Teaching Tips

Using Textbooks Effectively
Getting Students to Read Them

By Denise R. Boyd

Somewhere there is a college where psychology professors motivate students to use their textbooks simply by putting statements such as "this text is required" and "exam 1 will cover the first three chapters" in their syllabi. Upon being dismissed from the first class meeting, the students at this college go immediately to the college bookstore, where they gladly spend the money they had allotted for concert tickets on the required text, and begin reading chapters 1 through 3 as they are walking from the bookstore back to their dormitories, the bus stop, or to their cars. For those of us who do not have the good fortune to teach in such an institution, creative strategies are required to motivate students to obtain and use their textbooks effectively.

Obviously, the first step to effective textbook use is motivating students to get one. Anecdotal reports from faculty and publishers' surveys of college bookstores suggest that about 20 per cent of students do not buy books. In my own experience, the rate ranged from 10 to 25 percent per semester before I started using strategies that require students to have a book and to bring it to class. I also noticed that the particular course seemed to influence students' decisions about textbook purchasing. My introductory psychology students were less likely to buy books than those enrolled in more advanced classes such as life span development. Predictably, too, my statistics students rarely if ever tried to get through a course without a textbook. This phenomenon probably reflected student experience. Students who have taken more courses may be more realistic about the necessity of a textbook. Moreover, based on their pre-college educational experiences, most students know that a math course typically requires students to work problems from the textbook.

When we speculate about why students do not buy books, the reason we most often propose is that they are unable or unwilling to pay for them. To find out whether this assumption was accurate, I surveyed my students about their textbook-buying attitudes. Responses suggested that (1) students have little understanding of the reasons behind the cost of textbooks, and (2) they are more concerned about how a book is used than about how much it costs.

For example, when asked to respond to the statement Textbooks are expensive because they are costly to produce, less than half of students agreed or strongly agreed. And about an equal proportion disagreed or strongly disagreed. Ironically, perhaps, a large proportion of respondents expressed a preference for books possessing features that add to a textbook's cost (e.g. figures, marginal key terms, end-of-section questions). Further, three-quarters of students responding to the survey agreed or strongly agreed that Textbooks are expensive because of free instructional aids provided to professors.

With regard to how books are used, 98 percent agreed or strongly agree with It helps when a professor makes connections between lectures and the textbook. Likewise, about three-quarters indicated that they regarded the textbook as the most important source of information in the course. Perhaps for this reason, more than 80 percent said that spending money for required textbooks was a higher priority than spending on leisure activities. In addition, only 13 percent agreed or strongly agreed with Sometimes I decide not to buy a textbook because I can't afford it.

The survey findings suggest a number of strategies for increasing the likelihood that students will buy required textbooks: take student preferences (e.g. key terms defined in margins) into account; consider cost, and offer choices. My introductory psychology students have three options: purchase the required text, purchase an earlier edition of the text, or purchase any introductory psychology book of their own choice. I tell them that they can check out introductory textbooks from the college or a public library; if they prefer, they can buy them for very reasonable prices at used bookstores or even at thrift stores such as those operated by Goodwill Industries. Of course, they are responsible for correlating the content of their chosen book with the required reading assignments. The overwhelming majority chooses the first option, but they feel it was their own judgment that buying the required text was the best of the three choices given.

Professors can also introduce the notion of choice by making students aware of the many Internet sites where textbooks can be purchased at discounted prices. For example, both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com offer student-to-student listings of used books. I found used copies of the text for my introductory psychology class offered for as little as $24.75, a far cry from the campus bookstore's $65.00. There are a host of other sites that specialize in discount textbooks, and a few others that will even search these sites and compare prices. When I used the Textbookland.com search-and-compare service, I found my introductory text priced from $82.00 to $97.00 for a new copy. The larger outlets also frequently offer earlier editions of best-selling college textbooks for very reasonable prices. For example, an earlier edition of my intro text goes for less than $50 new and $37 used on Amazon.com.

Explain the High Costs of Texts - The survey results also suggest that it can be helpful to educate students about the textbook production process and what the price of a textbook includes, such as the free companion Web sites now available for most books. I also like to direct students' attention to the list of reviewers in the preface. I tell students about the author(s) and the reason why they have credibility due to their record of published research or long-standing respect for superb teaching. I point out that the reviewers are all experienced psychology instructors who helped to make the book more useful. Further, I encourage them to think of the textbook author as a tutor who has provided them with explanations that other expert instructors (i.e. the reviewers) have helped to shape and with effective study aids such as end-of-section review questions. The goal of my mini-lecture on textbooks is to help students understand the value of a textbook in relation to its cost. I hope that they see their textbook as something more than just 600 pages of printing, so that they begin their course feeling good about having purchased a book.

