[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Textbooks and Introductory Science Education

Paul Grobstein
January, 2007
From "Some Thoughts on Introductory Science Teaching after Biology 101, Fall Semester, 1993"

This change had two concrete motivations. Introductory biology textbooks have become overwhelming accretions of facts, and we had found in prior years that students were confused by the relationship between lectures that treated broad concepts and the mass of detail they found in assigned readings. The elimination of assigned readings was intended to reinforce the message that the intent and level of the course was defined by lectures and not by a textbook. The second motivation for dropping assigned textbook readings related most directly not to students but to faculty. We had found in past years that faculty, despite their commitment to an introductory course different from that defined by available textbooks, nonetheless tended to use textbook chapters as a foundation for their own lectures. If we were genuinely intending to teach a fundamentally new and different course, it seemed essential to free it from even this residual dependence on the definition of biology used by textbook publishers and the biologists from whom they seek advice.

Colleagues aware of our plans expressed considerable skepticism about whether a course could be taught without assigned textbook readings. "YOU try it, and let me know how it comes out" was among the most encouraging reactions. Many predicted disaster and major student rebellion, on the grounds that students would insist on being told exactly what they were supposed to learn from the course and complain vigorously if they weren't told ... We decided to take the bull by the horns and include the following statement in the course syllabus which all students received on the first day of the course:

Biology 101 is not a "typical" science course, one in which the primary concern is to efficiently summarize a particular body of facts that students are expected to learn. It is, instead, a course predicated on and structured in terms of the fundamental activities of science itself, a process in which facts (observations) motivate ideas which in turn motivate observations which in turn motivate ideas in a continuing recurring interaction. One immediate consequence of this is that Biology 101 may place on you somewhat more responsibility for your own education than you have become used to from previous science courses. You will be given no list of particular things you are "supposed to know." You will instead be invited to listen to, read about, work through in your own mind, and contribute to an ongoing discussion of the relation between observations and ideas in biology. It is our belief that the experience of you making biology make sense to yourself is the most valuable thing you can take from this course, and also the most effective way to define and learn what one is "supposed to know." There was no student rebellion on the first day of the course, nor on any other day ... The great revolution was, on the face of it, a fizzle. For me, that was an important lesson in its own right. I too have had students yelling at me because I am not being clear about what they are supposed to know, and had begun to presume that that was simply the way this generation of students behaves. In fact, I now think that's not true. Students, as always, are quite willing to follow the lead of teachers, so long as the teachers send clear and nonconflicting messages about what the educational experience is about. In subtler ways, though, the no-textbook decision did contribute to a revolution ... It put students on notice that the course was intended ... t to be something in which they themselves were to be actively involved and responsible participants. The no-textbook decision had, as intended, the same effect on the faculty. Teaching introductory biology, indeed any introductory science course, is frustrating with everyone looking over your shoulder, trying to tell you as a faculty member what your course is supposed to achieve. Textbooks symbolize that ... Without a textbook, one is free to think by oneself about what is really interesting and significant about biology, not what someone or other outside thinks students ought to know, but rather what really matters. To anyone. Space suddenly opens within which to move, to try and make something of one's own (see The Scientist/Teacher: A Call to Arms). Scary? Perhaps. Time-consuming, certainly. And very exhilarating ...
Biology 103 is a one semester introductory college biology course taught using selected web resources appropriate for each topic rather than a comprehensive textbook. The absence of a textbook derives from a decision made in an earlier course in 1993 (see side bar for rationale and history). Bio 103 is also a "non-traditional" science course in several additional respects, of which one is that students write publicly available web papers on topics of their choice in lieu of exams, and are encouraged in additional ways to "make sense of biology to yourself" (for some reactions to the course as a whole, see final entries in a course on-line forum).

In 2007, students were asked in addition to write commentaries on relevant books in biology, and encouraged particularly to read and comment on a college biology textbook, comparing what they got from it with what they got from other course-related materials and assignments. Excerpts from these comments are provided here, and links to the full texts are provided below. They are provided to encourage further discussion of ways to make education a more effective way of engaging students at a deep level with biology, and science generally.

In Biology 103, we were attempting to gain a basic understanding of concepts related to the study of biology, whereas a student relaying on this this textbook would probably be looking for introductory knowledge to advance to the next level ... The class fostered individual expression and ideas and instead of responding to a text, we were responding to each other ... in the authors' attempt to break the material down into manageable sizes, a student easily loses sight of the big picture. It would be difficult for a student really absorbed in the facts of the material to take a step back and appreciate the really wonderful processes occurring in biology, as our class was often able to do ... I found the book to provide a wealth of information, much of which was not even covered by the class lectures, but I gained a better appreciation of the implications of science in my everday life than I otherwise would have .... Lawrence

