If I had a dollar for every student who asked me, “Do we really need to get the textbook?” I’d be writing this article in Bali. From a student perspective, textbooks and reading assignments can be the worst thing about a course—and not just because of cost. My new students grill me about the textbook because they’ve been in courses where doing the reading appeared unnecessary to succeed, or where the course materials were never integrated into their classroom experience. The required reading, they felt, was not truly required.

You may not have a choice about the reading materials for your course, especially if you’re a part-time or sessional instructor. But even if you’re stuck with the most heinous of textbooks—and trust me, I’ve been there—there’s still a lot you can do to make sure student readings are properly integrated into your classroom. That way, if you tell students they need the textbook, you’ll be telling the truth.

1. Familiarize your students with the textbook.

In the opening weeks of class show them you are serious about making use of the course textbook. Post images of it on the course site. One good thing about digital textbooks is that they show the page content on-screen during presentations—but if you are still using a print copy, let them handle it and see you refer to it. And don’t forget to discuss how they can obtain their own copy of the text. Although this detail probably seems insignificant to you, locating the text and preferred edition is often confusing for students.

2. Show them how to read for what they need.

What good is a book for your students if they don’t know how to use it? Depending on the way you teach, your students’ prior knowledge, and the nature of the textbook, they may need to do a sustained close reading, or they may be best served by skimming and hunting for select information. While you know the difference, they don’t. So give them some direction.

I advise my Business Communications students to use their textbook as a collection of case studies and examples of formatted writing (memos, letters, reports, etc.). I assign pages with this purpose in mind, and I tell them to read those assigned pages without concerning themselves with the theory about writing process espoused by the authors. Then, in class, I discuss process collaboratively with the students—I don’t want a textbook dictating this to them.

3. Directly integrate the assigned reading, especially in the opening weeks…

Once they’ve got their textbook, be sure to make plenty of use of it in class in those opening weeks. Incorporate what they’ve learned from the reading into class exercises and discussions. For example, I design a Jeopardy! style trivia quiz for my class that serves as a fun recall check for reading comprehension on the pages that I’ve assigned. I also regularly break students into small groups to discuss what they’ve read, providing them with questions to address specific passages that I’ve located for them, or require them to find material that supports their ideas.

4. …but don’t read out the textbook

A lecture that is little more than an oral version of the reading you’ve assigned? Yawn! Some overlap from the reading and your presentation is to be expected, and you do want to be making associations with the text and reinforcing key concepts. But students want and deserve your own educated voice and your original guidance on the topic, not just a regurgitation of another scholar’s work.

Come at the topic from a different angle. Personalize and localize your presentation of the material; use some real world examples. As tempting as it may be, never use the companion lecture slides provided by the manufacturer of the textbook.

5. Add some original and non-textbook sources

College textbooks are used in college—not generally in everyday life—which is why you should also include some original sources in your teaching. Although original sources might be more difficult for students to read or put in context, I believe they need and deserve to experience them, at least from time to time. For example, although the whole of The Iliad is too difficult and vast to assign as a reading for my Classical Mythology students, I make sure they read some of its verses aloud (in translation) during our lessons about the Trojan War. (And point out, of course, that it was not a written document in the first place.) With psychology, you might try excerpting the DSM-5; in science, some keystone journal articles, and so on.

Why bother with original sources? Students learn that there are multiple ways to interpret a topic, problem, or story. They are also forced to expand their vocabulary. They are gifted with the experience of reading a text that was not created for them as an intended audience.1

Also, using original sources respects my students as thinkers and human beings, who are able to draw their own impressions and conclusions from the original work rather than having to access it via some other “authority.”

6. Don’t assign too much reading

Don’t do it. Remember that your students have four or sometimes five other courses and a humming social life. If your students become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of pages and skip their assigned reading it can really hobble what you want to do in class together. Falling behind on the readings may also discourage some students so much that they never recover.

Ask yourself if every page you’ve assigned is worth these risks. Are you assigning readings in bulk just to be sure you’ve “covered” everything? Or are you being just selecting page ranges so you don’t have to specify pre-selected passages?

7. Treat textbooks as teaching tools

A course textbook has the benefit of curating the subject matter content into a single, organized package.2 For new instructors in particular, it can provide a reassuring backbone for class planning and from which you can draw and explicate concepts.

Textbooks are no more than tools for teaching and learning. Make sure that you harness the textbook to work for your teaching goals—and the learning goals of your students. Many college texts have built in exercises, quizzes, questions, samples and teacher’s guides that can be useful for course delivery. Need to spark discussion in class? Find statements or case studies in your textbook that can be used as jumping-off points.

8. Take a holistic view of your course

Begin and end by considering the learning outcomes in your course. How will you use readings to enable those outcomes for students? If the textbook is not aiding you in your mission, don’t feel bound by its structure. Your course textbook should be serving you, not the other way around.

When you design your course with your end goals in mind, you’re much more likely to achieve them—and to be able to tweak the course if things don’t go to plan.

Need more ideas about how to weave together your classroom engagement priorities with your textbook? Here’s how a Classics professor at UT Austin gets his students to keep up with course materials and thrive in class discussions.


  1. Berardo, Sacha. The Use of Authentic Materials in the Teaching of Reading. (September 2006). The Reading Matrix 6 (2): 60-69. Retrieved from: http://www.readingmatrix.com/articles/berardo/article.pdf
  2. Haynes, Tom. Why do we still have basic textbooks in higher ed? eCampus News. (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://www.ecampusnews.com/2019/02/12/why-do-we-still-have-basic-textbooks-in-higher-ed/2/

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