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4 Steps to developing an effective textbook chapter

Thinking about writing a textbook can be much like planning to climb a mountain. A daunting task that may be overwhelming and requires both endurance and strength before even getting started. As we prepare to climb the mountain, however, we’re going to focus on taking it one step at a time. Relating this to textbook authoring, the steps in the development of chapters involves the creation of carefully crafted headings specific to pre-defined topics that are thoughtfully enhanced by pairing content with feature strands to engage the reader and exercises which reinforce learning located within or at the end of the chapter. Ultimately this process organizes our material into an effective table of contents built from continually applying this cycle of steps until every chapter in our textbook is properly developed and placed in the book.

1) Carefully crafted headings

In chapter 9 of the book, Writing and Developing Your College Textbook, Mary Ellen Lepionka stresses the need to take the time to get it right. Specifically, she says, “Because headings have high visibility, and because your textbook will be sold largely on the basis of its TOC, it is worth whatever time it takes you to get the organization and headings right.” A system of text headings and subheadings chunks information in a way that is functional for the reader. While there’s no one right way to structure headings, they should be straightforward and short and developed with a focus on how they serve the learner. Headings should serve as an organizational tool that helps the reader understand how they will use the content which follows and how it integrates into the rest of the content presented in the chapter or book.

2) Pre-defined topics

When developing your topics, it’s important to begin each new topic with a thesis statement or question in the first paragraph and then promptly explain why the topic is worthy of inclusion. Underdeveloped topics leave learners without adequate coverage of the topic, whereas overdeveloped topics may have readers tempted to skip over passages once they have achieved comprehension. Maintaining a balance and consistency in topical development can help you avoid either potential issue in your textbook. As you develop topics, cluster ideas into meaningful chunks, avoid topics without reference to any others, cross-refer to previous chapters but avoid forecasting, and make clear transitions across sections.

3) Pairing content with feature strands

Regularly occurring pedagogical features within the body of each chapter, often call feature strands, contribute to the educational value and visual appeal of your textbook. Some common feature strands for consideration include:

  • Scenarios / vignettes – Brief description of a real-life situation in the form of an account, news item, dialogue, or story problem
  • Epigrams – Brief attributed quotation
  • Case studies – In-depth analysis of an example or application
  • Profile – In-depth description of a narrowly defined subject
  • Primary sources – Excerpt from a document, first-person account, exhibit of evidence, or passage from literature
  • Thematic boxes – Description of event or developments reflecting the latest hot topics

Items in our final step, exercises which reinforce learning, may also serve as feature strands within chapters.

4) Exercises which reinforce learning

The key difference in this final step of chapter development from the previously noted feature strands, is the interactivity that is expected to engage the learner with the material. Some exercise options include:

  • Debate – While a debate may be presented as a narrative, it can also be converted to an interactive exercise with students expected to defend a particular position
  • Model or how-to – Application or demonstration of a desired behavior, practice, or principle in action
  • Reflection or rating form – The goal of a reflection is to engage the reader’s personal identification with the subject, prior knowledge, thought processes, and affective responses
  • Critical thinking exercise – These can be used as end of chapter items or appended to reflections and other features to make it interactive and encourage higher-level cognitive functioning
  • Supplemental tie-in – If your textbook comes with any supplemental material like readers, magazines, videos, software, etc. you should consider referencing those materials through embedded feature strands, annotations, or activities in the text that relate to them

If done right, the features discussed above greatly increase the salability of your textbook and the educational value for readers. Be sure to consider the choices and while you can’t successfully integrate them all, look at those which address student needs, fit your subject, express your key themes, are relevant to your audience, and can be provided systematically throughout the work. This information was adapted from the TAA publication, Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide by Mary Ellen Lepionka, Sean Wakely, and Stephen Gillen available through the TAA online store in both e-book and print versions.

Eric Schmieder

Eric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.