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"Teaching Without Textbooks"

asteriskeaasteriskea Registered User Posts: 1,210 Senior Member
edited March 2007 in Parents Forum
Inside Higher ed. piece on "Teaching Without Textbooks" focus is on how and how much college students ought to be reading these days. My book shelves are heavy with textbooks I can't bear to part with even now, but monographs were always a key information gathering staple in most of the university courses I took way back in the days of the dinosaur. I agree that textbooks these days are far too expensive and often are too dense to be of use for most college courses but are students' attention spans shorter as well in this day of instant information?
College instructors cannot assume that students come to their classes in possession of basic knowledge. Now here?s one sure to generate some controversy: In many cases textbooks deter the pursuit of knowledge more than they help it..

Today?s texts are too expensive, too long, and too dense to be of practical use. I freely admit that it was the first of these sins that first led me to eschew a text in my introductory U.S. history classes. Houghton Mifflin?s People and a Nation retails for $97; Longman?s America, Past and Present goes for $95.20 and The Pursuit of Liberty for $99; McGraw Hill?s American History checks out at a whopping $125.75; with Norton?s Give Me Liberty! and Wadworth?s American Past relative bargains at $77.75 and $79.95 respectively. All of the aforementioned prices are Barnes and Noble online quotes; chances are good that a college bookstore near you will inflate each of these. There are only a handful of U.S. texts under $40 and only one, Howard Zinn?s ideologically loaded A People?s History of the United States that?s less than $20.

I decided to stop using a text when the $35 paperback I was using shot up to $75 and I simply couldn?t justify the price, given how little I teach from a text. (Very little generates more student complaints than a professor assigning a book that?s not used.)

Now comes the weird part ? if anything, student achievement was better after I stopped assigning a text...

Many colleges have a proverbial ??gentlemen?s agreement?? that more than 100 pages per week of reading per course is excessive. Even those of us who teach in highly competitive institutions know that there?s an upper limit. Even if you can get away with 200 per week, in an average semester your students will read about 2,500 pages. Do you really want one-third or more of that devoted to a textbook?...

But what about all those good reasons we assigned texts? Sorry, folks, but that?s old thinking and old learning style. Students tell me that if they need a fact, it?s a mouse click away. They also know about data bases the likes of which no textbook can touch, can locate images to illustrate their papers through a simple Google search, and have access to every one of their library?s specialized reference guides from their laptop. Heck, quite a few of them get so excited by thoughts stimulated by lectures and monographs that they kick off their bunny slippers and get actual books off the library shelf.

Are there some students who can benefit from a text? Yes, but why make them shell out $100? History has several online texts they can read for free, as well as outlines that are much more coherent than most texts. One can also, as I do, simply place a text ? any old one will do ? on library reserve. Not surprisingly, students don?t seem to resent texts nearly as much when they can consult them when needed and for free...

Post edited by asteriskea on

Replies to: "Teaching Without Textbooks"

  • maritemarite Registered User Posts: 21,586 Senior Member
    I don't think students' attention span is shorter. What you see, which was not true in my days, is the widespread use of coursepacks. These contain excerpts from monographs as well as journal articles. You don't have to buy a whole book if you can read just a chapter or two. This allows for a wider ranger of readings and thus viewpoints. There's no longer a single authoritative text on a particular issue. At top schools, students are still expected to read about 100-150 pages per week in a humanities or social sciences class, more if they are in an upper-level discussion class.
  • originaloogoriginaloog Registered User Posts: 2,645 Senior Member
    I find that good texts are important resourses to include in introductory engineering courses and that there are usually a few excellent ones to choose from. In upper level courses that is less likely to be the case and the class will often be taught from lecture notes, class packs, journal & ejournal readings, periodical readings, etc.

    But a word on text book editions. New additions are often times merely a way for publishers and authors to extract revenue from unwary students. There is usually no reason for a student to buy the newest version of a text new when there are many available copies of an earlier edition offered on-line at a fraction of the cost. This term our son spent a whopping 14 cents + shipping for his assigned texts. Of course, as a junior he has only one course(Comp Religions) with an assigned text and he bought a 2nd edition from Amazon which is virtually the same as the 6th(?) edition assigned and even in this course he says that less than half of the readings are from it. He did the same thing in his multivar calc class and the only thing he found different was the problem sets at chapter end. His prof allowed him to take pics of his text problem sets and he found that the primary difference was not the problems themselves but the numbering of them.
  • asteriskeaasteriskea Registered User Posts: 1,210 Senior Member
    I agree that a good text is an important resource just as I recognize the place of class or course packs. But, as Originaloog implies, don't new media methods to transmit information and texts shape the way students think and study? Pre-packaged coursepacks are indeed extremely useful especially when information changes rapidly or the goal is to create and coordinate inventive and engaging courses that put a premium on diversity of opinion. Most colleges and universities still do rely on a main text. In my day, the main text was not used as an authoritative source but merely a starting point for study and discussion - and discussion was stimulated through additional monographs that were required, not optional, reading. Back in the dark ages, we did have to wade through a great deal of extraneous information and develop skills to read critically and sift out and distill the wheat from chaff. Coursepacks are obviously cheap to produce, tailored to the needs of the particular course by the instructor, and custom published by university bookstores - so there is less fuss but also far less wading through dense detail for the student. I don't quibble that this is a boon in terms of time and money (not to mention no more long lines spent at the Xerox machines furtively copying reserve materials protected by copyright- and now by even stricter copyright protection). I was looking over a coursepack from one of my S's freshman class - the quality of the copies is not great but certainly acceptable and the pack serves its short-term purpose to a "T" . Coursepack kits give a student pre-packaged instant organization because the selection of monographs zero in on a common core.
  • maritemarite Registered User Posts: 21,586 Senior Member

