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Textbooks and Introductory Science Education

Paul Grobstein
January, 2007


Textbooks play a major and largely unexamined role in science education, particularly at introductory levels in college and high school. For the most part, textbooks are regarded as an essential component of such courses. While considerable effort is put by publishers and authors into improving textbooks, and by teachers into selecting among available published materials, less attention has been paid to broader considerations of the role that textbooks per se play in shaping the classroom environment.

Some years ago, out of what were then somewhat inchoate dissatisfactions with college science classes, I and several colleagues began experimenting with alternate ways to structure college science education, including downgrading the significance of and ultimately eliminating textbooks. In one such "non-traditional" course, I recently asked students to do some reading of relevant college science textbooks and write about their experiences with the textbook in comparison to those with the course itself. The student comments not only provide a window onto students' perceptions of and reactions to textbooks but suggest that textbooks are, in general, a significant influence on classroom environments and may not be an entirely positive way of engaging students at a deep level with biology, and science generally.


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 Appendix 1 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). For these reasons, it attracts a variety of students, many of whom are not committed to careers that depend on biology coursework and some (but not all) of whom are uncomfortable with science in general. Because the course is taught at a women's college, the students are largely (though not typically entirely) female.

In the fall semester of 2006, students were asked to write commentaries on relevant books in biology, and encouraged particularly to read and comment on a college biology textbook of their choice, comparing what they got from it with what they got from other course-related materials and assignments.


Excerpts from the comments of all eight students (of a class of thirty-two) who chose to comment on a textbook (most often Campbell and Reece, Biology, 7th Edition, Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2005) are provided here, along with links to the full texts of their comments when available.

In Biology 103, we were attempting to gain a basic understanding of concepts related to the study of biology, whereas a student relying 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


The student comments documented here seem to me to be in and of themselves clear, cogent, and worth hearing by any educator thinking about how to improve science classrooms where textbooks play a significant role. They raise important questions about the tendency of science educators to give textbooks a central role in class planning and organization. And do so in a way that raises broader issues of pedagogical style and objectives. Obviously, though, the sample is a small one. Moreover, it is a sample of a distinctive group of students reacting in a distinctive context to, for the most part, one particular textbook. These methodological features need to be taken into account in any effort to go from the comments themselves to more general conclusions.

Methodological Issues

Only eight of the thirty-two students in the course chose to read and write about a textbook, and one might on this ground alone be concerned that the sample is not representative of even the Biology 103 class as a whole. On the other hand, the sample included students whose final grade spanned the range of final grades in the course, with perhaps some bias towards those whose work overall indicated the greatest engagement with the study of biology. Moreover, many additional students expressed general feelings about the classroom closely related to these eight students in on-line forum comments and anonymous student evaluations at the end of the course. My guess is that the students who didn't choose to read and write about a textbook would not have been substantially more positive about them than those who did; indeed, one might argue that the very fact they chose some other book reflects feelings about textbooks comparable to those of the students who did write about them (see also Appendix 2). In any case, consistent threads in the comments from students constituting a quarter of the class argue strongly that there is at least a significant population of students in this course who have similar negative feelings about textbooks and a similar coherent basis for those feelings.

Since most of the comments come from students who read and wrote about the same textbook, it is appropriate to wonder whether the criticisms are specific to that textbook. The textbook chosen by most students is generally regarded by most college faculty as among the best available, and is used in many high school classes as well. Moreover, many of the comments had to do with characteristics intrinsic to textbooks in general rather than specifics of particular textbooks (eg. "The material of the book is fixed.", "designed to give me a debriefing on what others have already observed", "would concentrate on memorizing various facts", "being in a class with videos and discussion and questions and tangents and people is better").

Additional issues that need to be considered before attempting to draw any general conclusions have to do with idiosyncracies of this particular class as a whole. In this connection, its noteworthy that the class was billed initially as "non-traditional", that it had relatively few students who regarded introductory biology as a required subject for future work, and that it consisted of a relatively small, entirely female group of students. In all these respects, the sample documented comes from a student population untypical of college biology (or science) classrooms in general.

Its quite clear from the documented comments themselves that "non-traditional" features of the course were on the minds of the students who read and wrote about their experiences with biology textbooks. Indeed, the assignment encouraged this by asking students specifically to "Give a synopsis of what you learned from the book; compare it to what you've learned in our course; use each to critique the other". The assignment was, however, the same whether students chose a textbook or some other book and, beyond a brief mention in the course syllabus about the desirability of supplementing course materials with "your choice of any college textbook in introductory biology", the subject of textbooks didn't come up either in the course or in conversations with individual students. In short, the students who wrote about them were, as asked, writing about textbooks against the background of experience in a course that didn't focus on them but not one that might any explicit arguments against them. Moreover, it is clear from both the general tone and many of the specifics in the documented comments that the critiques of textbooks reflected as much prior experiences with them as the particular context of this course. In short, the "non-traditional" context may have provided students an unusual opportunity to be critical of textbooks but it didn't mandate or direct such criticism, either generally or in specifics.

Would the spectrum of comments be different in classes of students who did not opt for a "non-traditional" course (perhaps because those who do have prior dissatisfactions with text-book based courses?), in classes including significant numbers of students for whom introductory biology was regarded as a pre-requisite for further coursework in biology, and/or in co-educational classes? My guess is that the answer in all cases is yes, if for no other reason than students are heterogenous and the more differences there are among students in a given class, the greater the range of perspectives that will be expressed. Beyond this, though, it is certainly my experience (which I'm sure is not unique to me) that some students prefer to know what they are supposed to learn from a course, and that textbooks are for this reason, at least, appealing to some students.

The question, then, is not whether the comments documented here are representative of all students reacting to all textbooks in all contexts but rather whether the critique of textbooks and textbook usage reflected in this particular sample has relevance beyond the particular circumstances in which the comments were generated. While sub-populations may reflect perspectives unique to those sub-populations, they may also serve to call attention to perspectives that are more widely relevant but more difficult to detect in larger populations (the canary in the mine shaft phenomenon). Some suggestion that this is so in the present case comes from comments like "all of this information condensed so tightly comes at the expense of readability ... it becomes dry very quickly", "there didn't seem to be any particular order or relevance of the sequence in which his observations were presented", "99% of the book ... primarily consists of lists of facts to memorize and explanations of why those statements are true", "I began to get hindered by the overly technical terms and overcomplicated concepts." These sorts of comments are, in my experience, heard from a wide range of students in a wide variety of different classroom contexts, and represent the feelings of many faculty as well, spoken or unspoken. They are usually dismissed as flaws of particular textbooks or accepted as an inevitability of science education. Perhaps though if everyone detects, to some degree, the same odor, there is, for all or most people, a similar problem, one to which a particular sub-population is particularly sensitive and hence can help to identify?

Diagnosing the Problem

Biology, like all science, is a continually evolving set of observations and of interpretations of those observations in terms that reflect both a continually evolving professional set of standards and a continually evolving wider social and cultural context. Biology has, since the middle part of the last century, been evolving at a particularly rapid rate (over somewhat different time courses, recent rapid evolution has been true of the sciences in general). When the rate of change of biology (or any other science) is slow, it is in principle possible to create a coherent snapshot of the field, a textbook that "seeks to present a sum of observations collected ... and the most widely accepted stories explaining those observations". When, as at present, the rate of change is very fast, it is inevitable that such a snapshot lacks coherence and that the effort to be comprehensive results in readers feeling discouraged by "the amount of information to learn" and "overly technical terms". One can't but sympathize with the authors and publishers of textbooks wrestling with the incompatible challenges of comprehensiveness and readability (while at the same time recognizing that they are in many cases well paid for their efforts).

What is more important in the present context than the conflict between comprehensiveness and readability is the consequences of efforts to deal with that conflict for students' understanding not only of the real business of science education but that of science itself: "it is a more efficient use of paper to simply say "this is a fact" rather than "we think things might work a bit like this ... 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 of what others have already observed and postulated". Yes, textbooks may (increasingly) say that "science is neither dogma nor an assemblage of immutable facts ... it is an ongoing process", but inevitably "99% of the book presents a different view on science ... The general tone of the book is that of a dogmatic text". In the context of courses that use textbooks as a major point of organization, its little wonder that many students insist on asking "what am I supposed to know?" and that large numbers of people, having been through such courses, regard science (happily or unhappily) as a form of dogma.

Textbook as dogma is a problem not only in that it inevitably and seriously misrepresents the fundamental fluidity of science but also, and perhaps even more seriously, because it encourages students to regard themselves as consumers rather than as producers: "it perpetuates the view that students can have no impact since so many scientific "truths" have already been exposed". "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".

The difference between a classroom environment that, however unintentionally, makes "what to think" more important than thinking oneself is not just a matter of courtesy or good fellowship, as recognized by the student just quoted. Without a textbook, "the class fostered individual expression and ideas and instead of responding to a text we were responding to each other ... I gained a better appreciation of the implications of science in my everyday life than I otherwise would have." "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 ... discussions and questions and tangents and people is better". "Biology 103 showed me that biology was the science of life, the science of my life." "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." "as a student who has been turned off by science in the past, I think addressing science as a dynamic process is liberating ... we were able to cover the basic concepts of biology while still making it exciting because every conclusion we came to was our own."

Organizing a course with a textbook at its core contributes to creating an atmosphere of dogmatism in a classroom. Without a textbook, students can become freer to engage themselves, each other, and the teacher collectively in the process of developing new understandings. In so doing, they may learn (temporarily, at least) less of the specifics of science as it is represented in comprehensive textbooks, but they can gain a greater working mastery of the useful insights of a field and of how science itself works and what it means, to themselves and others.

Conclusions, Reservations, Extensions

The principle conclusion that I believe is justified by the observations reported here is that it is not only possible, in at least some contexts, to teach introductory biology without the use of a textbook but that there may well be definite advantages in doing so. These include not only greater and more enthusiastic engagement of students with the material of the course and with science itself but also (for me at least) a classroom that remains year after year "fresh and interesting" for the teacher as well. A "flexible" class agenda allows the teacher to anticipate new insights for themselves from each year's course "as it grew and evolved" just as the students can (or should), and, in so doing, to participate actively in the ongoing evolution of the science of biology.

