What do students do about the textbooks and additional materials we assign?

At first, that might seem like an incredibly dumb question.  If you’re in a salty mood, you might snarl, “Buy them and learn or fail the damn course.”  For most of us, I suspect the thought of not buying the additional materials required (or even recommended) for a class might seem utterly absurd. When I was an undergraduate, I remember being warned not to buy used books because they would likely have someone else’s notes in the margins, leaving no room for me to write my own (ok, maybe not the most convincing argument). Nonetheless, I definitely remember feeling like a slacker if I didn’t show up to the first day of class with a shiny new version of each required text.

Fast forward 30-odd years and things couldn’t be more different. The cost of textbooks has risen even faster than the cost of college tuition (have a look at this graphic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), even as the cost of recreational books has gone down.

More and more, it appears that students are renting textbooks, borrowing from friends, or just foregoing some books altogether. The Chronicle of Higher Ed highlighted a study in 2011 suggesting that 7 of 10 students have skipped buying a textbook because of cost. More recent online columns and blogs seem to perpetuate the notion, if not brag outright, that a student can succeed in college without buying books. In January, the Atlantic published a longer piece examining the reality that, despite the surge in online and other edtech resources, the cost of textbooks and/or their online equivalent remains exorbitantly high. And in the context of the financial pressures that many students experience just paying tuition, room, and board, I guess it shouldn’t surprise us much when already financially-strapped students take advantage of any alternative that might save them some money.

A few weeks ago, about forty faculty and staff gathered in the library to kickstart a conversation about Augustana students and textbooks. After discussing the financial realities of textbook costs, the conversation turned toward the ways in which we choose the textbooks and additional materials that we assign. Although this is something that we might take for granted at times (especially if one might be scrambling to put a course together), it’s an issue that more and more folks are trying to address.  I’m sure there are plenty of examples, but three impressive efforts include the Open Textbook LibraryCollege Open Textbooks, and the Open Educational Resources Commons. Most recently, 40 colleges have made the move to simply go without textbooks and only use freely available learning resources (see here and here).

At the end of the meeting, it seemed clear that we really need to know more about our student’s engagement with the textbooks and additional materials assigned in our courses. One person posed an exceedingly logical suggestion: could we add a couple of questions to the end of every IDEA course feedback survey at the end of spring term asking about:

  • The amount that students spent on textbooks for a given class
  • How often they used the textbooks and additional materials they bought for that class
  • How effective those materials were in helping the student learn in that class

It seems like this would be particularly useful information. But before acting on any of these ideas, I think it’s important to know what you all think about gathering this information, what questions you might have about what is done with this information, and any other concerns you might have about this project.

So . . . . what do you think?  Should we ask these questions?  What should we do with the data?  If we ask these questions, how do we need to be careful and transparent so that whatever we find, 1) gives us a deeper understanding of our students’ engagement with textbooks and additional materials, and 2) genuinely spurs our perpetual effort to improve in a way that fosters inclusiveness and understanding.

Please – send me your thoughts.  If you know my email, you can send them there. If you’d rather post in the comments section below, please post away.

Make it a good day,




3 thoughts on “What do students do about the textbooks and additional materials we assign?

  1. Susan Townzen says:

    Hi Mark,

    In the past, at the end of each course, I have surveyed students regarding reading materials, asking their opinion on each item. It takes a while to make the handout (especially if they have read several articles), but then you know which readings they thought were worthwhile. Sometimes just changing one or two articles/chapters makes a big difference. That way they are not investing time or money in materials they do not believe were worthwhile. So, yes, I definitely like the survey idea.

    This term, when I realized how cost prohibitive my texts were for one course, I contacted McGraw-Hill to ask that they compile eBooks. If you are unfamiliar, they can compile texts that only include the chapters you will be using in class. Doing so brought the cost for two texts down, from $125 to $49.69 and from $142.50 (used) or $190 (new) to $55.45, respectively. With McGraw-Hill, when you create eBooks, they also provide complimentary copies. One I kept for myself; the other I placed on reserve in the library for students who still were struggling to pay for the texts.

    It’s not a perfect system, but it does make the texts more affordable.

    (I wasn’t at the meeting, so hopefully haven’t repeated info that already was discussed.)

  2. Brian Leech says:

    Hi Mark (and anyone else who’s reading this),

    I think it’s great that people on our campus are having this conversation. I don’t know if it came up, but there is quite a difference across disciplines–buying four novels for a literature course typically don’t add up to as steep a price as a big science textbook. Plus, it’s not like there are open-access materials that can somehow “substitute” for actually reading a novel.

    During my undergrad, the main answer to the question of cost was that the books would be on reserve at the library. This solution can be cost-prohibitive when a library doesn’t have much of an acquisitions budget, although sometimes professors can put their own personal copies (if they have an extra) there. During grad school, I actually had a number of courses that placed needed books in the library into a locker for which everyone in the class had a locker code. That’s obviously not a good campus-wide answer, though.

    One thought that just occurred to me is that not requiring textbooks has probably already altered pedagogy for many of us in the social sciences and humanities. Despite complaints from my friends at academic presses, I often require more articles than books in my courses, largely to save students money. I know I’m not the only one to do so. One drawback to this approach is that students then have fewer experiences reading, understanding, and retaining a whole in-depth narrative and/or argument, whether in the form of a monograph or a novel. I’m not sure if this situation is a real problem–but it occurs to me that faculty often complain about students’ attention span, then they never ask their students to stretch that attention span. When it comes to those kinds of books (novels, monographs), I’d prefer trying to find a situation where we can help students to purchase them so that they can keep them if they choose. There are many books from my undergrad that I come back to again and again. Many of them have nothing to do with what I do now, but they meant something to me when I was intellectually coming into my own. They refresh me when I delve back into their pages. There are some books from my undergrad that I’d love to come back to, but I either sold them back (short term gain, long term loss) or never bought them in the first place. Maybe it could be like an “Augie Choice” but for some of their textbook costs? I’m not sure what that kind of solution would look like, but I’d prefer it be given to everyone, like Augie Choice is.

  3. Farah Marklevits says:

    As someone interested in the teaching of reading, I’m so glad the college is having the conversation your blog post shared with us.

    I want to emphasize that use and/or reading of textbooks isn’t simply guided by student economic pressures and choices but by course design and instructor pedagogy around reading. This design and pedagogy, I think, is one of the “hidden curricula” in our courses.

    For example, when instructors instruct students to “read x pages for Wednesday” students learn that reading is simply running their eyes across the words until the words end (and not necessarily a process they should adapt to meet specific purposes of reading for that lesson/course). When instructors explain what the reading means in class or use class time for activities that don’t directly engage with students’ understanding of and responses to assigned reading, students learn that their own reading doesn’t matter. If students come across these approaches enough, I can’t blame them for doubting the value of buying the book or reading the ones they do have in their hands. I’d like to see an IDEA question that somehow gets at course design intersects with choices about purchasing and using required texts.

    Another thing I’d like to point out is that, as far as I know (and here maybe Lucas Street and/or Katie Hanson can help clarify), the jury is still out about the cognitive differences between reading online/digital versus print materials. If the college makes any broad recommendations about media, I’d like to see that they are supported by reading research and pedagogy that do not create new or more complicated hurdles to comprehension.

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