How engineering students use their textbooks
Mark Atwater posted on October 03, 2013 |
Researchers look at how students use their textbooks in problem solving.

The engineering student, past or present, can tell you a lot about their textbooks. They’re most likely to tell you they’re heavy, expensive and at times, downright confusing. But can they tell you what they learned from them? Engineering educators have been seeking an answer.

A group of engineering educators looked at how engineering students used their textbooks. The results, published in the Journal of Engineering Education, “examined how students employed a textbook in order to generate detailed descriptions of students’ behaviors, approaches, and reflections regarding their actual problem-solving experiences.”

Students have been found to use textbooks primarily for looking up properties and finding formulae, but not necessarily to better understand the material. Other studies have shown that when engineering students read a related passage before solving problems, they are apt to use more sophisticated strategies when solving those problems. That’s where the disconnect comes in.

As described in the paper, “Most of students’ time spent with textbooks involves solving problems and much less time is spent reading for content. These findings contrast with many instructors’ expectations and beliefs, for they often instruct their students to read the textbook, advising that reading it will lead to better course performance.”

To determine how the students used their textbooks for problem-solving, a “think-aloud” approach was used. During the think-aloud sessions, students were instructed to verbalize any thoughts that came to mind as they solved four materials engineering problems. The students were recorded and interviewed over multiple sessions to determine how they used the textbook.

“A common approach taken when consulting the textbook example problems was directly applying the solution pathway in the example problem to the problem at hand without critical reflection. This use of example problems was frequently cited, particularly in cases where students were unsure of how to solve a problem. Students often described applying the steps in an example problem to their own problem-solving activity without much consideration for why these steps were being taken.” textbook used is extremely formative to a course. An instructor will follow, at least to some degree, the textbook format. This influences the material covered and the depth at which it is covered. There is also the option of introducing material from a variety of sources and not even having a set textbook.

At the student level, using multiple sources makes referencing material somewhat fragmented. They may have to get multiple books or rely entirely on the instructor’s notes. To some students that is very frustrating. Others may be benefitted. It inhibits the automatic, follow-the-example response. This may also be addressed by textbooks themselves. Rather than being a list of facts and numbers, they can be written in a more descriptive, conversational tone that encourages students to use them for learning, not just reference.

It may also be somewhat of a non-issue. According to the study, “…being limited to a single textbook as their reference source was not representative of [the students’] real-life problem-solving experiences. Several students stated that the Internet is their primary reference source outside the classroom.” Even so, lugging around a bag full of books is still good exercise.



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