In an engaging first-person narrative, history professor Ryan Swanson started with two questions of interest to any teacher who uses textbooks: “What is the relationship between the instructor, the students, and the assigned text? How does one go about analyzing this crucial relationship?” (p. 289)
Swanson teaches large sections of Western Civilization at a big state school. “In this class, I focus on demonstrating to my students that history is a debate, encouraging students to think critically and fostering analytical writing skills.” (p. 290) He requires the purchase of a textbook, which resulted in an “ill-defined, nagging feeling” that motivated his exploration of textbook use. “I suspected that my students were not reading the assigned textbook and articles with the attention or consistency I had intended.” (pp. 294-5)
His concern about the role of the textbook in his course mirrors the larger debate about textbooks that is occurring across higher education, and he writes about some of the salient issues involved in the debate. Textbooks are being digitized and read on a variety of mobile devices. Students also often rent access to a text, as opposed to buying the book. Then there's “the use of hypertext [which] allows the reader to control the available information in radical new ways.” (p. 292) Swanson wonders if this reformatting of content will encourage more reading of text material. Will students make use of hyperlinks and find their ways to even more information? Those in favor of digitization say yes! Swanson thinks this change “brings at least as many questions as answers.” (p. 292)
The cost of the textbooks also plays a central role in current debates. Swanson cites survey results done in Virginia that document a 21.8 percent increase in the average price of supplies and textbooks between 2005 and 2011. Finally, there's the contention that textbooks play into old, outmoded thinking about teaching. Most textbooks contain voluminous amounts of material that contribute to the information overload that plagues students' efforts to learn in most courses. These texts tend to reinforce the idea of teaching as the transfer of information.
Alongside this larger debate involving the role textbooks play in this digital age, Swanson also has some concrete evidence that textbooks are not functioning as he hoped in his large survey courses. His lowest marks on the student rating form were on the item “The textbook and/or assigned readings helped me understand the material.” He adds, “My scores on this prompt alone ranked consistently below the averages of my department, division, and the university (fortunately, there were not comparisons beyond this—nation, world, universe, etc.).” (p. 295)
And so, as part of a Scholars of Studying Teaching Collaborative Group, Swanson decided to evaluate how students in two sections of his survey course were using the textbook. In one section, he made the textbook optional, and in the other the purchase of it was required. He then surveyed students in both sections. In the section where the text was required, 90 percent of the students reported purchasing it, but only 33 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was a “useful and important component of the course.” Even more interesting, 79 percent of the students indicated that even though they'd purchased the text, when they needed information to supplement what was being covered in class, they went to the Internet before their textbook. “This proclivity came despite the fact that 65 percent of students deemed textbooks to be more reliable than Internet sources.” (p. 297)
When the text was optional, 20 percent of the students still purchased it. “In terms of student grades, the class final average stayed relatively consistent (within two percentage points) regardless of whether the textbook was assigned or optional.” (p. 298)
Fewer than 25 percent of the students believed that future students should be required to purchase the text. “After some deliberation, I concluded that I agreed with the students' sentiment. In order to rationalize having students spend $75 to $100 for a textbook, I need to be committed to that text. I'm not. I need to require that students read the textbook for exams and papers. I don't.” (p. 299)
Given these details, what Swanson discovered will not come as a surprise to many faculty. What makes this a useful piece of scholarship is his willingness to get beyond what he hoped—or what he would like to believe was happening— to the reality of student actions and experiences in his courses. As he notes, “Understanding this about my teaching and my course provides a substantial and useful piece of information upon which future changes can be made.” (p. 299)
Reference: Swanson, R.A., (2014). A relationship analysis: A professor, 500 students, and an assigned textbook. The History Teacher, 47 (2), 289-302.