    I have found as well that there is something called deep linking of articles. For students who do not mind, linking to articles that can be read online is another way apparently to cut down on the cost of coursepacks (whose copyright permissions fees can go quite high).

    The other day, I stood behind a young woman who was trying to buy a used textbook. It looked to have been well thumbed. She and I gasped when the cashier announced that the textbook cost well over $100. I'm trying not to think of the costs of S's textbooks. Luckily, he has a job that pays fairly well...
  • ChedvaChedva Super Moderator Posts: 28,605 Super Moderator
    When I got my master's degree in epidemiology and human genetics, we had two textbooks - intro to statistics and intro to epidemiology. They set forth the basic techniques of the subjects. Everything else were articles & coursepacks. My genetics teacher put it quite bluntly - "In this field, by the time a textbook is published, it's out of date."

    I'm sure that situation has only been exacerbated in the past 25 years or so.
  • cathymeecathymee Registered User Posts: 2,384 Senior Member
    Nothing is more irritating than a professor requiring an expensive textbook(Intro to Music),then barely assigning reading from it.
    Even worse,when S went to sell it back (after the Fall 06 semester) he was offered $5.00 because a "new" edition was about to be published.
    I'm for coursepacks all the way.
  • andrewtdxandrewtdx Registered User Posts: 629 Member
    Oh, Cathy, I can trump that.

    You are forced to buy a special edition of a common textbook, released exclusively for your university, only to have the professor repeatedly talk about how erroneous it is in class, yet requiring tons of reading from it and wondering why in the hell everyone is doing so poorly because he is constantly dispersing contradictory information and the students are struggling to figure out what he wants on the quizzes and midterms.
  • asteriskeaasteriskea Registered User Posts: 1,210 Senior Member
    andrew - I am so glad you posted that because one of my kids hs science teacher does the same type of thing and it is not only confusing but downright disruptive when it comes to effective learning. So, for me, your post is important and begs the question, what do these teachers expect from their respective students? On the college level, were the tests and quizzes the typical, run of the mill, pedestrian "standard formula" multiple choice, short answer mid-term/final combo plate based on regurgitation of textbook information or was there an interplay between what the prof. "said" and what you read? Part of the point here is, or ought to be, -over and beyond the assigned reading- how college courses are taught and what role a textbook should play. Hopefully, students and profs are dealing with a full deck and there is some type of coherence between text or texts and lectures - especially in the case when the survey textbook is the syllabus.

    To go beyond the generic - is there classroom debate so that the lecture becomes a counterpoint to stimulate more open-ended interpretations and approach to course content? If the end result is confusion then, perhaps the prof is caught between trends - trying to be innovative but stuck between an old-fashioned course design and new ideas and trends so the end result is disjointed. These days, the desired end of a college course is not merely to spit back facts but to acquire critical reading and thinking skills needed to actually learn something and deal with ambiguities and even contradictions in any field of study - whether monographs, novels, or huge bulky survey texts are used. On another note, students these days are an incredible savvy bunch with an impressive array of AP and honors courses under their belts and teaching techniques have to keep apace to avoid both confusion and boredom.

  • epiphanyepiphany Registered User Posts: 8,263 Senior Member
    Post #3 is completely true, and we parents need to urge colleges and high schools (which often use college texts, sometimes exclusively) to pressure publishers to knock it off. A *total* waste: monetarily, environmentally. The excuse given for a purchase of a Calc edition was that the slight variants in the problems threw off the sequence of answers. The h.s. teacher admitted this was the only reason. And, it was only some problems, not even a significant amount. Another $115-125 down the drain. Our h.s. teachers feel they need the latest edition of the identical text purchased the previous year. Schools need to re-examine their policies, but especially it's the publishers that need to become more responsible & economical about this. An addendum which modifies just a portion of problems can be separately published as an insertion. For a history or science modernization, an appendix can be published. (and/or either appendix or insertion made available online to schools for purchase.)

