A textbook problem: Seven suggestions to improve the quality of published resources Exploring the cognitive principles that make a good textbook

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In this article, I will explore ways in which we can make textbooks and other resources better for both teaching and learning in the light of a growing body of research in the field of cognitive science. However, I will not consider on this occasion the intrinsic value of textbooks (i.e. should we have them at all?) or the legitimate concerns arising from the influence that textbook publishers appear to have on government policy. Instead I will assume that textbooks can be a valuable resource for both teacher and student, even if only used occasionally, and therefore I will focus on providing practical suggestions for textbook design to maximise the chances of effective teaching and learning occurring when they are used.

The status quo: what is a textbook?

The textbook definition is “a book used as a standard work for the study of a particular subject”. As such, textbooks come in a variety of guises and formats, depending on the subject and age range. Most textbooks are printed on paper, which remains an excellent medium, but an increasing number of publishing houses and, notably, self-publishing practitioners are using digital media (e.g. epub, iBooks, web pages…) to deliver content and contribute to effective instruction and successful learning.

Whatever the case, in secondary education, textbooks typically…

…introduce new topics
…show suitable illustrations
…present topics in blocks
…which can encourage massed practice
…provide problems to solve
…promote independent study
…provide extra resources for regular assessment of learning

Textbooks differ in quality and some are much better than others, so not all textbooks will fit this bill. But the likelihood is that you probably recognise most or all of these characteristics in the textbooks you use. Since some approaches work better than others, it is reasonable to consider what we know about effective instruction and about how students learn best in order to improve how textbooks support teaching and learning.

 

What makes a great textbook?

These seven suggestions for improving the efficacy of textbooks are based teaching and learning strategies that have been shown to improve outcomes for students.

1. Introduce new topics by referencing to what the learner already knows

Many textbooks introduce new topics by making reference to learning objectives and then dive in to whatever new topic the chapter introduces. Since research shows that better learning occurs when students build on prior knowledge, my first suggestions would be to start chapters with activities that require students to recall and, in a sense, to activate prior knowledge, thus strengthening the connections between existing knowledge and the new concepts about to be learnt.

Activities that require retrieval of prior knowledge or that otherwise help make connections in the students’ minds between what’s already been learnt and what needs to be learnt should preface every new topic. Careful hyperlinking to previous content, multiple choice quizzes, cloze exercises or vocabulary tests are all easily embedded into digital resources to support this principle.

2. Pairing graphics with text

Clearly textbooks should be aesthetically appealing. We would be wise not to ignore affective factors that could influence negatively a learner’s disposition to learning before it has a chance to occur. Although stereotypically we tend to determine academic rigour to be in a negative correlation with the number of illustrations, it is possible to produce textbooks that are both appealing and supportive of effective instruction.

My second suggestion would be to eschew superfluous illustrations, which in any case often contribute to the textbook becoming dated prematurely, and focus on pairing text with graphics that will support learning by presenting examples and depicting overarching ideas or concepts and explaining how these ideas and concepts connect. Well designed graphic illustrations depict models clearly, represent abstract concepts and reveal underlying knowledge structures that will help learners make the required connections to take learning further.

In digital resources, graphics can literally come alive, which can be very useful, though it is important to keep animations simple so that they do not become a distraction in themselves. Carefully chosen video clips can also be embedded (or linked to from a paper based resource, using, for example, a QR code) to provide examples and facilitate conceptual understanding.

3. Interleaving different but related topics and skills

Interleaving is the practice of alternating different topics and types of content. Although intuitively we feel that we learn better by focusing on one topic or skill at a time, research shows that better learning is achieved when students interleave different but related topics or skills, rather than focusing on one topic or skill, then another topic or skill, and so on.

Although the illusion of better learning is achieved by studying topics in blocks, it is actually by interleaving topics and skills that long term retention and greater overall understanding are achieved. This would be very counterintuitive for publishers of content, as many teachers and students might find it confusing (and therefore feedback negatively) if a chapter, instead of focusing on one topic at a time, as it is the norm, alternates between related topics and skills as it seeks to connect to and build on existing knowledge.

Students and teachers may find this approach less neat and more messy, but research shows conclusively that interleaving leads to better overall learning in the long term. Once again, careful hyperlinking between related topics can support the interleaving of key topics and concepts if a digital format is being employed.

4. Encourage distributed practice

Closely related to the principle of interleaving of topics and skills, distributed or spaced practice is based on the fact that learners remember information better when they are exposed to it multiple times throughout a course. Textbooks generally adopt a modular structure: study one topic, assess it, move on. Job done. Good luck for the exam.

In linear courses (such as IGCSE and the new GCSE and A level), which typically last two years, it is conceivable that a topic that is covered during the first term of the course is never returned to before a hastily arranged revision session just before study leave. Although teachers can claim that the topic has been covered — it has — they can’t claim to have covered it in a pedagogically sound manner unless they have ensured the topic has been studied more than once during the teaching of the course.

Textbook publishers can facilitate distributed practice by structuring the content so that students are exposed to key topics and concepts more than once and by building in review opportunities weeks and even months after new knowledge is acquired.

