Donít Feel Guilty about Actually Using the Student Textbook

Donít Feel Guilty about Actually Using the Student Textbook

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 5,018 views

There has been a movement in recent years against actually using of the student textbook in class.

This may be in part because students can’t or won’t read textbooks, especially ones with highly technical or specialized vocabulary, such as science texts. But the trend has spread to the humanities, also, even in classes where reading is part of the content actually being taught. As part of this movement, teachers are expected to supplement their lectures with intricately designed handouts, PowerPoint’s, group activities with complex rules, and so forth, to replace the course text as the source of course content.

This trend may be largely positive: lecturing and reading from a text is not an interactive or even interesting activity for many students and often not effective instruction.

However, use of the text goes beyond passively reading it or listening to a lecture drawn straight from it. In fact, there are financial, practical, and pedagogical reasons to sometimes rely on the text.


Students often pay a great deal of money for their texts. It is only fair to use the text if it is listed on your syllabus and students have gone to the expense and trouble purchasing it. (Incidentally, I always list on the course syllabus the class textbook publication information and ISBN number and encourage students to buy it at Amazon or similar book dealer as campus bookstores’ prices are not competitive, to put it politely.)


Sometimes the class itself lacks the ideal set up for alternate activities: many classrooms, even in today’s “wired” age, still are only equipped with student and teacher desks and a white board, and the teacher herself can’t drag in necessary audiovisual or computer equipment each class session. In addition, it can be close to impossible to set up intricate activities every class session, especially if the instructor is teaching multiple courses. It can take a year or two to build a store of PowerPoint’s, handouts, and activities for even one class, and often teachers don’t repeat courses, or they teach multiple courses.


Textbooks are usually designed by teams of writers and editors with expertise in the field over a period of months or even years. Therefore, these texts are planned out with meaningful readings, discussion points, and suggested activities that have been tested out. Indeed, often these activities are more pedagogically sound and interesting than any an individual teacher can design. And, returning to the first point, because the students have already purchased the text and all have it, then making use of its carefully designed activities makes sense.

There are, to sum up, a number of legitimate reasons to continue to build the class activities around the text. There are also methods for incorporating the text into the class curriculum.

Discover 5 Effective Ways of Actually Using the Student Textbook

  1. 1

    Make Sure Students Have Access to the Text

    Provide an ISBN. Direct students to online book retailers. Put a copy on reserve at the library. If students really for some reason can’t get the text, I’ve been known to lend my own out during class; I also ask students to share their texts during class with those who don’t have one so that, for the duration of the class, at least, students have access to the text.

  2. 2

    Discuss Methods of Reading a Text

    I’ve always had a higher than average reading ability, but I was in graduate school before it dawned on me that starting at the beginning and reading through to the end, as I would read a novel, was not necessarily the most effective means of reading an academic text. Students often don’t read the text because they simply lack the skill, not in decoding the words, but in approaching an academic text. Discuss strategies of skimming (looking for main ideas), scanning (searching for specific details), and annotating (marking up) a text. Lead students in doing prereading preparation for the text, such as building vocabulary and necessary background knowledge. Sometimes readings are on topics that students have little or no familiarity with: the movies of Woody Allen, college internships, and “helicopter parents” are some of the highly cultural and/or topical material I’ve seen student readings based on. Some preparation for the reading’s topic is often required: “What is the nature of a helicopter?” “It hovers and swoops.” “That’s what a helicopter parent does—hovers over the child and then swoops in at the first sign of trouble.” Discuss also vocabulary that might be difficult, such as multisyllabic and technical/academic words.

  3. 3

    Assign Reading. Hold Students Accountable for Reading

    Students also don’t do the reading because the teacher doesn’t explicitly assign it and then does not hold them accountable for doing it. Explicitly assign the reading: “Read chapter 4 by Friday.” Then hold students accountable for having done the reading through a short quiz that class session or in writing a short summary of the reading.

  4. 4

    Manage the Reading Load

    Often the very burden of the reading load can impede student’s likelihood of doing the reading. I confess, even as an English major, to having bought the Cliff Notes, a packet of summaries and explanations, to Melville’s “Moby Dick,” a text just shy of a thousand pages in most editions, when it was assigned to be read in several weeks, a very difficult feat to manage, especially given the difficult, technical language related to shipping and fishing that much of the text is written in. I’ve also seen students expected to read the similarly long autobiography of Nelson Mandela, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” in a short time. The instructor should be reasonable about the reading load. Although teachers should expect students will make the course their priority, to balance their personal life, work life, and other classes while reading “The Long Walk to Freedom” in its entirety is a big burden, and perhaps another text should be chosen. Another option is to divide up the reading, making individual or groups of students responsible for reading different parts of the text and reporting back to the class.

  5. 5

    Make Use of the Activities in the Text

    Again, most textbooks have extensive activities and projects related to the reading—not only discussion points, but vocabulary activities, group projects, recommended outside reading and web resources, as well as often access to a textbook-related website. Some of these are too complicated and consuming for one class session, but the instructor can at least make use of the discussion questions each class period and perhaps assign once every week or so a group project. There is no real reason for instructors to dream up their own activities for each class session when they are already included in the text.

There are a number of reasons that teachers have shied away from using the text in class in recent years: inability of students to read the text is one; a fear of appearing “boring” is perhaps another. But there are also valid financial and pedagogical reasons to base much of the course instruction on the text and methods to incorporate it to assist in student learning.

How do you incorporate the text in the class?

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