Retrospective: Escaping textbooks (3.28.2007)

Editorial: This is article #8 in this weeklong series of reposts of “classic” articles here at CO9s. The article I’m posting below probably has the most references to it of any article I’ve written. It’s the culmination of a bunch of prior posts about the nature of college textbooks, and it kicked off a pretty major experiment of my own that is currently underway — the design and execution of an abstract algebra course that does not use a textbook. The story of the textbook-free algebra course is still unfolding, and there’s a lot of good coming out of my little experiment.

We hear a lot about “innovation” in education, almost as if it were an end in itself. But I like to think about and write about ways of doing college differently that actually make students’ college education better.

Escaping textbooks

Originally posted: March 28, 2007


I’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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