Friday, September 12, 2008

Teaching without textbooks

Classes have started, students have bought the assigned textbooks, and they have thoroughly complained about the cost of the textbooks. It is the same at the start of every term, yet publishers manage to exploit their market power without much of a challenge. Yet there are ways out.

I reported about one, POeT, which encourages comparison shopping by faculty while they select a textbook. There are cheaper, even open-access textbooks available. But there is even better: teaching without a textbook.

Why do we need a textbook? It is convenient for a teacher to have ones course structured by someone else, with ready-made teaching material like slides, exam questions and exercises. For students, it reassures them that they have a backup in case they did not understand what was going on in class.

It is, however, my experience that once there is a textbook, students start slacking off considerably: they do not pay attention in class, do not take notes or do not even show up in class, because "there is a textbook." One striking consequence is that the average student nowadays in incapable of taking notes beyond what is written on the board. Also, they are lost as soon as lectures deviate slightly from the textbook.

The logical consequence is to do away with the textbooks. While it may not be popular at first, it forces students to think and take notes while in class. One should keep in mind the original purpose of a textbook: support the teaching in class. Unfortunately, it has become the opposite: the teaching is supposed to follow a textbook. If this were the goal, one could in fact do away with the teaching, simply assign a textbook and then test people on it. Wait, this is already done with correspondence and online courses.

I put a lot of blame on the students, as they follow what they believe is the easier way by requesting a textbook for every class. But teachers are to blame as well. They often also take the easy way by choosing a textbook that is easy to teach from, but not necessarily easy to learn from. I have had colleagues select textbooks on the basis of the powerpoint slides alone...


Anonymous said...

I am with you here. The textbook, if any, should complement the teaching. Unfortunately, too often nowadays the teaching follows the textbook. In that case, why even have a teacher? Just assign the book, have an exam at some point a be done with it.

Anonymous said...

Textbook have anyway become bloated lately, as they try to cater to everyone. Teachers feel obliged to cover many chapters to justify the cost of the book. Students are flooded with material and learn only superficially if anything.

I used to have a paperback textbook with about 120 pages (Miller and Upton), which taught me great intuition about macro. That was a great textbook, and it cost a few dollars only!