The Ever Expanding Textbook

There is a secret method in education called “pre-teaching,” where students are taught a concept the week before it is presented in class. This strategy is incredibly effective because it uses an important factor of student success that I refer to as “pre-knowledge.”

Students with a higher level of subject knowledge (“pre-knowledge”) going into the class tend to succeed. Not only is there less new information to absorb, but new information can be tied to previous information that has already been organized in the mind. More importantly, students with pre-knowledge maintain the powerful social role of “experts” in the classroom. Novice students know little about the subject, lack confidence, and feel as if there is an insurmountable amount of information to learn. Pre-teaching turns novice students into expert students.

What does pre-teaching have to do with textbooks? The typical textbook is not written for novice students or expert students; it is actually written for instructors. Instructors are not mere experts, but exceptional experts. When an instructor reads the textbook, she already knows the information it contains and is able to be critical of its content. Instructors question why some information is not in the text or why certain material is not given more prominence. These concerns are communicated to textbook representatives, who alert the editor. The editor adds more text to the already dense textbook to accommodate the exceptional experts—the instructors.

Since 1980, typical textbooks have grown 50% in length. Not coincidentally, the most frequent inquiry on professor rating websites is, “Do you have to buy the textbook to pass the class?” And, increasingly, the answer is “No.” Professors understand that their textbooks are too dense, even for the expert students in their class. Most instructors test students more thoroughly on material from the lecture and less on material from the readings. Consequently, it is not surprising that current national studies indicate students show little to no growth in reading comprehension during the first two years of college.

Research shows that the 8 best-selling textbooks are written several years beyond the median reading level of entry-level college students. This is an important problem. Textbooks are not only expensive, they are becoming irrelevant. One University of California professor recently stated about the most frequently adopted history text today; “The best textbook students don’t read.” It is time to leave the ever-expanding textbooks behind and assign reading content that is designed to promote each student’s education and development.

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The Great Reading Debate: Digital Or Paper?

Do students understand and retain the material they read digitally as well as they do on paper? Recent research indicates that it depends on what is being read, and for what purpose.

Digital reading is problematic for the long novel because the reader is not able to retain the evolution of the plot as well. There is something about the physical sense of being part way, half way, or almost done with a book that aids the reader’s sense of time and narrative. On the other hand, a book that is simply a page-turner (sometimes called the “airport book”) does not place the kind of demand on the reader that James Joyce’s Ulysses would. This provides some explanation for the popularity of Kindle among the easy-reading public.

The amount of time spent reading digital texts is also an issue. Although recent studies indicate that the younger reading public is more accustomed to reading digitally than their elders, handing anyone a 400-page digital textbook is setting them up for quite a slog. In fact, students already tell us that a 400­-page paper textbook does not interest them either-30 percent of students nationwide do not even buy the text assigned for their class, and those who do buy it hardly get past the first two chapters before they give up on that particular reading experience.

The real problem here is selecting the right kinds of reading that will aid the various purposes of the classroom experience. Just one type of reading is probably not the most productive or effective reading strategy for either a modern reader or for today’s students, most of whom come to college several grades behind in reading ability.

Here are 4 types of reading to consider as preparation for the classroom setting:

  1. Shorter passages of digital information text of 2,000-­3,000 words or less (the “chunked” textbook, as reading specialists refer to it). These digital texts should return to where paper textbooks were 40 years ago, when they contained about 2/3 of the amount of information that they do today.
  2. Short background readings of 500-­700 words or less in digital or paper form to set up primary source readings which are also no more than 500-700 words.
  3. Digital or paper scripts for 2,000­ word lectures that are accompanied by a presentation (roughly 20-slides))-in other words, assigning a portion of your lectures as at-home reading.
  4.  Real paper books of the standard 65,000-­90,000 word length that contain a narrative quality and strong interest for young people. These might include historical fiction, biography, autobiography, or very straightforward monograph.
In the end, while professors consider the virtues and drawbacks of digital versus on-paper reading, let us not lose sight of the fact that various reading methods, their diversity, and their purposes, are actually most important as they relate to the student’s academic needs and preferences. Some reading experiences will better fit one particular learning environment, while another method will better support learning in a different context or for a different purpose. 
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Love The Student You’re With

Although I would like to enjoy the music most students today listen to, I confess that–like most people–I am a creature of the social and cultural world of my youth.  One of my favorite songs was a classic anthem to free love by Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With.”  The refrain contains the line, “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Stills makes the point that it is not always easy to accept a new normal, but sometimes you should just make do.

While there are new norms in college teaching today that should be questioned and rejected, today’s students are a new normal that we need to embrace.

How have students changed since, “Love the One You’re With,” climbed the charts in the 1970s? In 1973, about 45% of high school graduates went to college, and of those, about 60% graduated with a bachelors degree within 6 years. Today, 70% of high school graduates attempt college, but a little less than 50% graduate within 6 years.

There are 3 types of students going to college today–top, middle, and low performing. In 1973, you would have seen the first (top) and second (middle), but rarely the third student. The increasing number of low performing students entering college has contributed to the falling graduation rate of the last 40 years.

The third category of student, the low performing student, did not need to go to college forty years ago because there was gainful employment for the non college-educated. That labor market has been globalized and automated out of this economy. Without educated labor skills, the third student will not obtain the employment that lifts him or her into the middle class. He or she hovers around the poverty level and, in a very disturbing recent trend, cannot afford to form a family. Either the student joins the working poor or gives college a try.

What happens in college to the students in the third category? Most are simply weeded out as part of the national 52% dropout rate. Over 20% of all students who drop out do so during the freshmen year and then another 30% in subsequent years. While many things contribute to the dropout rate, the core problem is that entering students do not have college-ready skills in reading, writing, computing, and problem solving. In fact, the average student arrives in college 3-4 years behind, with specific weaknesses in writing and problem solving.

The college professor’s responsibility to these struggling students can be hard to realize, especially if the professor is used to and has come to expect the college-ready students of the 1970s. Professors can either accept the dropout rate as reality or rethink their teaching strategy to help give students the tools and skills to graduate.

The latter route is worth the trouble. Raising the national graduation rate by 10% would translate into two extremely important moral outcomes the nation needs:

  • First, it will help arrest the trend of the decline of the middle class.
  • Second, it will improve America’s record on social mobility, something that has been declining for the last 30+ years.

That 10% goal is not unrealistic. It does not capture up all of the third category of student who may sadly already be too far behind. The goal can be met when professors rethink those crucial first two years of college. Instead of waiting for the good old days of classes full of college-ready students, we should learn to love the almost, nearly, could-be college-ready students we are with.

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