Motivating Students to Read Textbooks - Once students have purchased a book, the next challenge, of course, is to get them to read it. The survey results indicate that there are several instructor characteristics that may help.

  • For one, I have found it useful to explain at the beginning of a course that I do not lecture on everything in the assigned readings. I assure them that my lectures will be much more interesting if they are not just lists of details they can read for themselves.

  • Following through on this statement by testing students as thoroughly on required reading material as on my lectures builds on their belief, as expressed in the survey, that the textbook as the most important source of information in the course.

  • Using the book frequently in class is also important. For example, I have students turn to the charts, graphs, and tables in the book when I am lecturing rather than using the corresponding transparencies or Power Point slides provided by the publisher. When students don't have a book, they feel uncomfortable and sense they are missing something. To avoid that feeling in the future, they bring their book to class (This is a good example of negative reinforcement for my lecture on operant conditioning!).

  • Another helpful strategy is to explicitly point out the book's pedagogical features. For example, guiding the class through reading a short section and then answering the questions at the end can help them realize how the questions can be useful in assessing their understanding and memory of the text. This practice also helps illustrate that the book's section headings and end-of-section questions provide them with a framework for a useful text-reading strategy, that of breaking the text into manageable parts.

I have found that there has to be some kind of immediate material incentive to get students to keep up with reading assignments. My strategy is to offer them an opportunity to earn a grade with nearly 100 percent chance of success.

One such technique is called a "Course Overview" exam (5 percent of course grade). On a certain day early in the course, students must bring to class the book, syllabus, and student supplement (a study guide for our department final at Houston Community College), all of which they use to answer 85 true-false questions about these materials (e.g. Syllabus: Research papers are penalized 5 points for each day late; Student Supplement: The term working memory is on the department final; Textbook: The principles of operant conditioning are explained in Chapter 5).

This technique ensures that all students will get a book early in the course because they will understand that this is likely to be a very easily obtained good grade. Typically only one student per semester shows up without a book for the overview exam. Although they all believe they are going to get 100 percent of the questions right, in reality, the average is typically around 85 with a very small standard deviation. And, yes, some do fail.

Another of my strategies is to reward students for attending class and for bringing their books with surprise in-class assignments or homework that require use of the textbook (usually 10 percent of course grade). I strictly adhere to a must-be-present rule regarding these assignments, so students who are absent receive a 0 for a missed assignment.

Of course allowances must be made for absences resulting from illness, a death in the student's family, or college-sponsored activities such as student government association functions, athletics, debate tournaments, and the like. Typically, I manage this problem by dropping two or three assignments at the end of the semester. One way of managing the absence problem is to drop each student's two or three lowest grades, including any zeros resulting from absences, without regard to the reasons for absences. This might be called the "absolution" solution or, in the case of some students, the "unmerited grace" approach. Another solution, which we might call the "penance" technqiue, and one, that might be more consistent with the goal of motivating students to read, would be to provide text-based assignments only to students who have legitimate excuses for absences.

When a make-up assignment is absolutely necessary, one type of activity I have found to be useful for this purpose is a true-false quiz for which students have to provide textbook documentation of their answers. A response of "true" must be justified by a quotation and page number, and a response "false" must be accompanied by both a quote and a restatement of the item that renders it true. Course support software, such as Blackboard and WebCT, provides a way of managing make-up assignments that helps instructors avoid the problems such as keeping up with which students need which assignments, which of them have completed the assignments, the various individual time limits for completing the make-ups, and so on. Once I post an assignment on my course homepage, with a pre-set time limit, it is the student's responsibility to get it done. Whatever approach is taken towards absences, obviously it should be thought out in advance of implementing the in-class assignment technique and appropriate notice of the policy provided to students in the syllabus or verbally.

In-class assignments such as these provide intermittent reinforcement for attending class. In a typical semester, there is some kind of assignment in about two-thirds of class meetings. Predictably, this strategy dramatically increases attendance. This is interesting because these assignments count so little toward students' course grade. It seems likely that their power to shape student behavior lies in the students' beliefs that they are opportunities for success that are very much under their control.'

In addition to influencing attendance, all of these assignments provide students with opportunities to actively process and rehearse text information. Most of my in-class assignments are application exercises (either group or individual) where students have to classify behavior according to developmental stages, types of defense mechanisms, psychological disorders, or personality traits. Exercises that require them to use brief scenarios to distinguish between independent and dependent variables or punishment and negative reinforcement are also useful.

Consensus Groups - I also use a variation on "The Great Debate" technique described by Thiagarajan (1988), which I call the""consensus group." In groups of three to four, students read brief stories pitting one character against another with regard to a psychological principle. For example, one story involves a 3-year-old boy whose grandmother paints his fingernails with red polish at the boy's request. The grandmother and the boy's father disagree about the potential effects of this event on his gender role development and sexual orientation. Each group must come to a consensus about which character they believe to be right, find justification for their position in the textbook, and collectively write a one-age essay explaining their position.

Activities that require readers to apply the knowledge they gain from reading a text in this way have been shown to facilitate learning (Hynd, Holschuh, & Nist, 2000). And, reading a text under mild time pressure, as happens when students have to use the text to complete these exercises within class time, increases both comprehension and memory for text (Walczyk, Kelly, Meche, & Braud, 1999). Further, students usually enjoy participating in them, especially the consensus groups.

Take-Home Exams - Perhaps the most powerful application of the notion that students will read if they believe they have virtually 100 percent chance of succeeding on a test or assignment is the take-home exam. To facilitate maximum student effort, ideal questions for a take-home exam are those that require a lot of reading and weighing of one alternative against another. Answering such questions increases the amount of text students read, the number of times they re-read, and the degree to which they engage in active processing about what is read (Bruning, Schraw, & Ronning, 1999).

Students also ask an enormous number of questions about the items on the take-home exam, each of which is an opportunity for me to expand upon whatever is the subject matter of the item. And I am doing so in response to an expressed desire-to-know on the part of the student. Thus students are more likely to attend to and remember what I say than if I deliver a lecture based on what I think they want or need to know about a topic to better understand it. I have also found that using very difficult questions discourages students from copying each others' answers; they seem less likely to trust another student's judgment with regard to difficult questions than questions that require them to do nothing more than look up definitions of terms. The distribution of grades on my take-home exams is highly similar to my conventional tests, but with a higher average (usually in the low 80s). I usually have four exams in a 16-week semester, one of which is a take-home.

As we all know, all the time that goes into choosing a book goes to waste if there is not some follow-up mechanism for getting students to read it. And again, as we all know, we cannot take students' reading for granted just because we test on the text. We should think of textbook use as a two-fold process. First, we have to adopt the best book we can find, balancing cost against students' preferred features and our own priorities. Second, we need to be good motivational psychologists and use both cognitive and behavioral approaches to increase the chances that students will read their textbooks. On the cognitive side, we can provide information about the value of books, try to persuade students that textbooks are good investments, and model the importance of the book by referring to it in class. On the behavioral side, we can immediately and tangibly reward students for reading by using strategies such as the course overview exam, surprise in- and out-of-class assignments, and take-home exams.

Bruning, R., Schraw,G., & Ronning, R. (1999). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Or any such text that includes a discussion of the instructional variables that influence learning from text.

Dewey, R. A. (1995). Finding the right introductory psychology textbook. APS Observer, March, 1995, 32-33, 35.

Hynd, C., Holschuh, J. & Nist, S. (2000). Learning complex scientific information: Motivation theory and its relation to student perceptions. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 16, 23-57. A study involving high school and college students in which the effects of various kinds of instructional strategies on comprehension and retention of text-based information were measured.

Klusewitz, M. & Lorch, R. (2000). Effects of headings and familiarity with a text on strategies for searching a text. Memory and Cognition, 28, 667-676. A study using videotaped observations of college student' textbook search strategies under a variety of conditions.

Thiagarajan, S. (1988). Reading Assignments: 13 interactive Strategies for Making Sure Your Students Read Them. Performance and Instruction, 27, 45-49. An article describing a number of innovative game-type activities that increase the likelihood of students completing reading assignments.

Walczyk, J., Kelly, K., Meche, S., & Braud, H. (1999). Time limitations enhance reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24, 156-165. A study of the effects of mildly time-limited, severely time-limited, and no-time-limitation conditions on college students' reading comprehension and memory for text.

DENISE BOYD holds a Bachelor of Arts in French, and Master of Education and Doctor of Education degrees in educational psychology from the University of Houston. She has been a psychology instructor in the Houston Community College System since 1988. From 1995 until 1998, she chaired the Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology Department at HCCS-Central College. Boyd, with Helen Bee, is the author of Lifespan Development (Third Edition) and The Developing Child (Tenth Edition) published by Allyn & Bacon. She is the author, with Genevieve Stevens, of Current Readings in Lifespan Development, also published by Allyn & Bacon. Boyd is a licensed psychologist and has presented a number of papers at professional meetings reporting research in various areas of child, adolescent, and adult development. She has also presented workshops for teachers whose students range from preschool to college.

TEACHING TIPS provides the latest in practical advice on the teaching of psychology and is aimed at current and future faculty of two- and four-year colleges and universities. Teaching Tips informs teachers about the content, methods, and profession of teaching. Send article ideas or draft submissions directly to Baron Perlman, Teaching Tips Editor, Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901-8601; 920-424-2300; Fax:920-424-1204; or perlman@uwosh.edu.

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University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
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University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh