Why are textbooks in math and science so bad?

• Studying
I am talking about upper and lower division textbook in mathematics and physics. Why are they in geneal so hard to understand, and so low quality anyways? This is not just an attitude for the intellectually inferior, but something i repeat heard from my own professors in mathematics, and physics. It seems for most students, most of the understanding of the material comes from attending the lectures, and taking the notes. A follow up question would then be: Why are the notes are so much better than the books, but yet we have so much more books, and hardly any notes in our libraries? i asked this question before, but i dont think it was the right forum. since only professors write textbooks. I would like to ask the professors out there: Why don t you just give us the notes? Is it too much to ask? Why is it the most of your don t like the textbooks, and do nothing about it?

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George Jones
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Why are the notes are so much better than the books, but yet we have so much more books, and hardly any notes in our libraries?

A substantial part of the answer to this question might be something that you wrote earlier in your post.

kant said:
It seems for most students, most of the understanding of the material comes from attending the lectures, and taking the notes.

I know you're writing this to professors, but I'd just like to mention that I've found many physics textbooks (and a couple of math textbooks) that aren't so bad. I admit there are a lot of bad textbooks out there. In fact, most of them are terrible. But most of the freshman and sophomore physics texts I've found are actually quite good. David Griffiths' books on E&M and quantum mechanics are excellent. And as far as math goes, there's always James Stewart's calculus text. So there are a few good books out there.

But I fully agree that it would be nice to have professors' lecture notes available as well. Some professors put their notes online, but what would be ideal is if they all put them in the school libraries.

A substantial part of the answer to this question might be something that you wrote earlier in your post.

I don t understand what you are trying to drive at. Surely, people understand alot more from notes, because in general, notes are more simply, economical, and ideas are express in "simply lanuage", and most important of all, only the main point are summerized and expressed in class notes. It is so valued that if one missed a class, that person might find it useful to get the day s class notes from another classmate. Class notes seems to be very useful, but i think that if some thing useful, it should be valued more. My only question is why cant we have a book in the form of class notes in our university libraries. It seems to me that the people that are writing the book do not have their intended audience in mind, and instead, they are engage in some type of competition on who could write the dries book. When i read a textbook, i don t need to be be convinced that the guy wrote the book is much smarter than me. I need a good book. Perferly, one that could express ideas in plain english.

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My general chemistry course I took in undergrad had lecture notes that you could buy. On the left page there would be notes, on the right page there would be space for you to write something of your own if you felt it was necessary (typically extra examples). I thought it was ok, obviously helpful if you missed a class for whatever reason. Still, I feel nothing beats good ol' making your own lecture notes from class. Of course, if you're going some individual learning, this could be difficult.

I don t understand what you are trying to drive at. Surely, people understand alot more from notes, because in general, notes are more simply, economical, and ideas are express in "simply lanuage", and most important of all, only the main point are summerized and expressed in class notes. It is so valued that if one missed a class, that person might find it useful to get the day s class notes from another classmate. Class notes seems to be very useful, but i think that if some thing useful, it should be valued more. My only question is why cant we have a book in the form of class notes in our university libraries. It seems to me that the people that are writing the book do not have their intended audience in mind, and instead, they are engage in some type of competition on who could write the dries book. When i read a textbook, i don t need to be be convinced that the guy wrote the book is much smarter than me. I need a good book. Perferly, one that could express ideas in plain english.

The reason textbooks seem so dry are because they should really include a lot of information on the topic (e.g. rigorous proofs etc). When professors teach a subject, they choose to emphasize only the things they feel are important (and often omit lengthy proofs etc). Subsequently, when you get the problem set written by them, their notes are obviously more succintly useful for solving them. I mean, they are supposed to be testing you on what they taught you right?

D H
Staff Emeritus
Textbooks cannot see when the reader has a look of utter confusion (too hard) or a look of complete boredom (too easy). Even mediocre instructors can easily discern the difference between these looks and tailor their lecture accordingly. Good instructors know where the pitfalls in the textbook lie; they tailor their lectures beforehand.

I do not remember any professors that "discern the difference between these looks and tailor their lecture accordingly".
I learned much more from the text than from lectures basically because I skipped quite a few, esp. in Calc. That is not something I would recommend though. The text book worked fine for me. Lectures are only as good as the lecturer and the there is a wide range out there.
I don't think course lectures could cover a subject in sufficient detail anyway and the value is the visual and audible experience. Lecture notes are, to me, almost useless.

I was home-schooled for most of my life so I mostly learn from my textbooks. I find it very difficult when the textbooks used are of low quality. I like to have lots of examples and rigorous proofs in my textbooks. This last semester was difficult for me just because my teachers didn't make use of the textbook and relied heavily on notes.

jtbell
Mentor
It takes a lot of work to write a textbook. It's not something that's easy to do on the side, on top of a full teaching and/or research workload.

At research-oriented universities, writing textbooks and other pedagogical material doesn't count as much towards tenure and promotion, as does research publication and writing successful grant proposals.

Finally, few people can write really well, especially among scientists.

A substantial part of the answer to this question might be something that you wrote earlier in your post.

The reason textbooks seem so dry are because they should really include a lot of information on the topic (e.g. rigorous proofs etc).

Sure, textbooks contain more information, and i don t think anyone can doubt that. I am in fact holding a different point of view. I think the people who wrote the math( upper division math) and Physics( especially physics) textbooks do not have their intended audience in mind at all. In all my university education, the is only one prefessor that said that the calcalus text was not bad. The rest of the other math, and physics professor say the text sucks.

