Escaping textbooks

729822 25Ba163C9A MI’ve blogged before about my ambivalence towards textbooks, at least in mathematics (here, here, here, here, and here). But a couple of recent events have really motivated me to think seriously about not using textbooks at all in my courses. And this fall I will be taking the plunge, requiring no textbooks except for my precalculus class (which has to have a book because the course has to be somewhat standard across five different sections).

First of all, every year I teach, I become more frustrated with the way that even the best textbooks tend to stunt the intellectual growth of my students in the area of general intellectual process skills. What I mean is that at the college level — or at the very least in the sophomore-and-above level in college — students need to be learning not only content knowledge, but also process skills such as how to acquire, judge, synthesize, and apply content information from a variety of sources. In fact there are many instances where the process is a lot more important than the content. This is certainly what our alumni are constantly telling us, once they are out of college and into a career where the content is evolving rapidly and what’s needed is somebody who has the intellectual processing skills to keep up.

I have seen very few textbooks that ever attempt to focus on process skills at all, even in those little blurbs that you will often find sprinkled throughout the book. And of those that do, very few do it consistently well. How could they? The whole point of a textbook is to consolidate information into one place, and so by definition if you use only a textbook, you’re not exercising those information-processing skills. There’s something to be said about the processing skills a person has to develop in order to merely read the book in the first place, but this kind of skill could also be done in the absence of a book, especially when there is much out there that is free — either on the internet or which can be obtained by the college library.

The second event I mentioned revolves around a student I have this semester who showed great promise during the first couple of weeks, but then mysteriously stopped coming to class. I finally caught up with this student and asked what was going on. It turns out the student was from a relatively poor family and simply couldn’t afford the books needed for classes. The book for our class is close to $150, and it’s one of probably 5-8 books that this student needed to get. This student was actually on the road to dropping out of college altogether because of this. Fortunately the student and I worked out a plan to get her caught back up and the student does have a copy of the textbook now.

My student’s situation made me think — is the textbook really worth it? The book we use in the class is “OK” but not great. I find myself having to remix the information in it all the time, having to add examples and clarify existing examples, and having to make up additional exercises. It dawned on me that I really could simply remove the book altogether from the course, and not much would change. And if that’s the case, is it right to put poor students in a situation where they have to choose between going to college and spending money on a textbook that isn’t really even necessary?

I plan to take this fall to find out the answers to some of these questions. I am teaching four courses — two sections of precalculus, Methods of Problem Solving (a.k.a. MOPS), and Modern Algebra. Precalculus does have to use a book, as I said above. MOPS has been textbook-free since the second year I taught it, the only required text being George Polya’s classic How To Solve It ($12 new in paperback, $7 used, so I don’t feel bad about having students buy and read it). So the only real jump here is to have no textbook for Modern Algebra. I am a little loath to do this, since I’ve used Gallian’s Contemporary Abstract Algebra for the last couple of times I’ve taught the course, and I really liked it. But I am convinced I can teach just as effective of a course by a combination of the following:

  • Handmade notes and Keynote presentations
  • Class meetings run in a pseudo-Moore method style
  • Homegrown problems and exercises culled from past course experience
  • Useful web links for reference and practice

I’ll be blogging the process of designing and delivering this course throughout the summer and into the fall, and I’ve created a new category for keeping track. It may bomb, and I might find myself putting large chunks of Gallian on reserve in the library before week 3. But I think it may work out fine, and I believe it’s worth the risk if it can save students $114.48 and improve their thinking skills at the same time.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Math, Teaching, Textbook-free

14 responses to “Escaping textbooks

  1. chris

    I think this sounds like a worthy experiment. Sometimes all the textbook does is muddy up the facts. I remember sitting through C++ courses and understanding everything fully, but as soon as I got back to my computer with my book I was lost again. Changing the context of the material while you’re still trying to learn it can be frustrating.

  2. virusdoc

    Hey, and once you’re done designing all the class notes and handnotes, you’ll have a really great outline from which to write your OWN textbook!

    Seriously…you should put all the resources you compile in one online place and curate the links yourself, so that other professors can use the materials.

    I’m going to be teaching a 400 level virology course next spring, and I’m seriously considering the no textbook option myself, for all the same educational and financial reasons you mention above. I believe that if I am going to require the students to buy a text, I should stick to it very closely so the money isn’t wasted. But there aren’t any texts available that I like that well to be able to do so.

  3. I’ve been considering just what you suggest, doc — putting all the materials online, or in a wiki or something so other math people can add to it — and making the whole thing free under a Creative Commons license. You think something like that would count the same towards tenure (or five-year review in my case) as writing a textbook?

  4. Just another liberal professor

    The first two times I taught Abstract Algebra, I ended up “using” Gallian. It was the best textbook that I could find that wouldn’t be guaranteed to run the students off (like, say, Dummit and Foote would).

    Using Gallian was a definite mistake. I essentially had to write and use my own course notes, which have a much less nonsensical flow of topics (isomorphisms before homomorphisms? Angle brackets for ideals instead of parentheses for ideals? Direct sum notation for groups that may not be abelian? Blathering on and on about cyclic groups without mentioning that every cyclic group is isomorphic either to $\mathbb{Z}$ or $\mathbb{Z}_n$? Really? Why? ….Gah!)

    The next time I teach Abstract Algebra, I plan on using to textbook, TeXing up my course notes, and making them freely available online.

  5. Just another liberal professor

    Oops, that should be “using no textbook”…time for bed.

  6. JALP- I tend to agree with you about Gallian. Although I think it’s still probably the best book for an undergrad abstract algebra course, it does have a sort of maddening lack of overall coherence. There’s no recurring theme — no set of 3-4 basic concepts that show up repeatedly, instantiated in different contexts, that hold the entire book together. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t really have a *course* unless you’ve worked out your main motifs for the course in advance and deliberately reintroduce them through the semester to make the whole body of material gel together. That’s the first step I take when planning a course out, and it’s something I need to think about carefully for this fall.

    And the notation drove me crazy too. I can see the reason for using angle brackets for ideals — he’s trying to stress the similarity between ideals and cyclic groups — but my students just couldn’t get it straight that the notation means one thing in the group context and another in the ring context. And my students knew all about cyclic groups by the final exam BUT couldn’t correctly recognize that they are all isomorphic to Z or Z_n, and in fact they thought that all cyclic groups were finite. Ouch.

  7. I very much love the undergrad version of Hungerford.

  8. coderprof

    One nice thing about intro computer science curricula is that we have several reasonably priced books designed for professional programmers, rather than students. in the best case, I can require a $10 O’Reilly “Pocket Reference” book to act as the official course text. Most other classes have a decent $30 to $45 option. It is only when you get to subjects like compiler theory that you are clearly in the textbook-only realm.

    Teaching at a open admissions state college with inexpensive in-state tuition, I am very cognizant of the fact that books can represent a quarter to a third of the cost of a course.

  9. A great idea. I am currently wrestling with the same dilemma teaching information technology at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). I have managed to convince my second year students that they can have a successful learning experience without textbooks. It’s quite funny how students complain about the cost of textbooks, and many do not buy them, but they really complain when there isn’t a textbook at all.

    I have replaced textbooks with wikis and other Web 2.0 tools such as Netvibes, and lately have been exploring the use of Google Groups and Google Notebook to replace textbooks. Both allow access control if that is an issue, and both allow for collaborative development of the space. I think that both have great potential to create learning resources that will be much more vibrant, relevant, and participative than any textbook could ever be.

    I look forward to reading about the development of your course.

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