In my last post I supported the idea that textbooks are generally not very good. In the past I’ve said that student reading is generally an illusion. A recent experience clearly demonstrated how the first is related to the second.
A month or so ago I received an invitation to review a introduction to sociology textbook chapter. For doing so I would receive a small amount of money and the required questionnaire did not look particularly daunting, so I agreed (I have received these invitations several times over the years but this is the first time since grad school that I have actually decided to complete a review). I was assigned the chapter on research methods. After printing the chapter, I realized the problem with agreeing to review a textbook chapter on research methods: I was going to have to read a textbook chapter on research methods.
While I have several introduction to sociology textbooks on my shelf, I personally do not use one when I teach the course. Reading this chapter reminded me why. The chapter was long and dull. I didn’t want to read it, even though I was only reading it to assess the information it contained. I can’t imagine a student wanting to read it in order to learn the information it contained.
I suspect that when faculty members assign textbook readings they skim the chapters to ensure that they include the concepts that they want to discuss. Maybe they think of textbooks as a sort of reference book that will introduce students to a topic so that they are prepared for class discussions or that students can use when they need an extra example to help them understand a concept. The problem is that I don’t think that many college students, or at least students at my college, see them this way.
Students come to college having gotten used to reading things front-to-back, starting on page one and reading until the end. Doing this with the textbook chapter I reviewed would probably solve any trouble that students have sleeping, but it is not a very effective way of gaining information. Unfortunately, this is the type of reading that CourseSmart’s “engagement index” seems designed to track. Students who are able to glean the key topics and some examples may fare better.
Maybe professors need to follow a sort of Golden Rule of reading assignments: do not assign your students anything that you would not personally enjoy reading. If you assign a textbook, when is the last time that you read it? I don’t mean “glanced at a few definitions before class,” I mean really read it, from front to back, like a beginning student would. If it has been more than a few years, I challenge you to do so again. Feel free to send your findings to socslac [at] gmail [dot] com. I triple dog dare you.