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Pedagogy Corner: How speedbumps can accelerate student learning

speedbumpsAs a textbook author, have you ever asked your students how they read your book? An inquiry into how your students read their textbooks may reveal much information that can help authors design textbooks with students in mind.

I recall when I was a college student―yes, a very long time ago―how I read a textbook chapter for a college course: I set aside at least 3 hours of undistracted time, read the entire chapter word-for-word, took copious notes, spent time examining and understanding all of the figures, and then systematically answered every single end-of-chapter question. Only after this procedure did I feel like I had a good understanding of the material.

Fast-forward to today, when I am a college instructor and textbook author. I have an extra credit assignment for my students to evaluate a chapter in my textbook that helps guide me in improving the book and making it more useful to future students. When we meet to review the chapter, I always ask students about how they read the textbook. While the responses I receive can hardly be deemed an extensive scientific study, I have noticed some trends about how students read my book. One of those items is that most students don’t read an entire chapter in one sitting as I used to. Rather, they have limited time to read, so they end up reading at most one section in a chapter at a sitting. And with the mobility of an eText, they may read their book at the beach, at a coffeehouse, or even waiting in line at the grocery store. It’s no wonder that when students finish a chapter piecemeal and begin the end-of-chapter questions, they are sometimes unsure if those questions are even explained in the chapter!

I mentioned this observation during a discussion with one of my former editors. He seemed to agree, and had an idea to help students retain the material. He called it “chunk it out” by making each section an independent entity. And, this would entail embedding the appropriate end-of-chapter questions at the end of each section, which he called “speedbumps” after those annoying humps in roads to slow down traffic.  I’m not sure if he invented these titles or if the names were beginning to be common practice in the publishing industry, but they made sense to me. So a few editions ago I reorganized my book to chunk out information and use speedbumps.

Here’s what a speedbump looks in my textbook, Essentials of Oceanography, 13th Edition, Trujillo and Thurman (Pearson Education © 2020):

The great part about speedbumps (aka “Concept Checks”) is that if students don’t know the answer to those few questions, they can find them in that section, which is normally the previous three-to-five pages. Also, the design better fits how many students read. The response I have received from students is that they do read those speedbumps and it helps them remember key points about each section. Ironically, speedbumps really do accelerate student learning!

Al TrujilloAl Trujillo is a Distinguished Teaching Emeritus Professor of Oceanography at Palomar College in San Marcos California. He is a co-author of two leading college-level oceanography textbooks: Essentials of Oceanography and Introductory Oceanography. The 10th edition of Essentials of Oceanography was awarded the TAA Textbook Excellence Award for textbook excellence, and the 12th edition was awarded the TAA McGuffey Longevity Award for textbook longevity.