I do not remember any professors that "discern the difference between these looks and tailor their lecture accordingly".
I learned much more from the text than from lectures basically because I skipped quite a few, esp. in Calc. That is not something I would recommend though. The text book worked fine for me. Lectures are only as good as the lecturer and the there is a wide range out there.
I don't think course lectures could cover a subject in sufficient detail anyway and the value is the visual and audible experience. Lecture notes are, to me, almost useless.

calculus are not hard at, and in general, calculus text are not that bad. Once your get to upper division proof based class, the text does really offer much, so your only choice is either the TA, or the professor.

I was home-schooled for most of my life so I mostly learn from my textbooks. I find it very difficult when the textbooks used are of low quality. I like to have lots of examples and rigorous proofs in my textbooks. This last semester was difficult for me just because my teachers didn't make use of the textbook and relied heavily on notes.

It really depends on the subject, and the textbook. For the highschool, and lower division level textbooks, it is not all that difficult to read to matter, and preform the computation. It is just my my experience, but physics for science and engineerings, and upper division math are the worst of there, because those courses are more problem solving intensive..

It's not something that's easy to do on the side, on top of a full teaching and/or research workload.

I am studying mathematics at ucla. I am talk this upper dividion analysis course, and the professor only teachs one hour every day for 4 days a week. Can you tell me what kind of workload does he have?

jtbell
Mentor
At a place like UCLA, a professor's workload is mostly research. That's what he's getting paid for.

Aah, the old chestnut of students believing college is like school, and the professors are there to teach...

Aha. No. You are an inconvenience, a nuisance that they have to deal with so that their institution stays in favour with the government. Oh, and also, a non-trivial source of income.

MathematicalPhysicist
Gold Member
some of these textbooks were first originated from the lectruer's notes, so if you're having problems with the textbooks then you will also have problems with the notes.

I would say that some are definitely better than others. One thing is that textbooks are not really intended to teach the reader. They are intended to supplement a course. In my view books should be written as if they are the exclusive source of the material they present.

On a side note I would mention www.cplusplus.com. They do an admirable job of presenting the C++ language, perhaps better than any $100 textbook. I think you are right. In the area of book writing, there is a lot of room for improvement. MathematicalPhysicist Gold Member I would say that some are definitely better than others. One thing is that textbooks are not really intended to teach the reader. They are intended to supplement a course. In my view books should be written as if they are the exclusive source of the material they present. On a side note I would mention www.cplusplus.com. They do an admirable job of presenting the C++ language, perhaps better than any$100 textbook.

I think you are right. In the area of book writing, there is a lot of room for improvement.
if books were the exclusive source of the material present then we would have no need for referneces in the end of the books.
and think of all the trees that will be spared for the cost of writing another book, indeed a humanitarian approach you have there. (-:

It is easy to mistake a textbook that it too difficult for a course for a textbook that is poorly written. There have been several textbooks that I loathed as an undergraduate that I have grown to appreciate as a graduate student. I think this is because I have learned that it takes some effort to learn a subject from a book (and even more effort to learn a subject from original papers :yuck: ).

As far as why it is often easier to learn from lectures/lecture notes than from a textbook, that issue is touched upon by Cambridge mathematics professor T. W. Körner in an essay titled "In Praise of Lectures" [http://www.dpmms.cam.ac.uk/~twk/Lecture.pdf" [Broken]]. Many of the points he makes have been made by various individuals in the thread--a textbook must be complete, whereas a lecture can focus on essentials; a lecturer can detect when his/her audience is confused, whereas a textbook cannot; etc.--but nonetheless his essay is worth reading in order to learn about the value of lectures and textbooks in mathematics (and science) education.

Finally, regarding the availability of lecture notes, there are a number of books which are essentially compiled lecture notes for some professor's course. One of the most famous examples is the Feynman Lectures on Physics, but there are many less famous examples--for example, Mathews & Walker, Mathematical Methods of Physics (based on a course originally taught by Feynman); Schwinger's books on classical electrodynamics and quantum mechanics; and Trefethen & Bau, Numerical Linear Algebra (which is explicitly subdivided into 40 lectures).

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Maybe you aren't able to learn by reading aswell as others can.. It makes sense when you said that you learn more from taking notes and listening to lectures. Everyone learns differently and at different rates. Remember that you also have to apply your self: its that way with all arts - practice practice practice, reading isn't any different.

I found reading text book in general much more helpful than attending a lecture. Of course, there are exceptions to this. But mostly, I always feel that lectures are done in less rigor and less depth. It is a relief to know that I can go back to text and learn the lecture materials with more detail. But I am also very mindful that not all texts are good and helpful. I spend unusual amount of time selecting my texts before I seriously begin reading it. So far, I was able to find a text book for which I couldn't rate lower than 5 stars for all subjects I've studied.

D H
Staff Emeritus
The competition among publishers for something that nearly every incoming science or engineering student must purchase is quite fierce. As a consequence, lower level undergraduate texts tend to be quite well-written.

At the other end of the extreme are the upper level graduate classes, which often don't have a text period. The potential audience may be so small as to make writing and publishing a text not work the author's time and publisher's money. Even if the size of the audience justifies a text, the material may be so fresh that no one has had a chance to write a text (good or bad). All you have to go on are a bunch of disparate journal papers and the lecture notes.

The problem with texts of lower quality happens between these two extremes (uppler level undergrad / lower level graduate classes).

At a place like UCLA, a professor's workload is mostly research. That's what he's getting paid for.

The thing is i don t really think research it is that difficult consider that he has so much free time

some of these textbooks were first originated from the lectruer's notes, so if you're having problems with the textbooks then you will also have problems with the notes.

Most people i think don t have problems with the notes, but do have problems with the book( opinion from my own professors), becaue textbooks are horrible written( from my own professors)

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