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Do most textbooks not help their readers?

  1. Dec 13, 2017 #1
    I've discovered this essay, which argues that most textbooks are actually written for the authors and not for the readers. I also think that most textbooks are not very helpful after all, but I find the phenomenon still strange.

    Writing a textbook is a long, tedious job and certainly not financially rewarding.

    So what are reasons why most textbooks bad?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2017 #2

    Stephen Tashi

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    Do you find that the site that publishes that little essay (physicstravelguide.com) is superior to other sites explaining physics? It certainly isn't shy about "tooting its own horn".

    Whether a textbook is good or bad depends both on the textbook and the reader of the book. Some readers are not suited for some textbooks. In the context of a course, the usefulness of the textbook depends on the book, the reader, and the lecturer. Some lecturers diverge from the approach of the textbook. (Some lecturers are required to use certain books by their schools.)
     
  4. Dec 13, 2017 #3
    The reading recommendations on some pages are quite good, but currently there are still too many "gaps".

    I agree that "Some readers are not suited for some textbooks". However connecting readers with those textbooks is a tough problem. However, I still think there are lots of textbooks that are practically useless for most students. On the other hand there are textbooks that are amazing for almost all students.
     
  5. Dec 13, 2017 #4

    Mister T

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    Textbooks, like all commercial products, are written to be sold to the consumer. But the consumer is the professor, not the student. It's the professor who makes the textbook selection, not the student. It's the professor who receives the sales pitches from the publisher, not the student.

    Just as fishing lures are made to attract the fisherman, not the fish.
     
  6. Dec 13, 2017 #5
    This makes perfect sense and explains a lot.
     
  7. Dec 13, 2017 #6

    symbolipoint

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    Without ever my looking at the essay, I say, forget the essay. Did the textbooks YOU used help your or not help you. Many or most of mine did help ME, the student, and certainly other students.
     
  8. Dec 14, 2017 #7
    For me textbooks have never really helped me because they are usually 5 to 10 years old, occasionally from the time of the USSR. Plus it does not help that my teachers often make whatever I am learning boring even though I love the subject. I think it primarily is based on how the teacher uses the book and whether or not the teacher gets up to date books. Sadly it often seems that I have learned more on this site or other sites on my own time than from school.
     
  9. Dec 14, 2017 #8

    jtbell

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    How does that matter for core subjects in a field like physics or math? For recent research you should expect to go to the original papers, or review articles, and that doesn't usually happen until graduate school or late undergraduate.
     
  10. Dec 14, 2017 #9

    Mister T

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    Some of the newer textbooks may be written in a style that is more to your liking. Physics Education Research (PER) has made significant contributions in the last 25 years or so, and it has affected the way some authors write their textbooks.

    But the bottom line is indeed "So what?"

    Whatever your reason for disliking a textbook, you can always find other textbooks, both paper and electronic versions. They are now inexpensive and plentiful, as long as your source didn't acquire them directly from the publisher.

    If you're bored that's an emotion experienced by you. Many lecturers are boring, and it does make it a challenge to learn from them. It's particularly bad if they are not following a textbook. I've taken many classes like that, but one of them had an interesting twist to it. I soon discovered that this (particularly boring) professor wasn't following the textbook that he had chosen. In fact, he wasn't even using the same notation! But I discovered from talking to students who had taken the course before that the professor liked the book he had used in the past and since it was out of print he couldn't choose it as the textbook for the course. I got my hands on a used copy of that textbook and suddenly his lectures began to at least make sense. He was hard to follow when you didn't know where he was coming from!

    School is for teaching. The learning goes on in your own mind.
     
  11. Dec 16, 2017 #10

    Mark44

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    I find this difficult to believe, regardless of what the essay says.
    Saying that "most textbooks are not very helpful" is an overly broad statement with no evidence provided to back this claim.
    It's certainly difficult to write a textbook, but authors whose books sell well are rewarded handsomely. In the realm of physics texts, Halliday and Resnick must have done very well. There are also a number of calculus textbooks, such as those by Thomas & Finney (and later, just Thomas), and Stewart, that have done very well.
    "Most"? What evidence can you show that most textbooks are bad?
    That's true, but the professor is likely to attempt to match the textbook's level of presentation with the abilities of the students.
    Of course there are fisherman with widely varying skills, some of whom might get sucked into buying a lure just by its appearance. Skilled fishermen, on the other hand, know what fish are attracted to, and will buy or even make their own lures and flies that are actually functional.
     
  12. Mar 20, 2018 #11
    If you know what to read, it can help.
    Better understanding on the content.
    I do think text book helps.
    How do you think people learn from the old days?
    They research and read books.
     
  13. Mar 20, 2018 #12

    russ_watters

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    I know it is old, but it was just resurrected, so...
    The primary purpose of selling anything is to make money for the seller. Additionally, textbook writers may be creating tools for their own use* or to enhance their reputation. So all roads point to a selfish motive on the surface.

