Planning a Course: Choosing and Using Instructional Materials

Adapted with permission from “Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook” (© 1997) by the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Textbooks

Books are a highly portable form of information and can be accessed when, where, and at whatever rate and level of detail the reader desires. Research indicates that, for many people, visual processing (e.g., reading) is faster than auditory processing (e.g., listening to lectures), making textbooks a very effective resource (McKeachie, 1994). Reading can be done slowly, accompanied by extensive note taking, or it can be done rapidly, by skimming and skipping. There are advantages to both styles, and you may find it useful to discuss their merits with your students.

Although a well-written book can engage and hold student interest, textbooks have several major limitations. Books are not inherently interactive. However, if students are encouraged to ask questions while they read, seek answers within the text, and identify other sources to explore ideas not contained in the text, they will become active readers and gain the maximum benefit from their textbooks. To meet the needs of a broad audience, texts are often thick, which can overwhelm students seeking key information. Texts are often forced to rely on historical or dated examples, and they rarely give a sense of the discovery aspects of research and the disorganization of information facing modern researchers.


How to Choose and Use an Appropriate Textbook

Before selecting a text, it is important to know what books are currently on the market. Colleagues who teach the same or a similar course (in your department or at other institutions) are good sources for ideas and information. For example, they may know whether a textbook contains errors. Your campus bookstore's manager can provide the name and phone number for textbook sales representatives from many different companies. Science education publications carry advertisements from major publishers, and some feature a book review section or annual book buyer's guide. Professional society meetings serving faculty in your academic discipline also provide a chance to talk to publishers and see their new textbooks. Many companies will supply review copies to potential textbook adopters, in return for information about the course in which it might be used.

There are a number of factors to consider when selecting a textbook. To be of greatest value to students, the objectives of a textbook must be consistent with the objectives and goals you set for the course. Authors often try to meet particular objectives in their books, and a given book may or may not meet your goals. Skim the preface to see whether you share the author's approach to the subject. Consider how the table of contents aligns with your course syllabus and teaching philosophy:

In addition to content, evaluate the text structure and layout. Studies indicate that the "principle-first" structure, in which a concept or principle is stated explicitly and then supporting evidence is presented, is most effective for long-term retention and understanding by novice readers.


Using the Textbook Effectively

Once you have chosen a textbook, help your students use it effectively. Allow time during the first week of class to introduce the text and outline your strategy for its use. Encourage your students to use the text by asking them questions that require higher-order critical thinking skills drawing on and extending its material, methods, or examples. Simple factual questions are of little value to long-term retention or true understanding. Higher-order questions help students to think about readings, ask questions, integrate material, and develop answers in their own words.

When appropriate, help students to understand that a textbook is not always the final authority on a topic, particularly in fields where new information is discovered at a very fast rate. Students may learn that it is O.K. to question the text if the instructor also openly disagrees with some interpretations or approaches in the book. The instructor can use different interpretations as examples of unresolved problems and illustrate critical thinking by presenting reasons and evidence for differing opinions. However, be careful not to develop such a negative attitude toward the text that students stop using it, or question the teacher's judgment for choosing it.


What If I Can't Find the "Perfect" Textbook?

After a thorough search, you may find that the book you want simply does not exist. Publishers have realized this and have taken steps to customize their products to meet faculty needs. It is possible to select certain chapters of a given book to be bound as a volume. It is also possible to combine chapters of different books from the same publisher. This approach offers considerable flexibility, given that many smaller textbook publishers are now subsidiaries of larger corporations. Another option is to combine resources from several different publishers and to offer students a "course packet" instead of a textbook. Many college bookstores and copy centers will work with faculty members to collect chapters, readings, and supplements. They obtain the required copyrights, and bind and sell custom-designed materials tailored for a particular course.


Considerations in Choosing Instructional Material 

  • Does the material match your educational goals? What additional materials will you need to give to students?
  • Does the material present information in a variety of ways, using text, pictures, graphs, and real-world examples?
  • How will students use the materials to reach your course objectives ? You should suggest to students how to get the most out of the materials.
  • Is the material accessible and clear to your students' level of understanding? Make sure that students will have sufficient background to comprehend the material. After a few weeks in class, ask students how they feel about the materials, and evaluate the materials' effectiveness at the end of the course.
  • Consider building an online component of the course that offers lecture notes, supplemental learning materials, and sample tests.
  • Select textbooks with an accompanying study guide or interactive CD-ROM for additional learning opportunities.
  • Supplement the main textbook with additional readings. This alerts students to the existence of other resources and new research.
  • Select material with gender-neutral language and no stereotypes . If this is not possible, point out these problems in class, and give your students an opportunity to discuss them.

Do not assume that all students will recognize cultural or historical references familiar to you. Consider administrating a diagnostic pretest to determine what your students know before referring to a specific cultural reference.

Include multiple perspectives on each topic of the course rather than focusing solely on a single perspective. For example, if discussing global climate change, try to bring up the documents submitted to the U.N. by Indigenous Nations concerning climate change and related policy. Also, it would be important to include a discussion of climate change impacts on Native lands and homelands when addressing the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Assessment Synthesis Report on Climate Change.

Include materials written or created by people of different backgrounds and/or perspectives. If all materials have only male European or American scientists, the message sent to students may be that you devalue the contributions of and scholarship produced by people of color and women. Even if you teach only majority students, you can set a good example by including diverse perspectives and opinions.

Use a text that reflects new scholarship and research about previously underrepresented groups, discussing the contributions made to the field by women or various ethnic groups, examining the obstacles these pioneering contributors had to overcome. However, do not make such issues seem like "special topics"- make sure that no single group is held up as the norm.

Examine course content for inaccurate information and the absence of relevant perspectives. Prepare for each class session by reading upcoming assignments in order to identify omissions, misleading interpretations, and intentional or inadvertent expressions of personal opinion by the author. You may then alert students to problems with the text and encourage students to read critically themselves. For example, an engineering course might use a book that focuses on the advantages of nuclear power. Since this is something there is current disagreement about, if the book does not acknowledge health risks to those living near nuclear waste disposal sites, students might be prompted to consider and discuss their degree of agreement with the text.

Create a classroom climate that encourages and expects questions about and critiques of course content. Such a climate will help to create a norm of critical thinking that will facilitate the learning process for all students. As students share their critiques with the class, other students will benefit by being exposed to different interpretations, perspectives, and concerns regarding course material.