To Use A Textbook, Or Not?

Everyone likes textbooks

Teachers like a textbook because teaching from a text can require less work than other approaches. Many texts provide extra resources such as Chapter Tests, worksheets of extra problems, and project support materials that save time for a teacher. Furthermore, a teacher’s edition of the text can also remind teachers of alternative approaches to a topic, give guidance on sequence and timing, and make it easier to coordinate with other teachers who are teaching the same course.

Parents like a textbook because it shows them what their child has learned and will learn. It also explains the approach being used in greater detail than their child probably can, which is vital when the approach differs from the one the parent learned when they were in school. If a child has questions which the parent cannot readily answer, the parent can use the textbook to help the child figure out the answer.

Students like a textbook because it gives them Chapter Review problems, Sample Tests, and answers to the even numbered problems. It also usually has everything they need to know highlighted in boxes or bold print, so there is seldom much of a need to take notes in class.

Everyone hates Textbooks

Teachers can be constrained by textbooks if they seek to cover material at a faster pace, or in greater depth, or with a more “constructivist” approach than the author(s) used. The explanations in texts can be too dry, or simplistic, or procedural. The problems in textbooks can be too few in number, too easy, and/or not relevant enough for their students. Textbooks often seem to facilitate or encourage memorization instead of understanding. New textbooks may seem to be written by committee, in a manner that will be approved for use statewide – they are trying to be all things to all people, and unfortunately lose personality in the process. If a teacher feels the need to develop their own problems and tests, and teach material their own way, why bother using a text?

Parents don’t like to see their children carrying multiple 5 pound books around in a backpack all day. The cost of purchasing a textbook is high (to either the school or the parent). The number of full-color visual distractions on every page can make a parent wonder how their child ever learns anything from this text, and also partially explains why it costs so much.

Students don’t like having to carry a large heavy book around, and hate having to carry more than one such book at a time. They often don’t bother reading the explanations in the text – who needs to, when the important formula is nicely highlighted in a yellow box? Besides, the explanations can be dry and may not take the same approach to a problem that the student (or their teacher) prefers.

The perils of not using a text

A great deal of work goes into developing a textbook. If a teacher decides not to use one, they have much work to do – in addition to evaluating student work!

Every class meeting needs a plan. What are the primary and secondary objectives for the class? How will I make this topic relevant and engaging for my students? What skills, content, and concepts must they have mastered before tackling this topic? What skills, content, and concepts do I wish them to master in this class? What format do I wish to use for the class? How will I assess understanding? I’ll have to develop thoughtful answers to these questions and more for every single class period…

Most math or science classes also need a problem bank, along with remedial, supplemental, stretch, and enrichment problems. Picking and choosing problems from multiple available resources can be time consuming; making them up yourself can be even more so, and increases the risk of overlooking one or more problem types or variations that students should be comfortable with.

If the students do not have a text, how will they review for quizzes or tests? Do I need to take the time to also teach good study habits (note taking, reflection, creating regular summaries of material to date, etc.) as well as the subject curriculum [Yes, always!]? What to do about a student who did a poor job of taking notes and is distraught the day before the test? Or the student (or parent) who is upset that I am not making their life easier by providing notes for them?

The advantages of not using a text

Not using a text can make it easier for the teacher to:

  • Pose a problem for students to wrestle with before discussing it as a class, with less risk they will use other people’s work (the text, the internet) instead of doing their own thinking.
  • Ask students to create their own summaries of material covered to date, to better master the material and use as a study guide. When there is no text, this marvelous learning tool is not seen as a redundant exercise by students.

– Fine-tune the pace and depth with which material is covered. Some classes may prefer to learn one micro-step at a time, while others may prefer to bite off big chunks at a time.

– Provide multiple authors’ perspectives on a topic, and ask students to debate which is most relevant or useful and why.

In general, it feels bit easier to get students to think for themselves, to build their own understanding of the material, when they cannot use a text as a crutch. Many students seem to stop thinking for themselves when they read a text or know they will be told if their answer is right or wrong. Isn’t it more important to teach students “to think”, and to understand the concepts behind the course content, than to have them memorize a bunch of procedures for just long enough to pass the test?


If a text that shares my teaching philosophy and presents the material in a way that appeals to me exists, it is a much more efficient use of my time to use it. Furthermore, if such a text is relatively small, light weight, and does not cost too much – I’ll use it every time.

However, if I cannot find such a text, I have a difficult decision to make. Should I compromise the approach I think is most effective in order to reduce my workload? Or stick to my ideals and risk burnout? Or perhaps take time off and write the text I seek, in exchange for an uncertain financial return?

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.


  1. Well, actually, many text book companies now allows an instructor to customize a textbook line-by-line or at least be able to delete irrelevant sections.

    It is of my opinion that both teachers and students prefer concise texts. However, these text books tend to be aimed for gifted children. For example, Gelfand’s books on algebra and precalculus are concise and cheap. However, they are too sophisticated for the average student.

  2. I believe I speak on behalf of math tutors worldwide when I say: If at all possible use a text book, or at the very least provide the student with a list of the accepted names for the theorems, proofs, etc… that are being taught so that “we” tutors can spend less time trying to figure out what is being taught and more time teaching/tutoring.

    1. If the subject being taught/tutored is Geometry… from a tutor’s perspective I agree with you completely, as relying on student notes for acceptable vocabulary that often varies from school to school can be very challenging.

      However, I think your plea for the information needed to support a student would be well met by a sufficiently detailed syllabus in many non-Geometry courses.

      When tutoring, I frequently rely on my library of old math texts to provide a more diverse or more challenging set of problems. In fact I seldom use the student’s text as a source of additional problems, with Geometry being my big exception to that statement. Having said that, if a student cannot describe the topic they have questions about sufficiently, and the syllabus (if any) is not sufficiently detailed, it can be difficult to determine exactly how the topic is being approached by the teacher… then again, the same problem can arise when a student DOES have a textbook, but the teacher uses an approach that is different than the text’s for a variety of reasons (no textbook is perfect).

      Ideally, no student would require outside tutoring assistance, and this would be a non-issue. But, for many reasons, I respect many teachers’ choices to deviate from the textbook or focus on topics that are not part of the textbook. In such cases, I have found most teachers in my area to be very helpful when I contact them via e-mail for information about what topic(s) they are teaching at the moment, and how they prefer to approach them. So, that can help get around the need for a text… providing the teacher is willing to work with outside tutors.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: