Teaching to the Textbook

One thing I notice as a course designer amongst a large group of faculty is a heavy reliance on textbooks as the sole learning resource for their online classrooms. While there is certainly educational value in requiring readings from a textbook, textbooks are more often than not the center of the course. In many cases, the only learning resources instructors use are assigned readings from the required course text, though sometimes they’ll take a baby step further and include the textbook’s accompanying PowerPoints as an extra learning aid. 

Do you see anything wrong with this?

I do – it’s lack of authenticity in the course. By structuring a course solely around a textbook and using only publisher-supplied content for student resources and assessments, instructors are neglecting their audience, the students. Schools have a brand that’s used to attract a certain kind of student, but what happens when a school’s brand and what makes an institution unique doesn’t extend to the products (courses) being delivered to the consumer (the students)?  Students may begin to wonder why they are paying for the course, when they could by the textbook and access to resources from the publisher and complete their learning on their own; or worse yet, fail to see how a school’s mission extends into its curriculum.

Now, to clarify one thing, I’m not out to dismiss textbooks as a learning resource for students. In fact, when used appropriately, textbooks can definitely aid instructors in teaching content; some benefits include:

  • Textbooks can foster student interaction with content
  • Textbooks can provide a background of knowledge to help students progress towards meeting the outcomes for a given lesson
  • Textbooks give students the chance to engage with the material in a longer format and encounter multiple viewpoints.
  • The supplemental content from textbooks when used as a starting point can provide opportunities to create learning experiences

In short, they’re great for teaching facts and concepts but, on their own, aren’t so great at facilitating opportunities for real learning (which is why many major publishers are building course packages with supplemental book resources and activities). What can faculty do to make sure their programs are giving students the information they need in a way that’s meaningful and relevant? What can faculty do to customize their courses for their institution and their students?


Here are a few suggest I’ve found to get started:

  • Encourage faculty to develop their own set of unique learning resources. Even by selecting current research articles or educational videos to go along with the textbook readings they can easily create a more customized set of learning resources for students. Instructors might even explore MOOCs as a good alternative to a traditional textbook or a complementary teaching resource.
  • Encourage faculty to develop the assessments. Spotlight faculty who create authentic or practical assessments for students instead of relying on publisher test banks and textbook questions.
  • Encourage faculty to design learning environments that foster independent student exploration and research. Give students the tools they need to be successful, and let them take an active role in their learning. You might consider a scaffolding approach across courses as a way to build students’ skills in self-directed learning.


What’s your thoughts on the subject: How do you think your institution’s courses stand out? What are some ways your faculty are creating custom courses designed with your school’s students in mind?


2 thoughts on “Teaching to the Textbook

  1. Hey Lauren,

    This has always bugged me as well. I remember taking some textbook heavy courses in college and really felt like it was just busy work. I enjoy seeing instructor created learning resources. Not only does it put a face with a name, but it also gives a more personal touch.

    The biggest issue I encounter is when a course writer sends tons of textbook publisher content for their course (one large submission). At what point do you say, “I don’t recommend using this”? Many instructors are already set on using publisher content in their course, and many do not want to spend more time researching alternatives. Sure, suggesting some alternatives here and there is pretty easy. But, as we know, many use almost everything (PowerPoints, lectures, quizzes, etc.) to build their course. Suggesting other alternatives after receiving a bulk load of content may frustrate the course writer.


  2. Hey Tyler,

    Me too, it’s one of the reasons this was written this week. If we are going to get faculty to step away from the text and augment it, we’re going to have to change the culture at our schools. Sharing this with your PC this week might be a start so long as we don’t make it sound accusatory. My guess is that capitalizing on our relationships with administration and communicating our concerns with long term faculty are a good way to establish a culture of academic authenticity. If we start the conversation, we can start the ball rolling, and PCs and Deans are the place where change can happen.


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