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

We Need CSS for e-books

“The layout of textbooks, I think, has been done with an assumption that students don’t read.”
James W. Loewen


Throughout several decades, I have watched the development of the technology used to build websites. I hand coded my first website using HTML 2 while I was still an undergraduate.

With each additional release of HTML, the addition of features allowed us to add more and more to websites. Additionally, many other technologies have added to websites like JavaScript and cascading style sheets (CSS).

I think CSS was one of the most significant changes to web design. One of the most apparent advantages of CSS is greater control of layout and design. While it would not be the best way to design a website with CSS, you can determine the position of every element on a webpage down to a single pixel.

Modern websites also use CSS to produce different layouts for desktop and mobile viewing. The reason I think CSS was such a significant change is CSS requires a different way of thinking about design and layout.

Proper use of CSS separates the content from the layout. CSS gives us the ability to move, position, and style content any way we want without changing the content. CSS layout is dependent on the use of tags, by giving each element of the website a unique identifier we can use CSS to place that element anywhere we want.

As an example, suppose we wrote three separate paragraphs and gave then CSS tags para1, para2, and para3.

One way to add the tag looks like this:

<p class=”para1”> Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.</p>

Without the unique tag it would look like this:

<p> Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.</p>

In and of itself that is not a big deal. However, since the paragraphs are now named elements, I can use CSS to style them independently of each other on the page.

If I do nothing, the three paragraphs will come one after the other. With just a little bit of CSS, I can make paragraph 2 right justified while the other two paragraphs stay left justified.

The code is:

.para2 {  text-align: right;  !important; }

The other paragraphs will stay left aligned because that is the default.

With some other code, I can make one of the paragraphs disappeared.

.para1 { display: none; }

This code would hide the first paragraph.

As the last example, I can change the order of the paragraphs.

p { display: flex; flex-direction: column;}

.para1 {order: 2 }

.para2 {order: 1 }

.para3 {order: 3}

This code would flip the order of the first and second paragraph while leaving the third where it is. These examples show that the code needed to make changes is rather small.

Now, why am I talking about CSS? Not long ago I wrote a blog discussing the problems I had with glossaries in several textbooks (read that blog here). In short, the traditional glossary at the end of a book was broken up and placed at the end of each chapter. For many reasons, I think this makes glossaries harder to use.

The reason for the glossary at the end of chapters is the fact that textbooks, especially open-source ones, are not meant to be used in their entirety but only the parts that fit your course. Since the book designers do not want extra words in the glossary, they split the glossary up.

Now imagine if we took the readability and accessibility of the electronic publication (EPUB) format and coupled that with the layout advantages of CSS. Now instead of copying, pasting, and editing the text of an open-source textbook with a few lines of code you can make a book for your course. Additionally, if something changes in your class, you can easily edit the book by making changes to the CSS. As an example, suppose we tagged all the text in a chapter with a unique name like chp#. If we added the same tag to the words in the glossary the words would behave the same as the chapter when formatted with CSS.

Now if we hide chp# not only will the chapter text disappear but so will the glossary words. However, you might ask “What if we wanted to move chp#? That will also move the glossary entries.” If the glossary entries moved, we would have the same problem with a glossary that I talked about before.

However, CSS has another little trick I skipped over; you can add tags together. As an example, your chapter text is a paragraph which has the default tag p. The glossary is a list, so each word is a list item which has the default tag li.

If I only wanted to move the chapter text, I would use the tag chp#.p this tag will leave the glossary words alone. To make a change to just the glossary words, I would use the tag chp#.li.

The makers of modern electronic books have done their best to re-create books just like their paper versions. While that is fine even desirable in some cases, we should not limit ourselves to it. After all, it should be comparatively easy to add functionality to electronic books.

We already have the code to make use of CSS it is in every web browser currently in use. This code can be added to e-reader software to give e-readers the ability to handle CSS. As for the creation of the books, we could start with any of the website creation tools and add the ability to export and save the documents (sites) as an EPUB document with CSS.

Having electronic books with expanded capabilities would give us tremendous advantages in addition to just CSS we can imagine being able to embed all kinds of additional content; media, live video, tests, and chat/discussions now books aren’t merely repositories for knowledge but a tool for learning.

We currently have all the tools we need to expand the functionality of the EPUBs format all we need to do is bring them together. Having this new EPUB format as a new tool would give us tremendous abilities as we design new and improved books for the use in the classroom.


Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

The Language of the Field

“All I know is what I have words for.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are many components to a bachelor’s degree, part of the goal of the degree is to give students a wide range of skills and knowledge.  The single largest component of the degree is the disciplinary component.  While there is often overlap in basic skills in addition to the content knowledge of the field students learn how to think, analyze information, and communicate in and outside their field.

Throughout four (sometimes more) years that a bachelor’s degree takes students to build their skills.  Over the last decade or two, there has been a significant focus on the teaching of higher order thinking skills. Whether or not this focus on higher order thinking skills has been successful, I think, like many things we have embraced higher order thinking skills without a lot of thought, this focus on higher order thinking skills above everything is causing damage to our educational process.

