Textbooks – a major cost in university
Why do I have to buy this textbook? At 50 dollars a book, roughly on the low end, and at 500 dollars on the high end, textbooks can be a major cost in university. Let’s take a look at textbooks from three angles – teacher, student, and the market.
From the professors perspective there are a number of reasons that a textbook is used with a class. First and foremost, the textbook is complimentary/supplementary material as related to the course. This means that ideas covered in lecture are also covered in the textbook in another voice, and by another voice, I mean that the authors of the textbook are teaching the material through writing, images, examples, and problems in a different way than the professor. This is the most valuable aspect of a textbook, as supplementary information, but don’t think that the assigned textbook is the only voice to use to help your learn the course’s ideas.
There is this strange building(s) called the library that, likely, carries a number of textbooks in the related topic. If you don’t like, are having trouble with, or can’t understand the assigned textbook, consult other textbooks to find the voice that speaks to you best and helps you learn the material.
Teachers might also use a textbook to help them organize how to present the material. In some cases, your professor is not an expert in the field, and has some expertise, but not to the detail of teaching without a textbook. In these cases, textbooks provide teachers with insight on one ways to organize the ideas and present them in a logical progression. This includes problems and challenges associated with the material, which a textbook has carefully created, and likely, has worked out solutions. Creating a problem related to the material is tricky.
Finally, teaching is time consuming. Full disclosure: Textbook writers and publishers will incentivize professors by preparing materials including lectures, problems, exams, and quizzes so that the professor can save some of their time.
A textbook can be a major cost to your budget, but even required textbooks are not necessarily required. You need to find out:
- How is the textbook used in this class? Consult the syllabus and ask the teacher. Is there open book exams and is this the only textbook you can use? Are problems assigned from the textbook?
- Are there cheaper formats of the textbook – online, used, renting? Depending on how the textbook is being used this can be fine, but beware that different textbook editions may change the problem numbering, references, and even include different material.
- Does the book make sense at my level of understanding? If you can’t understand the book, check for others in the library.
- Does the book provide enough examples? If it doesn’t do as above, and also look for problem and example books.
- Will the book be used in more than one class? If it is, then the one-time cost can be thought of as lower as you divide the cost per class.
- Is this the textbook that everyone uses? There are some textbooks that many universities use and professionals keep as a reference. Check to see if the textbook is on all the professors shelves, or if someone working in the field has kept the book. Normally, these textbooks will appear in your third and fourth year.
- How many copies and what lending out rules does the library have for the textbook? Note that the textbook might be available in the library, but how long can you have it for?
Introductory textbooks in areas such as physics, calculus, english, philosophy, etc. are numerous and come in all shapes and sizes. I found these books to be less useful, but again depending on question 1 you may or may not need to buy it.
One of the best methods to learn about textbooks is to make friends with people who are a year or two ahead of you and ask them what they thought about the textbook. Peers provide valuable advice, but don’t take that advice as law. More than one opinion and thinking for yourself is important in this decision, and the cheaper route is not always the best route.
This is the perspective I have the least understanding of since I’ve never been part of it. As a student, I felt that many textbooks were a means to make money adding very little value to my courses. On other occasions, the textbook taught me the course since the professor did such a poor job.
As a professor, the market is making someone money, and note, it is probably not your professor. I would guess that a few publishers and bookstores are doing very well selling books.
Textbooks are part of university and college life. Take some time to figure out if you need the book.
Credits: Photo by Logan Ingills; titled: just the ones i’m getting rid of