5. Modelling solved problems

Modelling is a very effective classroom strategy. Textbooks too can make the most of the powerful effect of modelling by alternating problems with written-out solutions, worked examples (i.e. where the steps to achieve the correct solution are laid out) and problems that the student needs to solve independently. This is also a kind of interleaving.

This approach ensures that students become familiar, not just with the mechanics of problem solving, but also with the underlying principles required to master the topic in question. The student can then be guided to more complex but related problems or questions and, as the students become more proficient, the textbook can begin to increase the number of problems or questions for the students to solve or answer independently.

There are probably many textbooks that already take this or a similar approach occasionally, perhaps to help with particularly tricky concepts, but few structure their exercises and tasks in this way from the outset.

6. Teach independent study skills to boost metacognition

Although many textbooks promote independent learning by, for example, pointing students to additional sources of reading, relevant websites, video clips, films or TV programmes, few actively seek to teach specific metacognitive strategies to help students become better learners in a particular subject. The view could easily be taken that, say, a French textbook’s purpose is to teach students French, not to teach students how to learn, which is the essence of metacognition in this context.

This view would seem entirely justifiable until one considers the important contribution that metacognitive strategies bring to successful learning. For example, research suggests that encouraging learners how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning by providing subject specific strategies and guidance has great impact on learning. Textbooks could interleave activities in which students are asked to identify where a task might go wrong; to lay out the steps required to achieve mastery of a topic; to produce their own worked examples, or to formulate appropriate questions and provide possible answers.

7. Frequent assessments for better retention

My final suggestion deals with assessment and how it is generally used to determine the extent to which a student has learnt the required material. In another counterintuitive turn, it turns out that frequent assessment is more helpful to the learning than it is to the assessing, that is to say, determining the extent of learning.

Many textbooks already come with supplementary assessment resources, usually in a separate pack, which sometimes needs to be purchased separately. In more than a few cases assessment is clearly an afterthought for many publishers. These assessments also come in the form of high stakes end-of-unit or end-of-module tests and end-of-year exams.

Given the unequivocal nature of the research that suggests that frequent retrieval practice boosts retention, my suggestion would be for textbooks to encourage frequent retrieval practice by design through low stakes or no stakes testing and quizzing, whereby testing and quizzing are a part of the learning process, not just the assessing.

The implications of this for digital resources are enormous. There are many software packages and digital publishing tools (e.g. Apple’s iBook Author) that facilitate the inclusion of frequent retrieval practice opportunities. Even if the textbook is primarily paper based, publishers could consider linking to dedicated web pages where learners can self-test and self-determine where they are in their learning and how to improve.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list and I will have missed out some important suggestions. I am also unfamiliar with any overarching factors, such as cost, that may cause publishers to pursue a certain course of action over another. Clearly, although I am an experienced teacher, these are the suggestions of someone with little publishing experience and should be taken as that.

This Twitter thread contains further suggestions to publishers from teachers. If you have any further considerations to contribute or have any comments about the points I have made, please do not hesitate to add to the conversation, below.

Plenary

Pick the correct option:

Sources and further reading

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Deans for Impact. The Science of Learning.

Education Endowment Foundation. Meta-cognition and Self-regulation.

Pomerance, L., Julie Greenberg, and Kate Walsh. Learning about learning.

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  1. Jose

    A very interesting post, thank you – and some very clear points. Having been involved in both using and (more recently) producing textbook materials I have some thoughts.

    I remember being encouraged, back in school, to add comments to my textbook long as it was in pencil. Turning a monologue into a conversation lets students engage more with the material, personalising it with examples that are more relevant, individual insights and links to previous content or future possibilities. It’s why I still prefer to read non-fiction on paper, even though you can add comments to ebooks.

    The ‘prior knowledge ‘ and ‘frequent assessment’ points are closely linked. If nothing else, repeating the original quiz will help students to see their own progress. Diagnostic testing, such that modelled by the York Science project, not only tells students *what* they’re getting wrong but what misconceptions are probably causing the difficulty.

    I very much like the idea of making specific reference to skills as well as content. This is something most science textbooks are already doing, especially as the ‘new’ practical approach at GCSE makes clearer links to skills.

    Many of these are things that we as teachers can try to add ‘on top’ of the textbook – effectively a filter through which students see the published material. I suspect publishers would find most teachers like the freedom to do this in their own way, and of course many online support materials – with an additional charge! – allow teachers to take a pick and mix approach.

    I wonder if teachers, working collaboratively within or between schools, might find it useful to create a ‘study approaches’ textbook guide online, matched to page numbers. This could include:
    links to videos or illustrations, simulations such as PhET
    randomly chosen test questions via GoogleForms, SurveyMonkey or similar
    Cloze or spot the mistake exercises
    Wider reading
    Mindmap and other graphic organisers
    Skills lists

    And of course lots more. I’m not sure where the line would be drawn between copyright infringement and fair use, but it could be a valuable resource. Maybe the publishers should get more us teachers on board!

What do you think?