PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Teaching Toolbox
By the Book

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

FBy the Bookor any given course, a professor could have anywhere from zero to dozens of possible textbooks to choose from. Not all are created equal, though, and while selecting an appropriate text may not be the most exciting aspect of your job, it is an important one. Here are some questions to ask that can help you do it wisely.

Do you need one? For required undergraduate courses or where students are expected to learn a large amount of material on their own, a textbook is usually a necessity. This is less so in graduate courses, where students are more mature and need less structure--and suitable texts may be harder to find.

What should it cover? A bit of excess coverage beyond the course material--which is typical of most engineering texts--is ideal. Too much extra material, and students will wonder why they had to buy an expensive book if they only used a small portion of it. If the coverage falls just short, you can add important material in lectures, which also gives students extra incentive to come to class; but if too much material is missing, you need a more suitable book.

Because there is rarely time to read the entire book before adopting it, study the table of contents and skim the book to see if the coverage is appropriate. If the book stands up to this test, pick one chapter on material that you are familiar with and analyze it carefully, checking that the material is correct and presented at an appropriate level for your students.

Is it student-friendly? A student-friendly textbook will include information that tells the students how best to learn the material, and questions that test learning. Different topics should be connected by transitions that make the relationships among topics clear. Important material should be signaled by changes in type size, font, underlining, centering, and so forth. To be effective rather than distracting, these signals should be relatively rare.

Concise, deductive summaries of large amounts of material are satisfying to the expert, but are often inappropriate for students, who learn better with inductive explanations. Students appreciate examples, which must be explained in detail and more than just a list of numbers or equations. Students also like figures and photographs, but they often ignore tables unless they are referred to in examples or are needed to solve homework problems.

What else is important? Other selection criteria may include the quality of homework problems and of bundled software. If you plan to use homework problems from the book, be sure they can be solved. No solution manual? This is a problem because it means the authors probably did not solve the problems, and that some may not even be solvable. No solution manual is better than an error-filled one.

If the textbook is bundled with a CD, be sure the software is compatible with your school's computers by solving a problem with it. Software must be user-friendly and function almost perfectly. Keep in mind that if you don't use the software, students may wonder why they had to buy a book that included software.

Think you're ready to decide? Use the book for a semester and get student feedback. Remember that you are adopting the textbook to help the students learn the material. If they dislike it, determine why and, if possible, find one that avoids these problems. If you get stuck using a textbook you dislike, don't disparage it. Students strongly dislike buying a textbook and then hearing that it is a bad book.

Why not write one yourself? Eventually you'll decide that you could write a better textbook than what is available. When you do, help the rest of us out and keep all these factors in mind. That way, we can help you out and choose your textbook for our own classes!  


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