    But, contained in #1 and #3 is a need to please the target audience who then pays for the book in money or respect. And in order to sell to those people, the textbook needs to be useful/helpful. So I disagree with your assessment that they are or are driven to be unhelpful.

    *This would be more common in industry and with handbooks, not textbooks, but it is close so I included it.
     
  14. Mar 20, 2018 #13

    vela

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    I think both factors come into play. Most professors, I would hope, choose a textbook they think will be useful for the students. But the problem is that the professor's experience reading the text is likely going to be very different than the students'. An explanation that seems clear to the professor might be incredibly opaque to most students. The professor can recognize which parts of the text are background fluff that can be safely ignored, while students might think they have to know what's in those passages. And so on.

    I agree students generally need a textbook. There's not enough class time to cover all of the material. Students need to spend time outside of class practicing and filling in the gaps, and a textbook can be an invaluable resource. That said, students have to know how to read and use the book effectively. It's a learned skill, and many students just aren't good at it. The linked-to essay completely ignores this fact.

    Just because that's how it was done in the past doesn't mean it's the best way to do it now. Lecture has been the traditional method of instruction for intro physics, but research has shown it is ineffective. Should we stick with straight lecture because that's how it's always been done?
     
  15. Mar 20, 2018 #14

    symbolipoint

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    I have not read the linked essay yet. I still have some comment.

    I have not found most textbooks to be bad. On the contrary, I have found most, but not all, that I have used, were good. Maybe this depends on what level of study the book is written. Intro/calc based Physics, Intro & Intermediate Algebra, some other science textbooks - either very good or excellent. Maybe at some higher levels, the books may be written with the expectation that the student knows how to read and think at a more advanced level.

    Lecture- still an important way to deal with instruction. Lecture should be interactive and does not need to be restricted to just what's in the course assigned textbook.

    Hey, somebody; pick a specific upper level course, and tell us how was the textbook, and how was the lecture in relation to the textbook.
     
  16. Mar 21, 2018 #15

    Vanadium 50

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    It's bad. Really bad. It sounds like it was written for an early high school English class. It's full of unsupported assertions and jumping to conclusions, While I believe there are shortcomings with many textbooks and we could have a serious discussion about that, the essay doesn't do that.
     
  17. Mar 21, 2018 #16
    The essay linked by the OP appears to be addressing, primarily, physics textbooks. I have very limited exposure to these, so the following comments relate to textbooks on Earth Science, Biology and Astronomy. I have in excess of 100 textbooks in these fields. (I like to collect older textbooks and trace the development of theory and style.) I have found each of those texts interesting and helpful. None are perfect (though some are astounding in their quality), but all are capable of providing a positive experience to a student committed to learning.

    The essay contains this remark: "Most students never learn that they have to try dozens of textbooks until they find one that actually speaks a language they understand."
    Well, duh! Who could possibly have thought it? Learning requires hard work, commitment, imagination and exploration of multiple sources. I suggest that the fault, if fault there be, is more likely to lie with the attitude of the student than the quality of the textbook.
     
  18. Mar 21, 2018 #17

    symbolipoint

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    Okay I just read the essay. My experiences were more fortunate. Maybe things have changed in the last few years. Maybe what books are assigned to students depends on time and place. Any student (of Physics) needs some strong motivation to really dig-into a book to study from it. Usually, the way it's written is meant to be correct and precise, and example problems are given which help to support the written/published instructional discussions. Rereading is necessary, and trying the examples is necessary, too. My only academic student experience in Physics was the standard undergraduate Physics for the Science & Engineering students and the books were of Sears, Zemansky, & Young; and Halliday & Resnick. They were not "easy" but they were as easy as could possibly been made.
     
  19. Mar 21, 2018 #18
    In the years 1979-1981, I used a textbook that I thought was great, but my students hated it. I listened to their complaints, filtered them, and in 1984, I started writing a textbook. I followed many ideas from the one I had previously liked, but I tried to incorporate the complaints I had heard previously. I did all of this to facilitate the learning for my students, hardly a selfish motive. I made pennies on the hour spent developing the book, and today, 30 years later, I am engaged in preparing a second edition of the same book. The technology has not changed all that much, but I see things that can be improved (I've gotten feedback from all over the world), and the preparation/presentation/appearance of the book can be improved. I don't expect to earn very much this time either, but that really is not the purpose.
     
  20. Mar 21, 2018 #19
    I have relied mainly on textbooks for all my courses. I think that a main textbook and suggesting other books (and other sources) can help students, because different books on the same subject talk about the same thing in different styles for different levels and in different details.
     
  21. Mar 21, 2018 #20

    Mister T

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    The traditional lecture method has been shown to be ineffective. But lectures have value and so do textbooks. They are tools that can be used effectively but they are also tools that can be abused.
     
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