While I agree that the introduction of higher order thinking skills can and should as early as possible, it is critical to realize that higher order skills don’t work independently of the so-called lower order thinking skills.  I remember consulting with an instructor that was having trouble with his student’s test performance; his students were performing significantly lower than students in other classes.  He brought in a couple of tests for me to look at, one of my first questions was what are your goals.  He said he was focusing on higher order thinking skills.

His tests had some of the most thoughtfully written questions I had seen.  It was composed almost exclusively of open-ended and long answer word problems.  Even though the questions were excellent, I immediately had an idea of what the problem was.  Most of the questions relied heavily on discipline-specific language.  Since he was teaching a lower division course, I asked if he is sure that his students understood the meaning of the words he was using, after a little discussion he realized he was assuming information about his students that he didn’t know.

After making some changes and including some content about language his student’s scores improved, which shows its essential to keep all skills in mind.  I have never liked the idea of defining skills as lower level and higher level. I think these skills are more of a gradient than levels.  Additionally, characterizing them as lower level and higher level suggests a hierarchy of importance that is not true. The skills we are teaching in a course should be dependent on the goals of that course not some external evaluation about the “best” skills.  However, that is probably a discussion for another day.

Continuing with the devaluation of “lower order thinking skills” I have been thinking about how this might be affecting textbooks.  In many fields, textbooks are used extensively in the introductory courses.  One of the most important things that take place in these introductory courses is teaching the students the language of their field. Since learning the language of a field is the main component of introductory classes textbooks should support learning the discipline language.

I have been looking at several textbooks lately especially open source textbooks, and I think I have started to see a problem.  Imagine you are a student working on a homework assignment, and you come across a word you don’t know or remember.  Yes, today I know it is likely that a student will Google it.  Let’s suppose instead they go to their textbook; how do they look up the word.  The student could look it up in the glossary.

Surprisingly this could be a problem; if you go to the back of many textbooks, you will find there isn’t a glossary in the back.  It turns out that many of the new books both open source and some commercial are designed to be customized.  You only choose the parts of the book that fit your course if, and I do mean if, the textbook has a glossary it has probably been divided into small sections and placed at the end of every chapter.

So how are you our student supposed to find the word you are trying to look up.  Since you can’t remember what the word means, in which section do you look?  You probably start with the most recent section you read if it’s not there well then, I guess you look through the entire book till you find the definition.

While we are currently trying to solve many problems with textbooks, cost, compatibility with curriculum, and accessibility we need to be sure we don’t introduce new problems by not paying attention to what we are doing. Students are not going to want to use textbooks that are difficult to use.  While many of the problems go away with the use of digital textbooks, isn’t the search function simply fantastic, we need to design textbooks for both digital and print.

While I understand the idea of designing textbooks so that you can pick and choose which parts you want to use splitting up the glossary confuses me.  It should be relatively apparent that separating the glossary into a lot of separate section through the whole book makes the glossary harder to use.  I wonder if this glossary design is because book designers think lower order thinking skills like memorizing definitions is unimportant.

Independent of the reason for this separate glossary model what is wrong with having a single glossary in the back of the book?  Why does it matter if the glossary has words in it that don’t appear in the text?  A single glossary in one place (I don’t care if it’s in the back) is much more usable than a scattered one.

I suppose if you think have extra words in a glossary is a problem the glossary could be laid out in a separate section like in an appendix.  We could label glossary sections by chapter and page, and each would be a separate section.  For example, G.12.2 would be the glossary for the 12th chapter second page.  Then you could leave out the unused parts of the glossary.

While a glossary organized by chapters might still require some searching by a student (if they don’t know what chapter a word they are looking for comes from), they would at least know where in the book to look.  Of course, I suppose if we are talking about Open Source textbooks we could edit the glossary and remove the extra words.

Lastly, if you think that a divided glossary is the best thing to do there is one other potential solution.  That solution would be to include all the words in the glossaries in the index.  Listing the glossary words in the index would give the students a single place they could look to find the definitions.

As we design the next generation of textbooks and learning materials we always need to remember that the most critical design consideration needs to be usability.


Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

What Is A Textbook?

“Science is cool! But it’s easy for that to get lost in textbooks sometimes.”
Philippe Cousteau, Jr.

In many ways, the history of education is the history of books. Currently, people frequently quote “I have more computer power in my pocket (smartphone) then all of NASA during the Apollo moon missions.” Today when we talk about technology in the classroom we tend to think about computers, phones, tablets, apps, and the internet. However, a book is also technology we tend to take books for granted nowadays. Before Johaness Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1440, books were produced by hand.

An image of the printing press in the Gutenberg Workshop, curtsy of Cuneo Press. Inc Exhibit.

Before the printing press, books were scarce and expensive. During the medieval age books in a library or lectern were often chained to desks. The word Lecture derives from the French word lecture meaning reading since in early medieval universities the Faculty member “Lecturer” would stand at the front of the class and read from the primary book. After all the University only had one of these books. Mass production of books changed all this and allowed “the spread of learning to the masses.”

