The mode of teaching so common today—the lecture-text-exam approach-is an artifact of centuries of European education. The professor's main role before the wide availability of the printing press was to lecture on information obtained from a rare copy of an often ancient book. Despite the fears of the faculty at the University of Salamanca during the sixteenth century, the textbook rapidly became a useful supplement to the class lecture rather than its replacement. Today a textbook is available for almost every college science class. As McKeachie (1994) notes, ''. . . my years of experience in attempting to assess teaching effectiveness have led me to think that the textbook, more than any other element of the course, determines student learning."
Books are a highly portable form of information and can be accessed when, where, and at whatever rate and level of detail the reader desires. Research indicates that, for many people, visual processing (i.e., reading) is faster than auditory processing (i.e., listening to lectures), making textbooks a very effective resource (McKeachie, 1994). Reading can be done slowly, accompanied by extensive note taking, or it can be done rapidly, by skimming and skipping. There are advantages to both styles, and you may find it useful to discuss their merits with your students.
Issues to Consider When Selecting Instructional Resources
One important aspect of any science class is helping the student to make sense of the mass of information and ideas in a field. This can be done by showing students how to arrange information in a meaningful hierarchy of related major and minor concepts. Well-chosen textbooks help students understand how information and ideas can be organized.
Textbooks have several major limitations. Although a well-written book can engage and hold student interest, it is not inherently interactive. However, if students are encouraged to ask questions while they read, seek answers within the text, and identify other sources to explore ideas not contained in the text, they will become active readers and gain the maximum benefit from their textbook. In order to meet the needs of a broad audience, texts are often so thick that they overwhelm students seeking key information. Texts are often forced to rely on historical or dated examples, and they rarely give a sense of the discovery aspects and disorganization of information facing modern researchers.
Science textbooks have evolved considerably from the descriptive and historical approaches common before World War II. Today's texts are far more sophisticated, less historical, and contain more facts than in the past, with complex language and terminology (Bailar, 1993). Illustrations and mathematical expressions are more common. Emphasis has shifted toward principles and theory. Modern texts attempt to deal with issues of process as well as matters of fact or content. They are replete with essays, sidebars, diagrams, illustrations, worked examples, and problems and questions at