Choosing and Using Textbooks

April 30, 2009

Ordering textbooks from publishers must be a more complicated process than I would imagine, since our bookstore usually starts asking in April for our fall-semester orders. I know many faculty members disappear in the summer, like migrating creatures, so the long lead time may simply arise from the bookstore's desire to clarify orders and handle problems while we're still hanging around the campus.

Nonetheless, I invariably have way too much to do in April — senior dinners, awards banquets, ceremonies, evaluating papers and presentations, and even occasionally teaching — to give the textbook-selection process the time it deserves. Every April I choose at least one book that looks great to me, at the time, and then turns out not to fit with the course once I get around to using the book in October.

The challenge of selecting texts for my introductory courses in literature has been made much easier in the past few years, though, since I discovered a textbook series that I have fallen in love with: The Seagull Readers from W.W. Norton, edited by Joseph Kelly, a professor of English at the College of Charleston. There are four separate anthologies — essays, plays, poems, and stories — though you can bundle the latter three together into one package for a course like mine.

In the past I have always liked the texts I use in "Introduction to Literature" — a general-education course required of all freshman — to contain minimal amounts of supplemental material. Many literature textbooks include introductory essays, advice on paper writing, and questions after the readings, but I rarely use any of those materials in my course, so I don't see any reason why my students should pay for them. The Seagull books contain almost nothing beyond the essays, plays, poems, and stories themselves.

It's the "almost" that sets these books apart, in my view. Each poem, story, or play is introduced with a brief note written by Kelly. And although it may sound like damning with faint praise, I mean this in full sincerity: Kelly has a special genius for writing those notes. They always offer relevant bits of biographical and historical data, as well as pointing the students toward themes that readers commonly see in the work. His notes are brief and cautious enough not to impose a particular interpretation on the text, yet substantive enough to offer students a pathway into the work that follows.

Naturally, since I found the notes so useful, I assumed my students had, too. Then one day in class this semester, I mentioned a biographical fact that was included in one of Kelly's notes before an assigned reading, and I received blank stares from students in return.

"You guys do read the italicized headnotes at the beginning of each work, right?" I asked.

Long pause, and then this response from a puzzled student:

"Were we supposed to?"

What I found so baffling was that none of the notes ever stretched longer than a single page; it would take students less than a minute to read the passage. And yet they weren't doing it. I told students that, from that point on, they should consider the italicized notes as part of the required reading. But I remained perplexed, and a little annoyed, that I had had to give them that basic instruction at all.

Last month, however, as I was visiting another college, I had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Amy Guptill, a sociologist at the State University of New York College at Brockport, which helped explain my experience in the classroom and gave me guidance about my future use of textbooks in my courses.

Amy's presentation, titled "How Do College Students Use Textbooks? Insights From the Literature," was part of Brockport's first Teaching and Learning Day this past March. Faculty members who had done research on various aspects of teaching or learning, or who had an interesting strategy or idea to share, gave presentations over the course of the day. Amy had done her research work with a group of seven faculty members at Brockport who were writing textbooks.

She and the other members of the group, Amy told me in our e-mail conversation later, got to talking about the pedagogical features we see in textbooks, and wondered aloud about their value and whether students even look at them. "We considered collecting data on our own students' experience with textbooks," she said.

Before collecting that data, however, the group members decided to begin with a literature review. They collected a range of articles on textbook use, and then each of the seven faculty members picked some articles to read and present to the group. "There was much more out there than we realized," Amy notes.

Based on those conversations, Amy put together an overview of the research literature on how students use (and don't use) textbooks, especially their pedagogical features, and it was that overview she presented at Brockport's conference. I thought the group's findings might prove useful to other faculty members who are selecting textbooks, or potentially writing one. (Fuller abstracts from the articles considered by the group, as well as slightly more detailed summaries by Amy of the points below, are available online for readers interested in delving more deeply into this issue.)

The group's literature review led Amy to draw five overarching principles about students and their use of textbooks.

Students rely more on extrinsic motivation (i.e., grades) than intrinsic motivation (i.e., interest) in deciding how to read textbooks. She cites a 2004 study of students in psychology courses in which approximately 27 percent of the students read the text before class, as assigned, whereas around 70 percent of them read the text before the exam. "Many students," Amy explains, "feel that instructors are responsible for reviewing material during class time and pointing out the most important parts from the readings."

Strong students approach the textbook differently from weak ones. The conclusion here, from a 2007 study of accounting students, probably parallels the way strong and weak students approach everything about their education. Strong students "read to understand, persist when material becomes difficult, and make plans to cope with confusion." Weak students don't.

Students most value pedagogical aids when they are relevant to understanding terminology and preparing for tests. A 1999 study looked at different approaches to textbooks among high-school, community-college, and university students. University students were likely to make use of features such as boldfaced terms, glossaries, and self-tests; they were unlikely to use outlines, discussion guides, and learning objectives. Community-college students showed the most inclination among the three groups to use all of the 15 features of a textbook.

One of the discussants in Amy's presentation at Brockport speculated that community-college students might be more likely to use pedagogical features because many of them had had courses or tutoring in study skills.

Students read and value supplemental textbook materials — if a professor emphasizes them. That was the conclusion that struck me in relation to my "Introduction to Literature" course. During my long drive back from Brockport, I tried to see that issue from the students' perspective. Imagine yourself as a student trying to balance her work in five courses, and you sit down at night to read a textbook chapter that contains a large block of text, as well as some supplemental features, such as sideboxes and discussion questions. In addition to reading this chapter, you have three other assignments to complete. It's not surprising that such a student would focus on working her way through the main text, and would ignore elements that seem peripheral.

As experts in our disciplines, we understand how those discussion questions or summaries would prove useful. But I can see how a student would have a much harder time making that determination and distinguishing between the different parts of a text.

Some extra features in a textbook do seem to make a difference in student comprehension. Those include "pre-reading questions, chapter outlines, [and] inserts to signal key concepts." For example, a 1990 study of psychology students found that when they answered pre-reading questions in a textbook chapter, they performed better on a post-reading test than students who had not attempted to answer the pre-reading questions. The positive effect was felt whether students had answered the pre-reading questions correctly or incorrectly.

The group's study was a "quickie literature review," Amy said, after the conference, and perhaps it offers no groundbreaking insights on the use of textbooks for those who have studied that issue in depth. But for most faculty members, textbooks are one of those aspects of pedagogy that we handle on automatic pilot. Approaching their use more deliberately would take minimal effort, and might make a substantial difference in the learning experiences of our students.

The same deliberate approach, naturally, would hold true for all of you potential textbook authors out there. That has been case for Amy, who said she has always avoided assigning textbooks in her field because of their prohibitive costs for students. As a result of her research, she has begun mulling the prospect of writing more of a "primer style" text in her field, one that "explains the key questions and concepts, and gives students something they can return to as they engage with the cases or topics presented in the articles or book excerpts I assign."

Sounds like the kind of textbook I would love for my students as well, or that I would love to write in my own field — if only someone hadn't already beaten me to the punch.


James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at