Are our students reading the textbook? And, if they are, is it helping them?

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.

32 thoughts on “Are our students reading the textbook? And, if they are, is it helping them?

  1. My experience only, but yeah, text books are a waste; there are much more efficient ways to get information. Now that I think of it, I haven’t cracked open a textbook in years and years to refer back to anything.

    The texts for introductory bio courses are basically useless; not so much the case for upper division courses. They are simply way too big. And asking students to memorize details that they know they will forget right after a quiz (and almost certainly never need again) is pointless and they know it. Yes, I think a more general reading assignment would be better because such a reading should make the connections between the subject and impacts on student’s futures.

  2. Wow, quite interesting results. And a crucial discussion! The importance of textbooks in undergraduate learning has been puzzling me in the past years. It’s a fact that most millennials and iGen prefer to learn from videos than from text. But science education needs to be firmly based on text reading, which stimulates focus and depth. The point is: what should an educational textbook look like nowadays? Maybe the problem are the textbooks we use. In my opinion, most are outdated both in terms of content and format. Take the example of Wikipedia: it’s much more attractive to current generations than traditional encyclopedias, because it can be read on all kinds of gadgets and its content is updated in real time. What if we start experimenting with new ways to write textbooks and use them in class?

  3. Interesting post. I have polled my class about how useful they find the textbook (2nd yr introduction to plant ecology ; approximately 100 students).

    The vast majority do not get the book, and most of those who do don’t use it. The next year I didn’t have a text, but encountered 5-8 students who really wanted the readings. I have switched to “recommending” the book and providing reading lists for those students.

  4. I must admit I am not surprised by this result. College textbooks are awful.

    Disclaimer: I didn’t read ecology and I am four years out of college by now, so take what I say with the appropriate level of salt.

    One of the enduring impression college left on me was how almost universally bad college textbooks were. To be fair, they are not all equally awful. Rather they range from truly horrid to acceptably mediocre. Still, they were always my last go to after the google and other means had failed me.

    The worst experience I had was a course on statistical analysis of time series data. The textbook for that course was awful, and the instructor wasn’t really all that good either. The course was also dealing with esoteric enough stuff that google wouldn’t usually be of much use.

    It was about halfway through that course when I realized I was going to fail the course unless I did something drastic, and that both the instructor and the textbooks were useless to me. What I did was google other colleges that were doing similar courses and see what textbooks they were using. I would then have the library see if they could get a hold of a copy for me. But none of the other textbooks I found that way were much better.

    In the end I found a recommendation for a textbook online by some other student. I don’t recall exactly what it was called. It was some generic name like Time Series Analysis. I had a hard time getting a copy of it. The library couldn’t get one. I also never saw any college course on time series stuff use the book. I finally did manage to find a pirated PDF of it. It was really quite decent. That textbook saved the course for me.

    I have a theory about why college textbooks are so bad. It’s because it’s the instructor that picks the textbook and not the students. This means textbooks aren’t written for the students, they are written for the instructor. And the instructor has the handicap of already knowing the material, which makes them ill suited to judging how well the textbooks does in explaining it to someone who isn’t familiar with it.

    • “I have a theory about why college textbooks are so bad. It’s because it’s the instructor that picks the textbook and not the students. This means textbooks aren’t written for the students, they are written for the instructor.” Oh, this is a really interesting point! I definitely need to think more about this.

      • I think the general principle here is applicable across a number of differing areas of pedagogy and mentoring. We often ending up teaching and mentoring to the our own motivations and those of our peers rather than those of our students.
        For me, the ultimate challenge in education has been putting myself in the mind of the person I’m working with. It’s why I always start any interaction with potential undergraduate researchers with the dual questions “Why are you interested in research?” and “Why does my research excite you?”. This forces me to move away from why I want the student to work with/for me to focusing on what engages the student about the work to which they are committing and structuring the experience around that.
        In the same way that an internally motivated researcher is more likely to generate interesting ideas and good data, an internally motivated student is more likely to explore new information and challenge preconceptions that hinder understanding. I’ve begun to use beginning of term, pre-test questions to gauge both student interest in topics covered and levels of understanding. It’s an approach that is still in its infancy for me, but it is allowing me to develop more perspective on how to engage with my students.

    • I disagree. A) most textbooks are actually pretty good, but you actually have to read them to find that out. If you dont read them, how would you know if they’re good or bad? :). B). Having students pick the text book is as bad as idea as having them write the tests and do the lectures. Students are students because the dont know enough to be teachers.