In recent years there has been a lot of discussions about textbooks. Many of these discussions revolve around problems with the mass mark textbook, high cost, the rigidity of the curriculum, and the relatively long time to update. The most commonly offered solution to these complaints is the opensource textbooks. The various open source projects provide books that are free, editable, and adaptable. There has also been a lot of work looking at digital and multimedia textbooks.

The one thing that is clear we are currently involved in an in-depth and involved discussion about the future of the textbook. What will a textbook look like and what will its source be in a few years or a decade? I don’t know, but maybe we are remembering that the textbook is technology deserving of thought and work.

In my mind, one of the exciting things about all the textbook discussion is perhaps the unstated implicit point. All these arguments suggest that the textbook is still an essential component of the educational process. Very few of these discussions suggest we eliminate the textbook. Which I think is probably a very sound and vital point.

A while ago I was asked to review a couple of open-source textbooks (No, I am not going to tell you which ones, many have changed). What struck me was that many of these books were over a 1000 pages. The reason for this was to allow instructors to pick and choose the parts that best suit their class. While this seems like a good idea, the individual topics all seemed to be incredibly shallow. My guess is this was done, due to the amount of time available to create the book and the number of topics covered. While this list of books was not extensive, the books reviewed did not meet our needs, and the school ended up going with a customized book from a publisher.

The other problem I noticed with some of these books was a lack or limited amount of layout. The content of a book is only part of what makes a book. Layout and white space enhance readability and make sure the location of graphics make sense. I suspect a lot of this was left out for practical reasons. It’s hard to edit text that has already been typeset. If any of you have published a book or article, you probably remember how much it cost to make a change to a galley proof (the galley proof is typesetting). This type of typesetting would make it hard to customize open-source texts. I suspect layout is going to be the place were HTML versions of open-source textbooks will shine since we already have a well-established means of separating content from style with CSS.

Beyond layout future updates to open-source projects worries me. While a lot of nonprofits and government agencies have invested a lot of money creating open-source textbooks, what is the likelihood that the same organizations will dump massive amounts of money into updating these books? However, I’m not going into the costs of publishing an open-source textbook. Tony Bates did a great job in his post about his open-source textbook, you can read it here.

Beyond the talks concerning costs, I want to add to this revitalization of the technology called the textbook. I want to expand the discussion, what is a textbook? The textbook has been around a long time. Over that time, we have learned a lot about pedagogy, the nature of learning, and instructional design. If we apply the information, we know about learning how would that change the textbook? What do we want for the textbook to do? What would be the best textbook today and into the immediate future? Truthfully, the variations in people, subjects, and schools make it all but impossible to create the best textbook, so I guess the best means a textbook that is the most useful to the largest group of people.

Or maybe we must limit ourselves further perhaps the best textbook helps the most students in a single class.

What do you want from a textbook? Is the purpose of the book to prep students for class, help them review after class, or both? I come back to this question a lot because of the second question, does it matter? Is there a difference in how we write a book if it was meant to prep students or help them a review? I think the answer might be yes but I’m not entirely sure.

The next question that hits me is how long the textbook should be? I think there’s a lot of validity about having open-source textbooks in which the instructor can modify the book to their needs. It seems to me that the shorter the book, the easier the instructor editing. Also, when it comes to reviewing and updating the more concise the book is, the faster and easier reviewing and updating is going to be. I’m also a believer in short and concise, so the textbook should be as short as possible.

Albeet Einstein with the Quote "Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler."
Albert Einstein with Quote, Derived form a Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.

The total length will be governed by two issues the number of topics covered and the length of text in each topic. Here is where I would differ from many of the existing projects. To keep the textbook as short as possible, we should write a textbook for a single class. Writing the textbook for a single course will also help us with something that has always bothered me about textbooks. Most textbooks are composed of stand allow units because publishers write them to be used by multiple classes at multiple schools. I have always wished textbooks told a coherent story that built on itself. If we write a textbook for a specific course, we could do this.

If we choose a single semester length course what limitations does this give us? A standard one-hour course meets three times a week for 15 weeks or 45 class periods. However, the first day of class is usually taken up with administration details; there are traditionally two midterms and two or three days off for holidays. That means we lose 5 to 6 days. Let’s say five, so we are left with 40 days. If we assume the purpose is to prep the students for a lecture, the entire book should read in 40 units (chapters?) one before each class. The other size limit is the number of words in each chapter. The chapter lengths I suspect will vary from concept to concept and will have to be determined by actual practice.

Besides the purpose and length of a textbook we need to ask, what does modern technology get us? In theory, if done correctly current tech should give us improved accessibility (compatibility with readers), distribution, and availability. It should also give us the ability to add in multimedia and other content to enhance the learning abilities.

There are probably other questions that I have not thought of or considered. However, if we’re going to spend all this time talking about textbooks let’s not limit our conversation just to cost. Let’s take some time to talk about what a textbook really should be. When do you think of the best textbook possible what is the first thing that comes to your mind? What was the best textbook you ever encountered as a student? Can you learn from your favorite textbook when it comes to picking textbooks?

Thanks for listing to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg