Tuesday, March 20, 2012

High School and College Textbooks in the Sciences

I was just reading  a book review on a new e-book for biology students and it reminded me of some of the challenges I've had referring my students to a helpful textbook for introductory chemistry.

The problem is very nicely explained by this writer (a professor) who basically likes the electronic videos and other gimmicks of the e-book and agrees that these tools add dimensionality to the learning environment. However, the particular ones included in this book don't strike him as resonating with sixteen-year-olds.

So, basically there are a bunch of videos that show cool stuff to people who already know what it is. 

This same problem applies to old fashioned textbooks.  Either the textbook is very clear and straightforward (appealing to a typical introductory student), but lacks depth and completeness or is very thorough and complete (appealing to the professor)  but lacks clarity and a sense of logic. How do you effectively teach a class with this problem?

Often many students in an introductory class just want the bare information needed to get whatever grade they need on the test. Chemistry is usually required for whatever career path they have chosen and they know they need the coveted A to get to their next step. For this reason,although introducing extra videos and illustrations from multi-media often seems appealing to the instructor for better understanding from the students, often the students' themselves are frustrated by it. It broadens the number of materials they are required to study for their exam and they usually can't see how it fits into the material presented by the textbook. So while it is possible these extra tools help their long-term understanding of the material, they don't help them perform on the exam.  Many students find this very, very frustrating.

A real-life example of this would be use of the Tro texts for introductory chemistry versus use of the Zumdahl texts. I've used both. The Tro text is wonderful for a step-by-step, logical explanation of each topic in chemistry. Of the three textbooks I've taught introductory chemistry from, it is the only one that explains the topic of Lewis dot structures, VSEPR shapes and bond angles from start to finish and concludes with a very helpful discussion of polarity based on shape. I had never seen such an amazingly clear discussion of the topic before in my education. For this reason, I take diagrams and other tools from this chapter when I'm explaining this to other classes at other junior colleges. Yes, the approved textbook is one by a different author but the chapter on this topic is so good I tack it onto their required reading.  (If someone knows the proper publishing procedure I need to take then please leave a comment after this post. I've tried to contact the publisher without success on this issue.)

As useful as the Tro text is for preparing my students to perform on tests, it does not provide some of the excellent examples of complex items from nature that my Bauer text provides. For example, the post that I wrote about carbon monoxide poisoning was adapted from a diagram/excerpt from my Bauer textbook about the importance of understanding shape/function of molecules. This kind of discussion cannot be found in Tro. It's a bit of a tangent really- only peripherally related to the main topic of the chapter. While I found it fascinating, I doubt most of my students know enough about science to appreciate its relevance to what they are learning.

I keep a very detailed blackboard site of all of the resources I provide for my students. I'm always hesitant to add extra items to it for fear the students will get bogged down in a swamp of information. I'm just fearful that the meandering explanations of Zumdahl and the unclear examples in the text actually confuse them more than educate them. However, their required homework is from Zumdahl (a very educated and accomplished chemist- just not all that clear for beginners.) Therefore, I must teach from Zumdahl and any additional materials I feel explain thoroughly and clearly the material on which I want to test.

It's really hard. Sometimes I think the students don't really know what they are supposed to study because I present so many different ideas from different resources.