Almost nobody likes textbooks. Even fewer people like reading more of them than is required, which is what inspired me to write this post.
I believe textbooks are highly under-appreciated. In a world of more “exciting” methods of learning, like online video, MOOCs, and begging your professor/smart friend to explain a concept for the 12th time, sitting and reading a monotonous textbook doesn’t sound very appealing. But I view textbooks a little differently. In fact, I love to read them!
What value does a big, bulky textbook have in the 21st century? What advantages do they have over more contemporary approaches to independent learning?
For one, textbooks are densely packed full of structured, organized information. This can be overwhelming, I get it. Nobody likes enrolling in a Calculus class just to learn they have to buy a 600 page textbook and “befriend” it as a professor of mine once said. But this dense amount of information is exactly what makes textbooks beneficial over other learning mediums! In the case of a Calculus book, you might have a chapter on limits, and then subsections on limit laws, the formal definition of a limit, etc. Each subsection might start with a definition of new terms, an explanation of a concept, pretty graphs and pictures, numerous example problems using the new concept, and, if you’re lucky, an aside that shows how the concept applies to the real world. Then, in the case of a math book, you’ll be presented with problem after problem designed to test your understanding of the topic. And when you inevitably get stuck on a problem or forget how to do something, the answer is probably just a few pages back. You can read it at your own pace, however fast or slow that may be.
I think one reason students avoid textbooks is because it makes them feel dumb. When I was younger, I would open a textbook, read through a few pages at the pace at which I would read a novel, retain about 20% of what I was reading, and then have no idea how to do the practice problems. Even if I understood the explanation of a new concept, I often found myself struggling when it came time to apply what I learned. What was I doing wrong?
The problem lies in how I read the book: like a novel. A textbook is not supposed to be read the same way you’d read your favorite novel. Sure, you can skim the chapter and make note of the headlines, but in order to make the most of the book every word and every diagram must be appreciated. Who cares how slow you read it? By actively reading the material (jotting down notes, asking questions, re-reading passages when necessary), you’re going to walk away confident that you’ve at the very least made progress in understanding the new material.
All throughout high school I relied mostly on online resources for my learning, especially in classes with teachers who could not (or simply refused to) teach. I became best friends with sites like Khan Academy, Math is Fun, and of various YouTube channels that were great at explaining the gist of a concept in short-form videos. What was particularly attractive to me was that I could sit back in my chair and watch a man explain differentiation using multiple colored digital pens rather than hunch over my desk and skim my eyes across formal definitions and example problems for hours on end. Who would want that?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these resources. One of the best ways to internalize new concepts is to learn them from various different perspectives. However, as great as these resources are, they have one fatal flaw – they are designed to be short, and they can’t cover everything. A Khan Academy video will do a great job of explaining the gist of a mathematical concept, but due to the fact that it’s simply a YouTube video, it might not prove the concept rigorously, or show how that concept can be applied to different types of problems. If that were the case, you would need to browse through thousands of videos just for Calculus alone! And once you reach a very high level of whatever you’re studying, you’ll start to notice that online resources (at the least the quick ones like YouTube videos) become scarce. You’re left only with textbooks and other traditional methods of learning, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of reading them now. The more you read them, the more patience you’ll develop, and the easier it will get.
Most people, including myself, do not have the time to thoroughly engage with a textbook in order to make the most of it. That’s why I choose what I read carefully based on my interests. I’m a computer science major, so any book I read about computing or mathematics I take very seriously. On the other hand, my cultural anthropology book is only used so I can skim through the chapters and take notes on important concepts that might come up on exams. I simply don’t have the time to read every textbook to my fullest extent, and that’s totally fine.
Even if you love textbooks like I do, they still suffer from problems. They’re heavy, they’re expensive, they’re hard to search through, and sometimes they’re even out of date or contain mistakes! That’s where digital textbooks come in.
I’m not a big fan of reading regular books digitally. When I crack open a new novel, I want to feel the pages turn under my fingertips. I don’t want to have to worry about charging my book. However, I prefer reading digital textbooks (as opposed to physical ones) because they’re easier to work with. They aren’t heavy, they don’t require external light to read, you can zoom in on a graphic and even interact with it on certain platforms, and you can search the entire book for a specific word, section, or phrase. Not only that, but you can store thousands of them in the palm of your hand. Could you image how much that would weigh?
Digital textbooks are often cheaper than their physical counterpart, but they’re still expensive! That’s why I want to mention one of my favorite online resources, OpenStax. OpenStax is a nonprofit organization from Rice University that offers digital textbooks in subjects like Math, Science, Business, and the Humanities. They’ve also got several books that align with the CollegeBoard AP curriculum, so they act as great supplemental reading if you’re AP teacher just isn’t teaching well or teaches in a style that’s not conducive to your learning. Like many digital textbooks, they’re high-quality and downloadable, and unlike many other digital textbooks, they’re free! I can’t recommend them enough.
Sure, textbooks aren’t the most exciting way to learn. But they still have value in the 21st century, and for many subjects, they provide the only real method for learning and truly understanding new material on your own. I promise, reading them will suck less the more you do it.