Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Textbook or No Textbook

Textbook or No Textbook

The question of if and which textbook often comes up among astronomy teachers and the opinions range pretty widely – when opinions range widely, I love to get into the frey, so here goes my $0.02.

Most folks who have moved away from textbooks entirely face a pretty serious problem in that the professor and the professor’s notes become the sole source of knowledge and expertise in the class. Sure students CAN go look up stuff and get another perspective, but my sense is that they don’t. So, the result is an implicit and sizeable pressure for students to memorize what professors say (or type) and that is what they are able to answer on exams: professors feel a sizeable pressure to only ask questions about what they specifically talk about in class. For my money, this is a lose – lose bet. Seems to me that the professor’s job should be about linking students’ thinking to the ideas of astronomy, not about delivering the ideas in their entirety.

Some folks have tried using trade books or coffee table books or extensive fact-based web sites. Although these are attractive, particularly in how they are illustrated, they lack the tried-and-true pedagogical tools that many, many students, publishers, and authors have worked through and tried to perfect over the years – explicitly stated learning goals, headings to structure student thinking, end of chapter summaries with review questions, and, gasp, even bold faced words to help focus student attention. I’m not saying that these things are perfect and are not often overused, BUT, what I would say is that these pedagogical clues are important enough to student readers that having them in a textbook is more important than the pretty pictures and pedagogy-less writing of coffee table books.

So, for my money, I think using a textbook is an important part of the introductory science survey course. Yes, they are expensive, but in the grand scheme of things that go into a college education, they really aren’t. My most convincing evidence is that the $35 that students pay for the Lecture-Tutorials seems outrageous for a “works book” BUT, students rarely complain because they really, really use the book as part of their learning and they find it valuable. If students felt that the astronomy textbook helped them learn the material and they found it valuable, they wouldn’t care if it cost $200 (of course, if you haven’t looked at the half priced e-books for students as an option, you should – they are getting really good!). I think the problem that most astronomy faculty face related to textbooks is simply OPERATOR ERROR. If professors never ask students to be responsible for learning from the textbook without the instructor repeating or, even worse, and I’ve seen it, reading from the textbook during lecture, then why would students ever think a textbook is valuable. This problem is much more well documented in physics than astronomy, where many physics professors don’t’ use the textbook for anything other than problems at the end of the chapter. Eric Mazur says that, even at Harvard, students won’t read unless you require it of them. I think this applies no matter what your student demographic is (I say this for those who are about to say, “but my community college students couldn’t possibly read the book” – I don’t see any truly convincing evidence of this – readability on astronomy books show that many are at pre-high school level nowadays)

Now, my opinion is that students should be required to learn from the textbook and that portions of exams should be allocated to material from the textbook that is NOT covered in lecture. I don’t want to spend my valuable class time telling them facts they can read in a much more precise and attractive language than I can “say” during class time.

I will take this opportunity of a bully pulpit to comment on students using Wikipedia (since you’ve read this far). Numerous studies have been done on the likes of Wikipedia which almost always come to the same conclusion--the community checking nature of it results in a higher accuracy rate than even the most traditionally respected of resources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or even your astronomy textbook. Therefore, I’m perfectly comfortable allowing students to use Wikipedia as a resource – the research clearly shows that it is as accurate as their textbook, if not more so. However, I recognize that some faculty are loathe to allow students to use Wikipedia, partially because they hate to deal with the click copy paste approach many students use and partially because it seems too convenient and students should have to go to the library to do research. (Of course, I’m trying to remember the last time I had to leave my computer to go to the library to look up something – them days are over methinks.) I am more inclined to give students creative writing assignments that click-copy-paste won’t work for.

Enjoying Laramie, Tim

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Professor of Science Education, timslaterwyo@gmail.com