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alexei-maridashvili-gqk2hoqGAL0-unsplashWhen you are about to teach an online course, and you have been told that you need to choose a textbook, feeling pressure is understandable. For students, a textbook is a major purchase, and usually an expensive one, and so your decision has consequence. If your online course is asynchronous, the textbook is going to have to carry the day—you’ll rely on it, as will the students. You may even second-guess your choice as the course progresses! What to do?

There are two approaches—at the very least—in considering your choice of textbook. Some of them are practical concerns, and others involve sound pedagogical research, both of which we’ll explore. Once you know some simple things—like, how long is your class going to actually last? How easy is it to actually get the textbook?—then the shape of your class can determine what textbook best fits it.

Let’s start with practical concerns and then move into the bigger ideas. In each case, one of the important things to note is that student perceptions of textbooks can be incredibly important.

Practical Advice on Textbook Adoption

Ask yourself these pertinent questions before you decide on a textbook:

  1. First, how long will your class be? Best case scenario, can you align the number of chapters in the textbook with the number of weeks in your course? If a course stretches over a semester, and the textbook has 14 or 15 chapters, then that means you can use one chapter a week, which makes planning easy for you and the schedule regular for students. Teaching an 8-week class? A 16-chapter book rounds out nicely to two chapters a week.
  2. What is a reasonable cost for the book? I mean, students are students, and students are already spending an enormous amount of money—why not relieve the burden a bit? There’s no need to choose an expensive textbook if you don’t have to—and ensuring that the cost is within their budget also ensures that the students will actually buy it!
  3. Can you make do with using a previous edition of the book? That will surely make the textbook cheaper, but you also need to make sure that the book would be available. If you were teaching a small class of, say, ten students, and if there were enough of the older version of the textbook available on Amazon (or any number of good used textbook sites!), then that will work. But if your class numbers something like 50, well, then that might not work.
  4. What formats are the book available in? Sure, you can get hardcover, but it may also be available in paperback, eBook, looseleaf download, audiobook, or even an eCopy that is rentable (and that is usually cheaper, to boot).
  5. What do the reviews of the textbook say? If there’s one good thing about Amazon—and other book sites may follow suit—you’ll get reviews of the textbook by not only the professors who used them but the students who read them. Think of this as “social proof data.” If a book is singled out for praise and puffed up with positive reviews, you may have yourself the best choice. In a 2008 study of forty-eight college students by Durwin & Sherman, the research strongly suggests that students who read one textbook vs. another perform equally well on comprehension-focused exams. There is a secondary implication here: students are accurate judges of text quality! In fact, there was a significant, positive correlation between a student liking a textbook and their reading comprehension performance. When you are deciding on a textbook for your class, you can ask a potential student or someone who might take a course like yours to give you some feedback. When students help you, you get to be the one who learns!

What this means is a bit of online shopping and research—just like for any other book you’ve ordered for yourself. At this point, online shopping in general is second-nature to most of us. Use it to your advantage!

Pros and Cons of Textbooks

usman-yousaf--AQ-P_R25aI-unsplashOne thing to consider is the fact that you can make a textbook required, of course. If you do so, there are certainly pros and cons—and that goes for both students and faculty.

In the 2013 book The Required Textbook: Friend or Foe? Skinner & Howes reviewed the literature on “the required textbook” and drew it all up in a list of pros and cons, accounting for both faculty and student perspectives.

To start, here are the pros of requiring a textbook:

  • Textbooks provide foundational knowledge in a consistent way across all students – a text serves as the “voice of the discipline.” Everyone is literally on the same page, and they will remain so after finishing your class.
  • They serve as a “tour guide” as students to get their feet wet with a topic or discipline. They tend to be broad, especially in those intro classes like English literature and psychology.
  • They meet standards for accreditation.
  • It can take quirks of the instructor—as interesting as they sometimes are—out of the equation, and that means students who use the textbook at one university will acquire the same knowledge as a student who uses the textbook at another.

The cons of requiring a textbook were:

  • Instructors (like you) felt like it took a lot of time to choose textbooks – for a lot of general education subjects, there are way too many to choose from. It’s hard enough shopping online for shower curtains—try shopping for something like a textbook!
  • Students felt that required textbooks increase college expenses that are already, let’s face it, high to begin with. That, coupled with the fact that students may find that the textbook is not always valuable to them, makes it a grudging purchase.
  • Unmotivated readers may simply not benefit from a textbook purchase at all.
  • Visual aids in a textbook are nice (who doesn’t like a book with “pictures”?) but textbooks are rarely entertaining.
  • Textbooks demand a lot of time—and the reading falls outside of class time, and so they impede of student time.
  • They lack technological interactivity (although, since 2013 when this book was published, this is changing. A lot of textbook publishers are now integrating interactive web technologies to go alongside their textbooks – MyPsychLab and MyMathLab from the Pearson publishing house are examples).

With all that in mind, you can make an informed decision about choosing a textbook at all. If you choose a textbook, really pay attention to how well it acclimates the student to the subject—and allows them all to be on the same page in terms of understanding. Avoid high cost in both money and time, if possible—and with adult students, who are understandably busy, this is critical.

What Does the Research Say about Evaluating Textbooks?

Once you’ve decided that you’re going to use a textbook, there are some fine points to consider—and researchers have been looking at these points for decades.

Armbruster and Anderson (1988) pointed out that “’Considerate’ content area textbooks are ‘user-friendly’—they are relatively easy to read, understand, and learn from.” The three features of that consideration are structure, coherence, and audience appropriateness.

In terms of the structure of a textbook, the better organized it is, the more likely readers will remember the information in it. One of the strongest ways a textbook can be structured, they write, is through signaling: titles, preview words, headings, and summary statements all clarify the structures of passages and chapters, and the reader can more easily organize the information into a coherent structure for themselves.

ux-indonesia-8mikJ83LmSQ-unsplashThe authors suggest looking at the structure of the textbook: is its structure reasonable, and given your own knowledge of the subject matter, is the information structured soundly and appropriately as the discipline demands? Look for a well-signaled text, where headings and subheadings are informative, where everything from page layout to graphic aids reinforce the structure and create coherence. Look for signal words like “First…Second…Third…” and so on—they “signal” the movement of ideas.

Coherence means that the ideas of the textbook have clear relationships to each other. The greater the coherence in the organization of the textbook, the greater the coherence of ideas the student will make cognitively for themselves. Much of this can be simply grammatical; look for connectives like because, since, therefore—each of which describes the relationships between ideas. Transition statements help the students understand the movement from one idea to the next. The chronology of ideas should be easy to follow.

Is the book suited to your students’ knowledge and skills? If so, then it is audience appropriate. Reading comprehension and memory are dependent upon building upon students’ prior knowledge—and the main ideas should be clearly identifiable. This is reinforced by simple things like highlighting main ideas with italics, or bold face; preview or summary statements of main ideas—even making sure the topic sentence of a paragraph is the first sentence!

All this may sound obvious, but the fact is that researchers found many textbooks lacking considerably in structure, coherence, and audience appropriateness. “Admittedly,” they conclude, “the process of selecting textbooks using the criteria we suggest is more art than science at the moment.” All that’s demanded of you, really, is to be a critical reader yourself. judge a textbook accordingly—and it’s often the case that textbook suppliers offer free copies for teachers to review.

There are, as we have seen, many factors to consider in selecting your textbook, from cost to accessibility. What you can do is shop carefully and draw on what others have to say—whether professors or students—to make an informed decision. Review a book closely to determine whether it is coherent, and also whether it will fit your class’s length and course structure.

The rewards of your attention will result, as research shows, in student understanding. The buck stops there!

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