    And then, when the school decides that the previous yrs' text is "out of date," the students cannot recycle (sell!) those texts back to the school's bookstore. Such a waste. Such a crime.
  • jbuscjbusc Registered User Posts: 2,252 Senior Member
    Only 2 of my courses this semester have real textbooks. One of the other courses has the professor's class notes only (several hundred of 8.5"x11" pages, $11 printed up), and another has about 13 paperback books (literature GE course, about $130 total)

    Speaking of 13 books, each has about 200-300 pages and we're expected to read about 1 per week. 100 pages/week sounds easy, actually (unless they mean 100 textbook pages/week)

    This also reminds me of one math class which I only attended the 1st lecture for (and subsequently dropped for other reasons), the professor says, everyone picks one of two options for a textbook: the $12 "dover classic" book, or the $130 hardbound text that was considered the authoritative reference/guide in that area of math. He suggested, the $130 textbook was better than the $12 book, but not 10 times better. Everyone chose the $12 book :)
  • corrangedcorranged Registered User Posts: 6,684 Senior Member
    but especially it's the publishers that need to become more responsible & economical about this.
    No, they don't. They are a business, and their only goal is to make a profit. The publishers will change when their bottom line shows they need to change, and that's the way it should be. I don't think we're there yet, but I do think we're moving in that direction.

    Textbooks are expensive, and they're a pain to buy. I also think that they are vital for many classes, particularly the math/econ/science courses. At my school almost everyone buys used textbooks, either at the bookstore, online, or from friends. Sometimes a professor will require the new addition for some reason, but usually people can get buy with older additions and borrow any missing material from a friend in the class. Some of our readings are excerpts of books posted online which students then print out. Otherwise, my classes use textbooks or actual reading books, depending on the subject.
  • epiphanyepiphany Registered User Posts: 8,263 Senior Member
    *Obviously* "it's a business." Business and a sense of responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Possibly tax incentives can be applied to encourage businesses to exercise such responsiblity. I hate it when people just dismiss change as not compatible with the Capitalist Imperative or free enterprise. It's a matter of thinking it through creatively so as to allow for profits within a different design. (For example, contractual arrangements with schools with diff. pricing for longevity of relationship; diff. pricing levels for online edition changes; there are all kinds of options that have not been tried.)

    And the point was, whatever is true at "your school" is not true at many others. The used texts just one-year-old become extinct the following yr, so the students have no option to sell. Our family usually ends up selling on Amazon if the text will not be needed in college. It's a way of "recycling" but still less than optimum from both a labor & environmental perspecive.

    "the only thing he found different was the problem sets at chapter end. His prof allowed him to take pics of his text problem sets and he found that the primary difference was not the problems themselves but the numbering of them."

    ^^That is precisely what was true at our school,too. (LOL, probably same text!)

    As to the other arguments, I personally do not argue for the disappearance of textbooks. I think they're helpful & still essential for the most part. But this "edition" thing needs a major overhaul.
  • originaloogoriginaloog Registered User Posts: 2,645 Senior Member
    corranged, yes there are good business reasons why new texts are so expensive. However my problem is the issue of new additions merely for the sake of snookering students to pay top dollar for the book when prior editions are little or essentially no different.

    Our son has caught on and where possible only buys early edition texts at a very small fraction of the price. This semester he paid a TOTAL of 14 cents + shipping for his one course requiring a text. He bought a 2nd edition when the assigned was 6th edition. He did have to buy 8+ other books which he bought as used paperbacks but they were not texts.

    There is also the case of international versions which are priced at a fraction of the cost and where there is no content difference.

    Many of the students at our son's university are wiseing up to the issue and all of his friends are. The result is that text book costs have been cut by more than half!

    Try it! You'll like it!

    BTW he has a 3.95+ gpa since frosh year so it seems his grades have not suffered other than than one pesky A-. ;-)
  • corrangedcorranged Registered User Posts: 6,684 Senior Member
    Epiphany, tax incentives would obviously not be controlled by the publisher, which is what the quote of yours I was speaking about would imply. If you want to say that it's the government's job to put in place tax incentives of some sort, then that's a whole different matter (and one that I'm not going to get into). I still don't see any reason why the publishers would do anything of their own choice to sell fewer, less expensive textbooks until it is best for them in terms of profit.
    And the point was, whatever is true at "your school" is not true at many others.
    Am I suddenly not allowed to speak about my own experiences at my college? I was simply explaining what the majority of students at my college do to decrease the cost of books, which is buying used books. Every once in a while, a class will require a new edition. This has never happened to me, but I realize it happens. As I stated in my previous post, in many cases, students just use the old edition and borrow any missing material from someone who has a current edition. Othertimes, the kid will cough up the money. This happens pretty rarely (at my school, at least), so someone trying to avoid paying full price will probably only need to buy a textbook at full price a couple of times during college. This of course depends on whether the student is majoring in Biology or English Lit, since the bio major will be using more textbooks and the lit major will have more reading books.
This discussion has been closed.