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Q&A: How to write for student learning vs. faculty content

Q&AThe following Q&A is based on a TAA webinar presentation by Michael Greer, from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Development by Design, entitled, “Bringing Textbooks to Life: Strategies for Improving Student Engagement”.

Q: Laura Frost, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Whitaker Center for STEM Education at Florida Gulf Coast University:

“One of the problems with producing a textbook that helps the student learn is that the faculty member is the person who is selecting the textbook and the publishers know this. Do you have any suggestions for authors who are interested in writing for student learning vs. faculty content?”

A: Michael Greer, University of Arkansas at Little Rock / Development by Design:

“When we published the first edition of The DK Handbook, and it looked so different from existing, familiar handbooks, some faculty pushed back hard. They felt we were ‘dumbing down’ the content, or ‘adding glitzy visuals’ or ‘making the book too noisy’ and hard to navigate. Many even commented to the effect that ‘my students would probably like this book, but I don’t.’

The marketing team came up with a great idea—a ‘chapter challenge.’ We printed a sample chapter as a small saddle-stitched booklet and gave it away to teachers who would use it side-by-side with their existing handbook. In many cases, once they saw the students’ reactions, they were sold. (Not always, but sometimes.)

Handbooks are often committee adoptions. So we would try to find one person on a committee who ‘got it’ and valued our commitment to student learning. Sometimes one or two champions on a committee can sway an adoption.

The most powerful story I heard from the field about that handbook was a sales rep who was meeting with an instructor about the handbook when a student came in. The rep did an impromptu side-by-side comparison with the student, in the instructor’s presence. The student said ‘I love this one—it makes sense to me and I can find things so much easier!’—and the faculty member was sold.

We did a lot of work on the back end to create correlation guides and comparison charts to demonstrate that we had comparable coverage even if the book looked different.

Some faculty just won’t budge and will stick forever with tried and true. But there are many others who are hungry for something new and innovative. So we focused on those folks and really worked with them to develop and market the first edition.

An acquisitions editor may sometimes also be a challenge—they tend to be risk-averse and steer for the middle ground in peer reviewing. A student-centered design will be more polarizing, and sometimes your editor may get spooked. So there are sometimes some hard conversations there when you are in the thick of it with manuscript revisions and reviewing. A truly innovative product will often get some negative reviews and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It tells you and your editor that you really are doing something different.”