Textbooks in Teaching and Learning



Publishers are aware that British students are buying fewer books, and sales of textbooks over the past three years have been disappointing. A group of publishers and booksellers commissioned two studies: one to look at students’ attitudes to university, learning and to teaching and learning materials; the other to explore lecturers’ views of textbooks and their place in the teaching process. This article examines the findings of the two studies and concludes that while students find textbooks helpful, the books are no longer the lynchpin of university learning materials; they are now just part of a wider mix of learning resources that include on-line journals, VLEs, and custom-published materials.

Though students in British Higher Education spend some £150m a year on textbooks, the publishers of those books would freely admit that they know little about how students learn. Publishers know lecturers, and they know something about what lecturers know about students. But they have little independent knowledge of those students and how they use textbooks in their studies. It is possible that publishers are not alone in their ignorance. As John Thompson, who combines the roles of Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the publisher Polity, has written

‘Textbook publishers are not alone in knowing very little about what actually happens in the study space – most professors and lecturers know relatively little as well. The study space is in many ways a black box and what happens within it is shrouded in mystery.’

What publishers do know is that British students are buying fewer books. Though data is hard to come by, the clear consensus among both publishing and bookselling communities is that sales in the key autumn book buying period were disappointing in 2003 and 2004 and scarcely better in 2005. That trend has mobilized the academic book industry to research students’ and lecturers’ attitudes to and use of textbooks, and to work together to promote their value. This paper gives an account of that research and in doing so shines some light on the processes of student learning.

Three studies

Working under the auspices of the Publishers Association, a group of publishers and booksellers commissioned a study of students’ attitudes to university, learning and teaching and learning materials. A second smaller study explored lecturers’ views of textbooks and their place in the teaching process.

The first, conducted by HI Europe in April 2005, involved 771 face-to-face intercept interviews, each lasting an average of 10 minutes. This quantitative approach was supplemented by qualitative research in which 36 respondents took part in two moderated bulletin board groups over a three-day period. All respondents were full-time students, with a natural distribution of age and gender, but with quotas imposed to ensure equal representation by year and field of study, by university and between new and old universities.

The second study, conducted by Gold Leaf the following month, involved telephone interviews with 21 lecturers teaching across a wide range of subjects, and again almost equally divided between old and new universities.

Some issues addressed in this study were further explored in an additional piece of research commissioned from Harris Interactive by the Publishers Association and reported in May 2006. Based on 100 telephone and 202 Internet interviews with academics currently teaching undergraduates, this work explored academics’ attitudes towards study materials, among other issues.

These pieces of research were not designed to address an identical set of questions, and the second study was on too small a scale to claim any statistical significance. However, taken together they offer some insights as to where students’ and lecturers’ views of textbooks and other learning resources are shared, and where they diverge.

The value of textbooks

The picture emerging from the 2005 Publishers Association study is one of students who see university as a route to a good, well-paid career. They know full well that to succeed in the graduate jobs market they will need good grades and at least a 2:1. It is this rather than the pursuit of learning for its own sake that drives them through university. Lecturers express disappointment that students appear to be taking less academic interest in their subject and are concerned that students read less than they would like.

Whether or not students do read around their subject less than they used to, the student survey found emphatically that they do value their textbooks. 91% described them as important in their learning. They see textbooks as providing a context for their learning and supporting their understanding of the subject. Compared with other materials, textbooks house a great deal of information in one place and are logically organized and easy to learn from.

The great majority of lecturers share this positive view, with 87% of them prescribing one or more core textbooks for their courses. Their use of these textbooks varies widely, however. About half of those interviewed in the second study refer closely to a textbook when teaching first (and sometimes second-year) students, giving chapter references before or after lectures. Others resist this ‘American’ model of working through a book chapter by chapter. Some complain that available textbooks do not match the coverage or approach of the course as they prefer to teach it, and that ‘blockbuster’ textbooks, which try to cover all bases, are unnecessarily unwieldy and expensive.

The importance of presentation

If there is some ambivalence about ‘American-style’ textbooks, both students and lecturers agree on the value of good presentation. Students comment that the most important element of a textbook is its design and layout, and they value case studies, chapter summaries and end-of-chapter questions. For them, a clear structure is essential in supporting ease of use and ease of learning.

While lecturers are unanimous about the significance of presentation, they vary in the importance of different features. For some, well-drawn diagrams, good illustrations and clear page layout are all-important. Others stress that a good prose style is paramount – important for all students, but especially for those from overseas. If many appreciate the care taken by publishers over presentation, some comment that ‘America- style’ textbooks come with a price attached and that glossy packaging is no substitute for solid content.

