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Textbook pedagogy: Improving chapter summaries encourages collaborative learning

In my field, human anatomy and physiology (A&P), like many others, it is customary to end each textbook chapter with a concept review and self-testing exercises. For the first five editions of my Anatomy & Physiology—The Unity of Form and Function, I titled my end-of-chapter feature “Chapter Review” and its first section, “Review of Key Concepts.” I followed the traditional practice of summarizing the chapter in short declarative sentences like these:

  • Microvilli are short surface extensions of the plasma membrane that increase a cell’s surface area. They are especially well developed on absorptive cells, as in the kidney and small intestine. On some cells, they play a sensory role.
  • Parathyroid hormone is secreted by the parathyroid glands in response to hypocalcemia. It raises blood Ca2+ levels by indirectly stimulating osteoclasts, inhibiting osteoblasts, promoting calcitriol synthesis, and promoting Ca2+ conservation by the kidneys.

When students came to my office distressed over an exam grade saying “I studied so hard for this test and I still got a D”, I found all too many who described their study approach as just reading the chapter reviews and looking at the pictures. This bad impression was reinforced by many woefully inadequate essay answers on topics like the above. It was clear that many were using my summaries like high school students reading Cliff’s Notes in lieu of Shakespeare.

Beginning with my sixth edition (2012), I completely overhauled this. I retitled the section “Assess Your Learning Objectives.” I prefaced it, “To test your knowledge, discuss the following topics with a study partner or in writing, ideally from memory.” I replaced declarative sentences with prompts like these (corresponding to the two previously mentioned topics):

  • Structure and functions of microvilli, and where they are found.
  • The source of parathyroid hormone and multiple mechanisms by which it corrects hypocalcemia.

These tell students what they should know about, but not what to know about it. They put the burden on students to become active learners instead of passive recipients of my own digest. They require students to go back into the meat of the chapter to find out what to know about microvilli or parathyroid hormone, and they encourage collaborative learning.

As an added bonus for me, the new style is more concise than the old. In several cases, one item in the new style replaced two or three items in the older one. This helped to reduce the length of the chapter reviews and control overall textbook length in the face of ever-expanding knowledge in the field.

I have yet to see any of my A&P colleagues follow my example in their books, but in the classroom, I immediately saw much better essay answers and better overall exam grades. I think it was a good pedagogic move, and in a competitive market, I’m proud to be the only author who seems to be doing this so far. Until or unless the idea catches on, I think it favorably sets my books apart from others. But of course, my point in writing this is to welcome emulation.

Ken Saladin writes three college textbooks with McGraw-Hill Education, totaling 17 editions. He is solo author of Anatomy & Physiology: The Unity of Form and Function (recipient of a 2017 McGuffey Textbook Longevity Award) and Human Anatomy, each published in four languages. His third book, Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology, is coauthored with Robin McFarland.