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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