On the Importance of a Text in College Courses

Perhaps I’m a slow learner, but I appear to be back to where I started after having reinvented the wheel.

When I first started teaching, I adopted a standard textbook as a matter of course for my introductory course. That was actually easy since at the time, we had a policy of using a common textbook in the department.

In the late 1980s, I had a change of heart. I thought that standard text books were generally boring, too mechanical, and too voluminous. I decided to try teaching without one. What I choose instead was a collection of books and readings written by economists for interested lay people. I thought that it would be pedagogically useful for students to have to tease out the principles of economics from the readings rather than having the principles spoon-fed them by standard texts. [This is related to both the critical views of foreign students reported by Nathan and my response. ] I also hoped that the authors’ passion in such books would make them more interesting to students than standard texts. It turned out, the initiative worked quite well. Students were able to glean the majority of course content quite well from these alternative texts; and only a relatively small amount of content, specifically the explanation of economic theory, needed the structure of a standard text. To address this last issue, I adjusted by adopting a stripped-down textbook in conjunction with the alternative texts.

Over time as I crafted my lecture notes, I came to feel that the choice of a text really didn’t matter since my lectures did a better job of explaining the material. I don’t think I’m alone among faculty in this view.

In the last year, though, as a consequence of my experimental introductory course, I’ve concluded that the choice of text is critical. Let me explain why.

We can start by examining the purpose of a course text in an introductory social or natural science course. This question is related to a broader one that I’ve blogged about in the past: What is a college course? I used to think that the text provided the material which was to be mastered in the course. How then should lectures differ from the text? Presumably, the lectures should focus on the most important material, leaving details and less important material to be gotten from the text. At least, that’s what I told my students.

While a teacher might see the text as a complement to lectures, recall Nathan’s point that students don’t read what they perceive as optional material. In some courses, where the lectures aren’t very understandable (e.g. Poor instructors or perhaps foreign instructors without a strong command of spoken English), students use the text as the primary way to learn the course material. In other words, they see the text as a substitute for lectures. But similarly, when instructors are perceived as good and their lectures are clearly understood, the students don’t see a need to read the text. Again, text is perceived as a substitute.

How then can we get students to see the text as a required complement to lectures or class meetings more generally? The trivial way is to include material from the text (which I defined as less important or details) on the exams. But perhaps a better way is to think carefully about what we want students to learn and how we want them to learn it. In this way, we can make the text required, but in a substantive way.

Take, for example, the way I planned to use the text in my experimental class last year. A careful review of the lecture notes for my entire introductory macro class yielded three categories of material:

1. Material which is adequately covered in the text, and which students can learn on their own.
2. Original material from my lectures, which in not covered adequately in the text, but which students, nonetheless, can learn on their own (after making the material available to them).
3. Material, generally analytic in nature, which requires more time and effort for students to master and which benefits from time spent in class on them, for example, doing examples in groups.

For this approach to be successful, the material must be adequately explained in the text, since by design, it won’t be covered in class. This is why students will correctly view the text as a required complement to class sessions; it is also why the right text is critical.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to On the Importance of a Text in College Courses

  1. Dean says:

    One approach to the problem of the reading and the lecture being substitutes that I saw working quite well was to make the text the common base of knowledge that each student was expected to know when they arrived at class. In class, then, the professor would lecture on topics that were dependent on knowledge gotten only from the text, not from the previous lecture. For instance, we might read about indifference curves, then in lecture, we would discuss Giffen goods. Without the basic understanding from the textbook, class lectures were practically useless, but the tests primarily covered lecture topics, so we were really forced to both do the reading and come to class.

  2. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » It’s just a wheel

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