The problem with many textbooks is that the amount of information necessary to learn is discouraging, like history or statistics books (on the whole most textbooks are in need of some snappier formatting). But Biology is actually interesting ... Aesthetically, the book is rather engaging, and that helped to stave off boredom ... At the end of each chapter is a review section with a self-quiz ... Without such a structure, reading it would be more of a chore than it already is ... Generally, Biology takes a linear science path, unlike the class which prefers a "seriously loopy"method. This difference takes the class to places that the book does not. While reading the textbook isn't to bad, being in class with videos and discussion and questions and tangents and people is better ... Gale

Biology ... covers most of the spectrum of our class discussions ... and goes far beyond our discussions in terms of detail and complexity ... this is to be expected, considering that it is a textbook and therefore lacks the time restrictions present in a dialog-based class ... all of this information condensed so tightly comes at the expense of readability ... it becomes dry very quickly ... The one critical flaw I found with the section of the textbook I sampled was that it failed to present information specifically as a collection of observations. Obviously one would be hard-pressed to find a science textbook that does - it is a more efficient use of paper to simply say "this is fact" rather than "we think things might work a bit like this" - but after taking the course I found the lack of what I call "wiggle room" between what is accepted as true and the possibility for new observations to be a hindrance to my thinking while reading the textbook. Generally I find it easier to understand new concepts where they are presented as sets of observations and explanations rather than as solid fact, because with the word "fact" comes a pressure to understand the material exactly as presented ... The textbook seeks to present a sum of observations collected on the subject of biology and the most widely accepted stories explaining those observations, while the course seemed to be built around learning new ways of thinking about science rather than simply absorbing quantified biological observations. The textbook was not designed to teach me how science works and what I can contribute to it; it was designed to give me a debriefing on what others have already observed and postulated ... the course was never about rehashing information so much as personally taking command of the process of science - learning by thought, discussion, and analysis ... It struck me as I was reading the textbook that such quantities of observations would best be digested after taking a course like Bio 103; learning to think scientifically must necessarily come before attempting to process the accumulation of hundreds of years of scientific research. Although I have taken several traditional science courses which used earlier versions of the book I examined, I felt I learned more from this college class than from all of my prior experiences, simply because Biology 103 taught me how to think, while Biology simply told me what to think - something that is, I believe, less useful both scientifically and generally ... McDaniel

"Reece just tossed the facts at us and there didn't seem to be any particular order or relevance of the sequence in which his observations were presented ... [the course] connected the dots, one concept flowed into another and science became a history of cause and effect" ... "[The course] spoke accessible English ... I found myself having to clarify what Reece was saying into a few cogent sentences ... Reece places Biology at a distance and exalts it to the point of making it seem like a difficult science. [The course] showed me that biology was the science of life, the science of my life" .... Biow

"the book failed to portray science as it was discussed in class, as a means of discovery instead of a definite body of facts ... it portrays science as a body of facts, not as an exploration of life and its processes ... the class allowed the students to explore what we did not know, but it also forced us to rethink what we have always believed to be true, because it was stated in a textbook ... McNally

The ... book ... offers two somewhat contradictory views on science, the first of which falls closely in line with the alternative style of teaching used in our class. The book asserts that "science is neither dogma nor an assemblage of immutable facts ... it is an ongoing process of observing world around us, forming ideas about how that world operates, conducting tests of those ideas, and continually revising our conclusions ... This attitude toward science gives students motivation to keep exploring and questioning, even if it means re-examining a theory most people hold to be true. It means that every single person can have an impact on science. This concept is the core of our basic biology course; as a class we were encouraged to keep questioning, making observations, and rewriting our "story" to accommodate these new observations. As a student, I find this attitude to be energizing and encouraging because it means that I too can shape the course of scientific study. Unfortunately, the book is self-contradictory: 99% of the book presents a different view on science. It primarily consists of lists of facts to memorize and explanations of why those statements are true. The general tone of the book is that of a dogmatic text ... I personally find this style of teaching to be oppressive because it discourages independent thought and dissidence. It perpetuates the view that students can have no impact since so many scientific "truths" have already been exposed ... as a student who has been turned off to science in the past, I think addressing science as a dynamic process is liberating. This semester we were able to cover the basic concepts of biology while still making it exciting because every conclusion we came to was our own ... Mellors

The book has a strength in the overall information presented, but the class has a strength in its ability to modify the mass amount of information down to manageable size for the class ... Taking both sources into consideration and noting that both had their strong points, I have to say that I learned more and enjoyed the class much more than the book ... I began to get hindered by the overly technical terms and overcomplicated concepts that were presented in the book ... if the course was based off of this book, I would not grasp the true concepts. Instead. I would concentrate on memorizing various facts and not on learning, which circumvents the point of the class. No where in the book was it explained that nothing in science is concrete and that there are not complete truths,, and those are two eye-opening and necessary ideas ... Norcross

The material and direction of the book is fixed. It starts and ends, and the end of the book is written before I open it to start reading at the beginning. I liked it that our class grew and evolved as we went through the semester ... the class agenda was very flexible and we could go where our interests led us. The result was that the classes remained fresh and interesting. This is a distinct advantage over using a hardcopy textbook .... Wood

| Biology 103 | Course Forum Area | Biology | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:17 CDT