      IMO the biggest problem with most textbooks is that faculty dont actually use the to teach – they organize their own curriculum and assign a bunch of reading as an afterthought. The organization of the book is different than the lectures and doesn’t act to reinforce the lecture but instead creates confusion. Also, books have material not covered I class, and instructors often assign way too much irrelevant reading, so students learn quickly to blow off reading material.

      If people aren’t going to follow the textbook organization mostly paragraph by paragraph, there’s not much point I.having the book

  5. I use a not too long textbook (Davies, Krebs, West, Behavioral Ecology) and write study questions to go with it. This is the main way they learn the content of the course. In class they apply their learning to active learning tasks like writing for Wikipedia and teaching high school students. There are pre-class short quizzes and longer in class weekly quizzes. I never understood why teachers use the lecture as anything but a short thing to explain a particularly hard point. If you test from the lectures of course the students won’t need the book. And that is just what most professors do. I say throw out the nearly always boring lectures and have the students learn from the carefully prepared books and apply that learning to something real. This is how real life is.

    • The good course structure you are describing is similar to what Jose Vazquez is using — he isn’t lecturing in class, and was giving targeted readings, but students still weren’t using them.

      • There are quizzes over the readings and nothing else. Then they pick something from the reading in my class that is important to teach high school students. If he isn’t giving any lectures, then I don’t see how the students could not use them.

      • Again, just testing the reading wont convince students its worth doing . It has to be integrated into the course, whether that’s through using it as the organizational basis of the lecture, lab work, projects or whatever. When you show them how its beneficial, they’ll do it. At least some will.

        Also the fact that 60% of the students dont care is no reason to take away something that benefits the other 40%. If sixty percent dont care, they can take their Bs Cs and Ds and move on.

  6. Today’s students are not taking only your course. They take a full semester load of courses and thus have more homework, more readings, more group work (and maybe a social life). They have little time to read. So, it is not surprising that they do everything possible to avoid reading. This is a pity because in most biology classes it is required to read in depth to understand the arguments of an author, examine the evidence, compare with other works, and draw your own opinion. In the process, students learn to reason and evaluate evidence. We hope that, as a result of this process, students will not only learn but also acquire a taste for reading. In addition to being extremely busy, students are addicted to “smart” gadgets, from cell phones to iPads. Many are not familiar with paper, rarely take notes by hand, and do not read anything beyond a twitter. We might be training a generation of scientists who avoid reading, and who get their information from Google, WhatsApp groups, and other social networks. Well, this might be the worst-case scenario. I would like to see what strategies have been successful in encouraging critical reading without resorting to coercive measures.

  7. I only have one class where I encourage reading the textbook which is animal anatomy and I only tell them to read through the instructions on how to cut. This is to avoid wasting animals due to students not knowing what they are doing. Although I usually repeat the key points during class.
    Other then that I never require textbook reading and I only recommend textbooks if really a lot of the lecture/material is based on one book.
    With master students we will read papers but those are usually closely related to what they do in the practicals and they need those as references anyway so I never had a problem with them not reading the suggested papers.
    However, this might also be because teaching in Germany seems to be very different from how most teaching is done in the US.

  8. 1. For better or worse, facts are *part of* being a competent biologist. How else does one learn facts than reading? So if we don’t read the textbook then we need to read something. One issue that exacerbates the problem of reading is that many students have poor reading comprehension (personal anecdote: my three sons went to one of Maine’s “top” high schools — 97% of the students go to college. All three took “college prep” english instead of honors or AP english. They didn’t read *any* books in the class, just excerpts.)

    Reading textbooks is like practicing scales in music education — the purpose isn’t to know everything in the book but to rewire our brain to build the organizational scaffold (the “velcro”) to more easily acquire knowledge as we move through our education. Like music, this takes years and years. I can’t see how this scaffold could be built without reading.

    2. An intro bio textbook has a ginormous load of facts. For a *well-prepared* intro bio student, this should be challenging (because college) but not grossly so — they’ve probably had two years of biology and two years of chemistry in high school, in addition to the biology and chemistry from middle school. A biology textbook, in a sense, assumes this background. Probably most intro bio students in most universities in the US do not have this background – they simply aren’t prepared for college level intro biology. Do we need “college-readiness” bio and chemistry courses? I hadn’t thought of this until this post. We readily accept the lack of college-level math preparation in our incoming students and have pre-college level math courses like algebra and pre-calculus (and even “college-readiness math”). Few bio majors where I teach are prepared to take calculus their freshman year — and our students are similar to 99% of college students out there.

