As any linguistics expert will tell you, words can last a lot longer than the technology they describe. A steamroller doesn’t use steam any more. Tin foil is made of aluminum; and pencil leads are now carbon, a much less dangerous member of the periodic table. Today, “textbooks” is on this list of old words for new things—because they’re not necessarily books, and aren’t really used just as a place to store text.

The change is happening because teaching methods have evolved dramatically over the past few decades. Partially, this is down to the availability of new technologies and better ways of doing things, but in part this is because research shows traditional teaching methods, such as the ‘sage on stage,’ aren’t particularly effective.

Any professor who is asking modern students to only read text before class is setting themselves up for failure, lack of attendance and low engagement. As Rob Weir, a writer and teacher at Smith College, Massachusetts, says in an article for Inside Higher Ed1: “If one assumes the ability to read as the rock-bottom criterion for college entry, there’s really no point to rehashing text material with students other than to clarify what confuses them, a matter that should be approached on a case-by-case basis.

“Any institution still devoted to text-and-test could usefully place said courses online,” he adds—and in fact, this is how many Massive Online-Only Courses (MOOCs) behave. In not-unrelated news, MOOCs have been censured for their extremely low completion rates; only four percent in a 2018 survey2.

Beyond the paragraph

Millennials have long since departed the halls of undergraduates. In their place come Generation Z, who have been working collaboratively since high school and are used to getting their media personalized, on-demand, and often in video format. Being assigned a reading outside of class, or picking through the textbook inside class, are alien concepts to them.

As one student posts on Academia Stack Exchange, “I don’t need someone to paraphrase a book for me and then tell me to fill in the rest myself… To be honest, I am becoming quite bored (and frustrated) and starting to skip lectures in favor of office hours (which are far more engaging), reading the book on my own, and working on extra problems.”3

This student would prefer to attend classes where the professor engages students, such as reading the assigned text before class and then asking questions about it or working on related problems during class time. (Here’s how one classics professor does this, using pre-assigned questions in an interactive textbook.)

Professors sometimes “fall into the trap” of summarizing a textbook in their lectures and presentations, says Tracey E. Ryan, a professor at the University of Bridgeport, CT, in an article for Faculty Focus.4

Instead, having students come to class prepared with background knowledge helps to transform passive listening into active learning. “They stop doing stenography and start doing the kind of critical thinking that promotes learning,” says Ryan.

Several studies show how classrooms entirely based on lectures don’t achieve the highest learning outcomes. A meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate teaching methods in STEM courses, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that turning students into active participants rather than passive listeners not only reduced failure rates, but boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a letter grade.5

That’s not to say textbooks shouldn’t be used in class — but they could be used in more effective ways. Rather than just relying on paragraphs of text, textbook material can be integrated into the overall classroom experience. Delivering a lecture that’s an oral version of the text they just read makes it hard to hold students’ attention.

Top Hat’s digital textbooks, in particular, offer a mix of text, videos and assignments that can be customized to students’ learning styles. But any readings should be short, and tied to in-class activities such as quizzes, group projects or reflective writing assignments. (Read Top Hat’s eight ways to integrate textbooks into your class here.)

The concept of a textbook has long since evolved past simple text—and beyond the word “textbook.” But so, too, has the way textbooks are used in today’s active learning classrooms. Rather than regurgitating what’s already on the page, professors can use their knowledge and expertise to fill in the gaps, provide expert commentary and offer real-world examples that bring those words to life and make them relevant to students.

It might just result in fewer glazed-over eyes and higher grades.


  1. Weir, R. (2007, March 6). Teaching Without Textbooks. Retrieved from
  2. Murray, S. (2019, March 04). MOOCs struggle to lift rock-bottom completion rates. Retrieved from
  3. Elfish, P. (2013). Stack Exchange. Retrieved from
  4. Ryan, T. E. (2009, November 13). Why It’s So Hard to Get Students to Read the Textbook, and What Happens When They Do – Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from
  5. Freeman, S., et al. (2003). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111(23) 8410-8415.

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