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How do professors choose their textbooks?

Dear Professor,

How do you select our textbooks? Some courses I have taken have really good textbooks, while others seem to be inadequate for the material or, worse, irrelevant. So how do you, as a teacher, decide whether a textbook is right for your course?

Dear Student,

This is a very good question, and I’m delighted that you asked. As one of my colleagues put it, “Choosing a good textbook is [an essential] part of teaching. We labor over that decision so much that usually we end up being critical of every book we adopt because we know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And we often don’t know if it is sufficient until we have taught from it for a few semesters.”

Because teaching styles and personalities differ from professor to professor, you should know that the considerations we give to choosing textbooks are also diverse. However, certain general agreements emerge.

Many instructors have textbook publishers send them several texts and they read through all of them to determine which would be best for you. One professor explains:

“I review all the books available for a topic I am teaching and select the best, given my teaching style and the approach I want to take in the course. I do not use a threshold to decide if a book is ‘good enough’ because if it wasn’t good enough, I would need to write a new text— and I have never found the available books to be so deficient that I needed to [do so]. Instead, I simply pick the best book available.”

The quality of the textbook is so important to some professors that they write it themselves in order to personally ensure that quality. This is actually a pretty common sentiment, believe it or not:

“In one course I teach regularly, I wrote the text myself because there are no good textbooks. Many good texts are available, but they [tend to be] clones of each other, and the pedagogy is appalling.”

Students should also find it comforting that most professors aren’t eager to waste their money:

“I actually don’t use a textbook because I haven’t been able to find one that is relevant to my course material. If most of the material is tangential to what I cover, it doesn’t make sense that I would have students spend the money to buy it.”

“I consider the price of each of the books I’m thinking about, and if one is out of line pricewise compared to most of the others, I don’t consider it any longer.”

Many teachers understand the complexities of choosing a good text for a course. As one professor explained, “[Obviously, higher quality is better than lower.] However, quality involves several competing attributes and, most importantly, is constrained by course objectives (especially content objectives), course level and length, student preparation, and cost.”

To summarize, here is a list of questions (listed in priority) one professor considers when he decides whether or not to use a certain textbook:

  1. Does the book’s content match well the learning objectives for the course?
  2. Is the book’s presentation style consistent with how I think students would most consistently learn?
  3. Do the problems in each chapter provide good learning experiences for the students?
  4. Do students like the presentation in the textbook (layout, figures, etc.)? Is the book engaging?
  5. Is the textbook reasonably free from gross typographical and other errors?
  6. Is the cost reasonable?
  7. Do other professors like the textbook as well? (If they do, students are more likely to be able to resell it.)
  8. Does the publisher use a reasonable time frame between new editions? (If the publisher changes editions too frequently, students have trouble reselling the book. If the publisher changes too infrequently, the material can get out of date.)

Rest assured that many, if not all, of the professors here at BYU take great care in selecting the textbooks they choose for their courses. However, as you probably have been able to infer by reading this column, your teachers depend on your feedback because you are the consumer—the bottom line! If a textbook isn’t working for you, let your teacher know. The selection process isn’t infallible, and your feedback likely will influence the teacher’s future decisions. Textbook selection, as it turns out, ideally results from of the joint efforts of both teachers and students.

Comments

Lanae Lewis &mdash Nov 12, 2011 @ 10:24 am

Thank you so much for this valuable information. As a future educator learning the ropes of course development it was great to have insight into the perspective of current educators. The list of questions presented is something I will use from now on in consideration of textbook selection.

Lisa Jackson &mdash Aug 31, 2013 @ 1:29 am

I wonder who these textbook publishers are, and how professors find out about them?

I ask because I’m trying to find suitable textbooks, in order to brush up my knowledge on an array of subject areas.

Amber &mdash Sep 24, 2013 @ 8:54 am

I have run into the problem of a professor who did not read the course description and is teaching a much more advanced course than what I and my other classmates signed up for. I signed up for a math course that is applied and he is teaching a theory course. I have checked many other classes that teach the course I signed up for so I know this to be the case. I also checked what universities use the text I am using and for which course and I have found it is universally used in an advanced course, one where the students have already taken a first course in the topic. This is frustrating because I want to learn the material, but without the foundation I and my classmates are floundering. 50% of the students dropped the course after the second week.

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