  9. It’s strange. In my experience (at a smallish, undergrad-focused university) it seems as though students want a text book, but then they fail to read, or even buy it. This came to light this year in a joint meeting we had about our multi-section first year course.

    One challenge is that the text books are expensive! CD$150 – 200 is not unusual, and it is tough to get that cost down. The other problem, as others have pointed out, is that the books are often pretty bad. I have found multiple errors in one text book, and even though I spent soem time deciding on a text for my first year course, I’m at a loss to understand the organization of the book at times.

    Perhaps these books end up being awful because 1) they are trying to be all things to all students, and 2) they get published in new editions by marginally editing the old editions.

  10. Hi Meghan, I teach the Intro Biology course at UNB Saint John – small by most university standards for a first year course (200-250 students) but large by our standards. I don’t use a text at all. My TA’s and I do a couple of different things around readings. We have 4 Flip The Classes in a semester and before each of those the students are asked to either, read a piece of primary literature (1x), read material on a website (2x), or watch a video lecture (1x). All students also have to attend weekly ‘tutorial’ sessions and as part of that they are asked to read and summarise 3 reasonably current pieces of primary literature (that are somewhat related to material we cover in class) over the semester (not surprisingly, they find this very tough). So, I don’t assign any readings from a textbook but there is some reading. I don’t have any sense that what we are doing is better than assigned readings from a textbook – preparation for the Flip the Class sessions and the tutorials is hit and miss. The one thing I can be sure of is that they have an extra $150 in their pocket so even if there is no obvious pedagogical benefit that seems like a good thing. Jeff H

    • How do you organize a flipped calssroom with that many students?
      Also, one thing I find is that first year students are often unable to read an article from primary literature. How does that work out for you?

      • Hi Andrew, it is pretty chaotic and I have 6 committed TA’s who do most of the cat-herding. The students work on the assignments the FTC’s in the same small groups that they have in their tutorial sessions. The first one is always the craziest and then they get the hang of it.
        The students do struggle with primary literature (who doesn’t?) and we spend a lot of time on them in the tutorials. So, we will assign a particular paper for the students to read before the upcoming tutorial. In the tutorial we assign each of the groups particular words or phrases they might not know and have them search out what the meanings are. Then we will work through a key figure and table and have the students pull them apart and figure out what the message is. Engaged students get pretty good at it and the disengaged students never get very good.

    • I saw this when I opened my computer a few minutes before this post was scheduled to appear! I debated delaying the post but then decided to leave it. I haven’t gotten a chance to read the Chronicle piece yet, but it’s great to hear that it’s not another “kids these days” piece!

  11. Now, 29% students read the textbook >occasionally. But, 69% found it to be <useful. Makes me wonder how the 40% made up their mind (69-29). These are students who didn't read but found it useless.

  12. Perhaps we should ask an important question as well. Is there a decline in students’ performance that is consistent with decline in reading? If not, I don’t understand the problem about whether the students are reading course textbooks. Also, apart from the fact that the textbooks rarely help as people have pointed out, the lamentation about decline in reading is perhaps a failure to understand how students’ needs and expectations have changed. There was a time when undergraduate training mostly determines graduates’ career paths. But that’s no longer the case. Only a fraction of my graduating class ended in a related field. For instance, many in my cohort ended up in the banking industry. In the same vein, those of us that ended up in grad school required no motivation to crack the relevant literature if not textbooks. Assuming there’s nothing wrong with our grading systems, one may argue that students are making smart choices in terms of balancing efforts and expectations. We might be viewing things from a grossly outdated perspective. We need to see undergraduate education for what it is not…it’s not to meet some rigid reading expectations.

  13. My own anecdotal experience:

    I don’t have the poll data ready to hand, but in the intro biostats course here at Calgary (big public Canadian research uni), most students do seem to read the textbook (Whitlock & Schluter), but many of them supplement it heavily with videos and other materials they find by googling.* I can’t recall off the top of my head how helpful they said they found the textbook last time we polled them, but I’m pretty sure that overall they found it more helpful than the students in Meghan’s intro bio class find their textbook to be.

    Why are they reading it? I dunno, honestly. We assign readings from it that correspond exactly to the material covered during class. And when my colleague Kyla Flanagan teaches the course, she uses a flipped structure that begins each unit with a quiz on the textbook reading. (I used to do this as well, but have since unflipped the course for reasons having nothing to do with the textbook.) And my strong impression of our intro biostats students is that they want all the resources they can get. They’re always asking for more practice problems, for instance.

