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Bringing textbooks to life: Strategies for improving student engagement

Educator, editor and author Michael Greer, of Development by Design, shares his philosophy behind, and strategies for, developing textbooks that enhance student engagement and learning.

TAA: As an educator, editor, and author, you are passionate about bringing textbooks to life to provide more effective and engaging student learning experiences. What inspired you to analyze and rethink content delivery for textbooks and other course materials?

Michael Greer: “I have been involved, on various levels, with the development of learning materials for more than two decades. A few years ago I was working with an author team to develop a new handbook for college writers. We contacted a usability expert (Tharon Howard, at the Clemson University Usability Testing Facility) and began with the goal of analyzing the usefulness of a market-leading handbook for writing. We set about to learn more about students and their ways of navigating and using textbooks, and to apply what we learned to designing a new writing handbook. In the design for our new handbook (which was ultimately published by Pearson), we used a more visual approach to help students see patterns—how sentences work, how citations are built, and so forth. We designed content to fit on two-page spreads, to support students who like to flip pages to find things. And we created a ‘layered’ design where information was provided in short overviews first, with details later, to support readers who like to ‘graze’ rather than read linearly.

This experience inspired me to learn more about how students read and learn, and how textbooks could be designed to better support their learning processes. I believe that for optimal learning, textbooks and course materials should be designed first for the student experience and second for the teacher’s, rather than for the teacher (or adopter) first.

TAA: Based on your further research in learning science, what core learning principles drive your design strategies?

MG: “After working on the handbook usability study, I was hooked. I set about to learn as much as I could about user experience design and the science of learning. Many people have been exploring questions about how students read, how online texts are different from printed texts, how images and multimedia support learning, and so forth. We are in the middle of a fundamental shift from print-based literacy to something new—call it multimodal literacy—that involves an interplay of words and images (and sometimes sound and voice as well). The good news is that there is a lot of exciting work out there that can help guide textbook authors and publishers.

The core principle is the idea that learning is active, not passive. Many textbooks and college lectures are based on the idea that the student is absorbing or receiving knowledge. This turns out not to be the most helpful way to conceive of learning. Learning science suggests that learners actively construct knowledge by connecting new concepts to existing knowledge. Teachers and textbook authors need to find ways to help students make connections between what they already know and the new material we want them to learn.

A second principle is closely related: learners need to guide and direct their own learning. Not every student will follow the same learning path. Some need to start with examples and scenarios. Others might need to define terms as a starting point. So textbooks need to be designed to support different learning paths. We don’t want to force a particular linear path through the material onto students.

You can easily perform a little test to see if a textbook you are using today supports multiple learning paths. Open the book to the middle of a chapter. Can you make sense of the material? Or do you find that you have to backtrack to the beginning of the chapter? Would you be able to navigate the chapter by focusing primarily on visuals and examples? Are activities dispersed throughout the chapter, where students can test themselves and practice applying new ideas? Or are all the activities clustered at the end of the chapter? Many textbook chapters are designed on the assumption that students will start at the beginning and read straight through to the end, and we know this is not how most readers (including ourselves!) will actually use their textbooks.”

TAA: What specific textbook design strategies do you recommend to improve student engagement and learning?

MG: “Three strategies in particular can be useful for textbook authors, whether they are starting a new book or revising an existing text. The first of these is a strategy often known as backward design. In backward design, you begin by identifying where you want the student to be at the end of the chapter or unit. The essential ingredient in this process is to define learning outcomes. A learning outcome identifies something a student should know or be able to do upon completion of a unit (or a course). Once you have identified a few learning outcomes for a chapter, for instance, you can design ‘backward’—how do I help the student get to the goal? What information does she need to complete the steps along the way? A key advantage of backward design is that it tends to focus attention on the learner rather than on the subject matter. It helps guide authors toward designing content for users instead of trying to ‘cover’ a certain amount of content.

Modularity is a second key design strategy. In a modular design, chapters are developed as a series of short mini-lessons instead of a single discussion or narrative. Modularity supports active learning because it prompts textbook authors to integrate activities and practice applications throughout a chapter instead of clustering them at the end. We know that students need frequent opportunities to test themselves, apply new ideas, and practice with new approaches to a process. Authors might even consider adding pre-reading quizzes and activities, before introducing new ideas or terms. Asking students to guess or predict answers to questions is a proven way to help them activate prior knowledge on a subject before encountering new ideas.

Multimedia is the third key design strategy in the toolkit. Multimedia can be any type of visual or digital media that extends ideas presented in the text into other sensory modalities (visual, oral, auditory). Multimedia does not necessarily have to be high-tech or high-budget. Even simple line drawings can be powerful learning tools. In a nutshell, many textbooks would benefit from a ‘fewer words, more pictures’ makeover process. I like to challenge myself and the authors I work with by asking ‘how could we teach this concept using only images?’ Textbook authors tend to be highly verbal and extremely gifted practitioners of print literacy—the same is not always true for the readers we are trying to teach. Think about how you learn. When you need to learn, say, a new software application, would you rather read a text-based narrative describing how the application works? Or would you prefer a walk-through using a combination of short verbal descriptions and static screen images? Or would a video tutorial be even better? As textbook authors, we need to support all of these options and allow students to learn the way they need to learn.”


TAA: How do these design strategies work together?

MG: “It turns out that these three strategies work well as a three-step process. Begin with backward design, to define overall learning outcomes first and then work backward to identify more granular chapter-level outcomes and activities. Then move into the next step, using a modular approach to arrange these granular outcomes into a learning path, interweaving opportunities for students to test themselves, review concepts, and practice using new ideas. Then layer in visual and digital media elements to connect visual, verbal, and audio learning channels. Obviously this is a simplified model of a complex process, and authors in different subject areas will want to modify this approach. But I like the clarity and simplicity of this three-step process, and I have found that authors are often quite good at applying this process to develop or revise material for their books.”


TAA: Can you recommend any resource books for those who are interested in learning more about learning science and the current trends in content delivery?

MG: “An accessible starting point is Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen. This book, now in its second edition, is written for e-learning specialists and others who design online learning. Its methods can easily be applied to print textbooks as well. Dirksen is a great starting point for folks who may be new to learning theory or user-experience design, and it assumes no prior knowledge. I’ve used it in reading groups with development editors, and also recommended it to authors I work with.

James M. Lang’s Small Teaching is a great book for anyone who teaches and wants to discover ways to connect learning science to teaching. Lang’s book is in many ways a synthesis of about two decades’ worth of work in cognitive neuroscience research on learning. He simplifies that work and shows how to apply it in very practical ways to teaching, down to the level of how and when to give quizzes. It’s the kind of book you can use in class tomorrow, and it has many applications for textbook authors as well.

Richard E. Mayer is an author whose work has basically built the foundations for modern multimedia learning. His encyclopedic Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning provides a treasure-trove of research. I also recommend E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, which he co-authored with Ruth Colvin Clark.”

Michael Greer is an educator, editor, and author who has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He has conducted a number of usability studies on college textbooks, published on textbook design and usability, and studied the ways in which students read and use textbooks. He worked as a development editor at Pearson for 15 years before starting his own company, Development by Design. Michael teaches online courses in editing and publishing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is editor for the journal Research in Online Literacy Education.