, I finally got around to reading this post on designing a term with mental health in mind, and was struck by this sentence:
The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning.
So, is assigning reading from a text actually worse than assigning nothing?
This has me thinking a lot about how to study this. At a minimum, I think I will ask my students the same two questions that Vazquez asked his students. My guess is that the responses will be pretty similar. But more important is to try to figure out whether doing the readings is actually helping them. I’m not sure how to do that yet (one possibility would be to look at associations between ebook use and class performance, but that seems pretty crude and subject to lots of confounding factors). I’d love suggestions about how to go about this.
Another thing I’ve been wondering lately is what the impact of different types of readings are. Is it more useful/impactful to give students a reading written for general audiences than to give them a reading from a textbook? As one example, before the lecture on human evolution, would it be more useful to have them read this excerpt of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived?
I’d love to hear in the comments from people who have asked their students about how and how much they are using the textbook, and from people who have tried shifting from traditional textbooks to other types of readings or videos or just dropped them entirely.