    *which as an aside is bad because some of the stats materials that come up high in searches, such as Kahn Academy videos, contain errors…

    In my upper level population ecology course, I’ve gone back and forth between assigning a textbook (Case’s Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology), merely recommending that textbook, and no textbook. Whenever I don’t use a textbook, I get some students asking for additional background reading. And when I do use a textbook, I get students asking if it’s mandatory.

  14. In my very first college intro bio class, we had a textbook, but also read “The Blank Slate” (Pinker), “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (Carroll), and “Before the Dawn” (Wade). For upper-level seminars or classes focused on systematics, you obviously need different resources, but I can say that I was super motivated to read these books because they were well-written, interesting, and fun. They also certainly weren’t devoid of good science. Such books can do a better job of highlighting how concepts connect to people’s everyday life and experience, which is really valuable, and can open up new ways of looking at the world. I learned more from those books than I did from the textbook, and that experience has led me to think it’s a nice idea to include a popular science book in the reading for most classes (along with other resources, if needed). It probably ups the chance that students will read at least something you assign, and if the goal is to have them learn something about the world, then having them read a popular science book is *much* better than having them end up not reading anything assigned because it’s too dense, boring, or “useless”. Obviously, choose the book wisely, but there are so many great options out there – and a gradient of levels of detail/academic-ness. In an upper-level class scenario, you could also then have a discussion about what the popular science book accomplishes, whether it’s a good treatment of the material, etc, and get students a bit in the mode of thinking about how to communicate all the science they are learning.

  15. People looking for new ways to teach *their subject* seem unaware that they are often sacrificing the development of more important skills to do so.

    Reading is a *critical* skill. It *must not* be ignored or dispensed with to “help” students acquire some petty disciplinary knowledge. Learning to acquire knowledge independently through reading is far more important than any single bit of knowledge.

    If your students aren’t reading then you need to fix the curriculum to inspire them to read. That is part of your teaching mission.

    • I agree with this comment and its emphatic asterisks! Since assigning reading is not the same as teaching the skill of reading, I wonder if Jim has additional emphatic thoughts on how the latter should be done.

  16. Hi all, very interesting discussion, and critically important to good teaching. Our students read our text, a text we wrote in response to the very issues you all are discussing – it is completely different from every other intro bio text, and was written with pedagogical principles and the student in mind. Integrating Concepts in Biology is a digital introductory biology text that employs a writing style that is less formal and that students enjoy. It is not loaded with factoids to memorize nor is it encyclopedic. Students are not spoon-fed details to be memorized or take home messages, they are given data as published in the literature and asked to analyze and interpret to construct their own understanding; only after engaging with the data are the data explained in the context of big ideas and connections across levels of the biological hierarchy. The process of science is heavily emphasized and a focus on the data in the text and in class encourages students to read prior to coming to class. In addition, class time is used to actually discuss the data, not lecture to students. Quizzes are given either prior to class or right at the beginning of class. Because the quizzes ask questions about the actual data and analysis of the data, they cannot easily google the answer. Discussing the data in class and giving quizzes encourage students to read the text prior to class. The digital text is easily accessible on tablets, smartphones and computers and students’ opinions of the eBook increases over the semester and we have assessed other aspects of the text and our approach to introductory biology. For instance, students prefer ICB to traditional texts, they have improved data analysis skills, higher grades in our introductory courses relative to other intro courses at our institution, and more students that take our intro courses using ICB and our data-driven approach become biology majors. All in all, we produce budding scientists and we have richer discussions in class. This is not just our experience. Adopters at other institutions have had similar experiences.

  17. I don’t think the problem is the textbooks, it’s just that many students don’t know how to use them. Most of the people I know get by or do good in class just off of the notes, so they aren’t used to reading books. For me personally, studying notes is what I’ve been doing , and this semester is the first time I actually sat down and tried reading. It took an entire HOUR to comprehend just 3 pages in my organic chemistry book. Maybe I’m slow. However, the people I know who seriously read are bomb smart .

    It would be interesting if you could ask a follow up question for the survey. So their cumulative GPA along with how useful they think books are. Just a thought

  18. Students don’t read them because instructors don’t use them.

    Instructors constantly try to re-invent classes and material, when it would be much better if they just followed along, page-by-page in a textbook. Textbooks are written by experts. Textbooks have been copy edited and formatted. In most cases you lecture slides have not.

    Just use the damn text-book and stop creating new, poorly thought out ways to teach.

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