“Students Don’t Read Textbooks”

In a previous post I wrote some advice on how to read a mathematics (or science) textbook. Having both taught and worked in the publishing world for many years, I have frequently heard (from publishers and other teachers) that students do not read textbooks. My experience working with students one-on-one has provided some details about this, and provided a couple of plausible explanations, which I’d like to discuss in this post.

Average students tend to become overwhelmed with the pace of a typical university mathematics (or science) course, and fall behind within a few weeks of the start of a course. The result is that they are constantly scrambling to catch up, and can’t do a proper job of studying. In the frenzy of deadline after deadline (assignments due, quizzes, tests, labs, lab reports, etc.), it’s all they can do to put out the next fire. As a result, they are very inefficient; they can’t take the time to do a good job of learning the material, which would involve reading the textbook, working through the examples, and doing many practice exercises. Instead, they devote far more time to completing the assignments than would be necessary if they had done many practice exercises, because they attempt the assignments before they really understand the material. But they don’t see an alternative, because the assignments are worth marks, and so they are (unfortunately) a higher priority than actually learning the material. By the end of the course, they understand very little, even if they have managed to score a decent grade.

Top students do tend to read their textbooks, and do all the other good things listed in the previous paragraph. However, when pressed for time, they fall back on just doing the assigned exercises.

For all students, desperation for marks is counterproductive to learning.

So it’s not for lack of desire that students do not read textbooks; it’s because they can’t keep up with our typical university courses that are overloaded with content, and delivered at too fast a pace for many students.

I believe that students would read textbooks, if conditions were different. For example, if courses were designed so that students could work at their own pace, then the pressure would be reduced, and many more students would take the time to read their textbooks.

There is a second reason that dissuades students from reading textbooks. They are unnecessarily difficult to read. There are two reasons for this.

First, there is a misplaced sense that students must be “challenged” by a textbook. But a first-year calculus textbook, for example, might be used by both mathematics majors and by other students; what is appropriate for one group is probably not appropriate for other groups. And I have no problem with challenging students, but do it in the right way. Making prose passages too terse, not explaining the big picture, not explaining the purpose of studying each section, not explaining a worked-out example in full detail, etc., etc.; none of these serves as proper challenges, but rather just works to frustrate readers. If you want to challenge students,  then do it by writing challenging activities, not by writing poorly and leaving students to figure it all out, especially when they have been ill-equipped to do so by having vast gaps in their high-school preparation.

The second reason that textbooks are difficult to read is that they try to please too large a market. Publishers produce books because they wish to make a profit, and so they attempt to please as large a market as possible. They do this by including as wide a range of content as is practical, in a way that will please the largest audience, and displease the fewest number of potential adopters. This is the reason for the bloated, dense textbooks that are so common at the first-year university level.

However, publishers are very sensitive to “page count.” Every extra page means more cost, and lower profit. Therefore, they encourage authors to include more topics, but to write in a very compact way, to keep the page count down. They justify this by saying, “students don’t read the prose anyway,” which is another way of saying, “students don’t read textbooks.”

I have had students come to my office saying, “I tried to read through Example 3, but I can’t understand it. Can you help me?” Typically, the problem is that the solution is written in such a compact style, with quite a number of steps of algebra compacted into one, that the logic of the solution is not apparent to the readers. If the logic were clearly explained, that would help, but including all the steps in a solution would help more. This type of defect is a feature of virtually all of the major, popular, successful, mainstream first-year mathematics textbooks.

Again, one could argue that students should be required to fill in some details by themselves. Sure, agreed. But then why bother to write textbooks, and why bother have students buy them? We live in an age where the internet is a vast repository of information. Why not assign students to read various web pages (most of which are not of high pedagogical quality, but so what) and then ask them to fill in the gaps? It would be a lot cheaper for students, and it would certainly be very challenging!

To me, the only reason for devoting the enormous amount of time needed to write a good textbook is to actually make it of use to readers. And this means to carefully choose AN audience (just one), and then write in a way that will serve that group of people.

If we do this, and if we change the structure of undergraduate education so that students have the time to learn properly, then students will read our books.

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About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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12 Responses to “Students Don’t Read Textbooks”

  1. Lawson says:

    I completely agree with this, as it is almost a perfect description of my second semester of University that is just coming to an end!

    • Santo says:

      And if it was like that for a top student like you, just imagine what a nightmare it is for an average student. Students are suffering needlessly, and we need to make some changes in the system.

  2. bob says:

    With some exceptions, textbooks are a mess. Captive consumers make for poor product. The good news is textbooks are on the way out via the web.

    And do away with all grades in all classes. When teachers are no longer primarily evaluators and gatekeepers of students, education’s entire paradigm shifts. Rote memorization (the easiest and therefore the most prevalent thing stressed and tested) diminishes in importance. Students understand they are learning long-term, for something more important than a grade. Any periodic evaluation of learning or check of competence should be done via standardized examination outside the classroom.

    • Santo says:

      Agreed, Bob!

      What we currently test is that which is easy to test, which neither gives a true indication of what students have learned, nor constitutes effective feedback, nor effectively supports students learning. I especially like your comment about how the entire educational paradigm will shift when the role of the teacher will change.

      We just have to be careful about how to construct the standardized examinations … what we have in many cases leaves much to be desired.

      Are you currently teaching? At which level?

  3. Bon Crowder says:

    Wow, Santo!

    I never even knew about that page count thing. First, it’s great to know what’s going on. Second, it will help focus folks on things to do to fix it.

    Thanks for the info (post linking to this to follow soon).

  4. Pingback: Where to Find the Best (and Cheapest) Math Resources

  5. hakea says:

    I agree. All through my undergraduate degree I did not read the textbooks. Work, kids, study – something has to give, and it’s usually the text book. I find with psychology texts there is too much blah, blah, blah. Too many words that mean very little, and I lose interest.

    I didn’t have to buy a single text book for my masters degree. What a relief – on my pocket and on my time. We had to read a LOT of journal articles though. And I devoured them, because once you get used to reading them, you realise that there are key parts of the article that give you all the juice you need.

    The last subject of my undergraduate degree, there was no text book, relatively few journal articles, but masses of practical and reflective exercises. It was the most challenging subject I have ever done, and the one I have learnt the most from, personally and academically.

    Great post Santo.

    • Santo says:

      Thanks, hakea!

      It’s nice to get your perspective, since most of my textbook experience is with math and science textbooks, which don’t have enough talking, in my opinion!

      But I agree, the talking should have some purpose, otherwise it really is just blah, blah, blah.

  6. gio says:

    Thank you for this information.That is a very short but a very clear article for me!
    I completely agree with you!

  7. Pingback: Where to Find the Best (and Cheapest) Math Resources | scienceformath

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