Have Textbook Chapter Review Problems Outlived Their Usefulness?

“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.”
William S. Burroughs

While I don’t remember the specifics, one thing that I remember from many of the course outlines I had as a student is, read pages x-xx or chapter X and then answer the problems at the end of the chapter. The presence of problems in textbooks is in some way directly related to the creation of the textbook.

Homework - vector maths.jpg, Me and my homework, by Fir0002, From Wikimedia commons, published under Creative Commons license: Attribution NonCommercial Unported 3.0
Homework – vector maths.jpg, by Fir0002, From Wikimedia commons, published under Creative Commons license: Attribution NonCommercial Unported 3.0

The use of problems and answers in the “Textbook” predates the use of the word textbook.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary “The first known use of textbook was in 1779.” However educational books have been in use far longer.  During the 4th century AD, Aelius Donatus wrote school books about grammar one of them Ars Minor is written entirely in the format of problem and answers (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Ars Minor included both the problem and answer.  The instructor used the Ars Minor in a recall method where an instructor would ask a problem, and the student would recite the answer.  In most modern textbook’s problems are found at the end of chapters or units.

Modern textbook present review problems in one of three methods, first the textbook will contain all the answers to the review problems. In the second method, the textbook will provide the answers to half or just some of the problems.  Lastly, the textbook does not include the answer to any of the problems.

The purpose of review problems in textbooks has historically also had multiple uses. One, students can check their understanding of the material with the problems that have answers. Additionally, if the author presents the solutions in enough detail, they can be used to model problem-solving.  The faculty member is meant to use the problems without answers for quizzes and homework assignments.  While many publishers are starting to provide access to problem banks, I have seen the addition of “new” problems used as an argument for adopting a new version of a textbook.

In this day and age of interconnectivity and the internet does it even make sense to include problems in a textbook?  The concern is students will look up the answers online.  The availability of answers online makes the included problem useless for homework and quizzes. Upgrading to a new edition of the textbook ever 3-4 years will probably not help.  After all, how long do you think it takes to post answers online? While I have not tested this, I suspect all the answers are on the internet in a couple of days to a few weeks from the publication data of most textbooks.

The availability of so many answers online causes several issues.  One, especially when we are dealing with problems at the introductory level plagiarism can be difficult to identify.  Even if I ask the students to write out a paragraph, for example, explaining Mendel’s Law of independent assortment how many ways are there to write that paragraph?  While I’m not sure how many ways there are to write that paragraph, I suspect many generations of students have already written them.

I know some faculty that say education is ultimately the student’s responsibility and if they choose to shortcut the process, they will only harm themselves in the end.  While I think most of this is true, I also think it is the responsibility of the instructor and the institution to hold the line on ethical behavior in the learning environment.

There is a lot of arguments about students using “Google” to answer problems.  I have heard a lot of faculty say that it is beneficial for the student to struggle with the answer to problems.  While that is true to some point, it is also important that the students have a reasonable starting point.  Providing a starting point is where a problem with “complete” answers that model problem solving are useful.  Additionally, the problems need to be solvable; if students can’t solve the problems, it can get discouraging.

I also think the issue of looking up problems on the internet touches on another point.  Most schools state that part of their educational goal is to foster lifelong learning. When the students graduate and leave the school how are they going to engage in that lifelong learning?  They’re going to use the internet.  It is desperately important that we teach students how to use the internet, how to evaluate the validity of information, and how to determine credible sources.  We need to embrace the internet and start including it as part of our educational process instead of just saying “ITS BAD!”

Lastly, the proper use of problems doesn’t only benefit the students but also the instructor.  Problems and their answers should be used to provide feedback on pedagogy and teaching in the classroom.  The solutions to the problems should inform revisions and changes to the course based on student difficulties and misunderstandings.

If problems are essential but the internet makes the usefulness of textbook problems suspect what are we going to do about it?  One, make it clear what is and isn’t allowed as far as “help” is concerned and do your best to enforce this policy.  Help students learn to use research tools, which includes the internet, correctly.  Lastly, concerning textbooks, we should stop including and using problems in the textbook itself.  We should include problems in a separate workbook that we can change every semester or at least every year. Workbooks will let instructors change problems not only to “try” and keep ahead of the internet but to meet the changing needs of the course without having to change the textbook.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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