The observations reported here also suggest strongly that focusing courses around a textbook contributes substantially to a "dogmatic" classroom atmosphere, one in which students are encouraged (or allowed) to adopt a passive consumer orientation towards a course and hence towards science generally. Sampling limitations are clearly relevant here, and so it would be desirable to have additional observations on this point from students in other contexts. Familiar anecdotal evidence ("will chapter 3 be on the exam"? "I don't need this course because I took one in high school that used the same textbook") suggests that the problem is a common one. At the same time, it is certainly possible that some students in some contexts make productive use of a textbook without treating it as dogma. What needs further exploration is how student attitudes towards textbooks vary among students and among classes, and how much this influences classroom atmospheres in various teaching contexts.

This in turn raises a key issue. "Teaching contexts" vary not only in student populations and forms of pedagogy but also in objectives. Providing students "an introduction to biology" is, in this respect, too general a characterization to be useful and needs greater specificity. If the overriding objective of a course is, for any of a number of reasons, to assure that students achieve mastery of a fixed and well-defined body of understandings of biology (eg "looking for introductory knowledge to advance to the next level"), then the issue of whether the use of a textbook contributes to a more dogmatic classroom atmosphere may be irrelevant. It becomes more and more relevant to the extent that an additional, or principle, objective of of the course is to engage students with the ongoing development of understandings in biology (or any other science). In this case, the positive features of the use of a textbook need to be appropriately weighed against whatever contribution it makes to creating a dogmatic classroom environment ("The material and direction of the book is fixed").

Among the positive features of textbooks, even in the context of a pedagogical commitment to conveying science as interactive process rather than dogma, is the convenience, for both teachers and students, of a common body of background information and illustrations, and of having one informed way of making sense of it all, including material that may not be previously familiar to the teacher. These advantages are particularly important for teachers handling material with which they have less sophistication. In this regard, it is worth stressing that the arguments made here relate not to the potential value of a textbook for the teacher but rather to the message conveyed by teachers to students about the place of the textbook in the overall context of the course. One can make use of a textbook oneself, and make it available to students as ONE perspective on that material, without encouraging or allowing students to believe that the material of the textbook defines either the course or the field of study itself. The key here is to avoid structuring the course around the textbook and mastery of it, to treat it instead as one of a number of available resources with explicit additional attention to the fluidity of the field and the need for students to engage themselves in making sense of it.

My principle concern in this article is to assert neither that the use of a textbook in introductory biology (or other science) courses should in all cases be abandoned, nor to contend that the abandonment of textbooks would, in and of itself, assure more effective science education. Neither conclusion is justifiable by the observations presented here, and my own more general experiences are that there are various ways to use textbooks effectively in different teaching contexts. Moreover, the elimination is textbooks is not, in and of itself, adequate to assure a non-dogmatic classroom environment. Additional changes (as, for example, in approaches to examination and grading) are needed as well to move effectively in that direction.

What I do hope this paper and the observations reported here succeed in doing is to raise questions in the minds of colleagues teaching introductory college (and high school) science courses that might not otherwise have occurred to them, about the use of textbooks in such courses, the objectives of such courses, and the relations between the two. In my own case, the experiment of downgrading the significance of textbooks led me ultimately to a whole new way of thinking about the needs of the diverse population of students who take introductory science courses and ways to meet those needs. If the observations reported here encouraged others to undertake their own explorations along these sorts of paths, this paper will have served its primary function.

Appendix 1
History and Rationale
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 ... 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 ...

Appendix 2
Additional Thoughts
From a student who hadn't originally written a textbook commentary

I read your essay and thought it was really interesting- when choosing something to write about for the book commentary, I didn't choose the textbook, for most of the reasons you and the kids who did in the class talked about.. I didn't want to read over facts and data, but more things to wonder and think about. I enjoyed our class, for that reason.. because it was something we were directly involved in, and were free to think about, in and outside of class, without the confines of a book telling us what to think or how to think about it. We were able to generate our own ideas, feel original, even if a billion others before us have thought what we were thinking. As valuable as textbooks are, teaching the basics, and the grounding rules you sometimes need to know to establish deeper thinking in subjects, we were taught that on a screen, in person, and allowed to think, in that moment, whether we understood what was going on, and ask questions, becoming involved. A textbook, a lot of the time, makes people think that they could have read that in their own time and learned from reading, rather than the value of a discussion where we can be free to think in whatever path we wish, and if we reach a conclusion other than the one on the screen, if there is a conclusion to be reached on the screen, like the formation of a cell.. we can express ourselves, find an error of ours, if there was one, or consider our different ideas as valuable as they could be ... I enjoyed that there wasn't a right answer, and I enjoyed the idea of "getting things less wrong", and of science as a story-telling. It made the subject less scary, and less intimidating ...

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