Price and value for money

Price is indeed a sensitive but complex issue. About half the lecturers interviewed in the Gold Leaf study mentioned the cost of books, with some saying they would not expect a student to buy a book costing more than £20. Students do generally consider textbooks to be very expensive, particularly when they ma
y be buying for more than one module at a time. However, they see textbooks offering value for money, especially if the book is integrated into or referred to in lectures and if the whole book is relevant to the module. And for the ‘careerist’ student, that expensive textbook can be a good investment. As one put it:

‘They’re very expensive, but I guess the publishers can get away with charging these high prices because we students need them. I suppose it is only a short-term cost to ultimately getting a good degree and getting a better job.’

A route to exam success?

Does textbook purchase correlate with exam success? Lecturers are uncertain. Some see book purchasing as evidence of motivation, and note that well-motivated students are more likely to succeed. Others point out that students may be well motivated but impoverished, and may achieve the same results by making good use of varied resources in the library, while those who did purchase may be too reliant on one text. In fact, there is no correlation between textbook purchase and the grade achieved. Neither is there a relationship between the numbers of books used by a student during a course and results he or she achieves, as the 2005 Publishers Association student study showed (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Publishers Association Textbook Survey, HI Europe (2005), p. 22. Figure 1

Figure 2: Publishers Association Textbook Survey, HI Europe (2005), p. 23

Figure 2

If that finding is of little encouragement to publishers, it would not be a complete surprise to lecturers and students. Both groups may value textbooks, but neither sees them as sufficient in themselves – as a ‘one-stop’ route to academic success. Most lecturers see textbooks as an important or essential component of the teaching and learning mix, alongside lectures, seminars, independent research or group work. They are clear that textbooks are not an adequate single source of information, certainly beyond the first year. They are also understandably sensitive about the notion that a textbook might substitute for the value that they provide as teachers, or that a textbook represents a distillation of the author’s exceptional teaching expertise. Students are also clear that they need to make use of a variety of sources, particularly in preparing essays and assignments.

Textbooks in relation to other learning resources

What other resources do student use, therefore? Unsurprisingly, the great majority make use of the university library and the Internet (89% in both cases), with the university intranet and journal articles being used by more than half (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Publishers Association Textbook Survey, HI Europe (2005), p. 58.

Figure 3

It is reasonable to assume here that the widespread availability of journals on-line in British HEIs has had a significant impact on the use by students of journal articles in their studies, an assumption that would no doubt be borne out by publishers’ and librarians’ usage statistics. Indeed the Publishers Association 2006 survey of university teachers found that while 87% prescribe the use of core textbooks in their courses, 76% now also prescribe journals in their teaching. 51% make use of some form of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), tallying therefore with the use of the university intranet by 57% of students in the earlier study. Those VLEs are essentially used to provide information to students and to interact with them. In so far as they are a vehicle for learning materials, that material originates within the university and is unpublished – typically lecture notes, handouts and assessments. While lecturers value increasingly the convenience offered both to them and their students by VLEs, and are strongly encouraged by their universities in their use, they have some misgivings that some might read lectures posted on the intranet as a substitute for attendance.

Their views of the Internet itself are yet more mixed. In comparison with textbooks, which are seen to date all too rapidly in some subject areas, Internet sites can offer current and valuable information. The Internet may also in some courses be a good source of examples or project work, where the textbook covers the essential theory. Against these positive views are frequently voiced concerns that information on the Internet may be unreliable, sites may disappear, and students may waste time on the web. For all that, they recognize they cannot break students’ habits. As one put it:

‘I don’t encourage Internet use, but students do it anyway. I might recommend some authoritative websites on occasion – but then you wake up and find they have gone.’

The ambivalence of lecturers is perhaps evident in one surprising finding of the Publishers Association 2006 survey of academics. Whereas in 2003 75% of lecturers were prescribing free web sites in their courses, only 53% of them are doing so now; and where 66% were prescribing paid-for web sites in 2003, that number has declined to 54% now.

Figure 4: Publishers Association Textbook Survey, HI Europe (2005), p. 59.

Figure 4

The textbook recommendation process

For the most part, then, students share the views of their lecturers about the value and role of textbooks in their learning. There are some telling differences, however, in their assumptions about the process of textbook recommendation and purchase.

As we have seen, the great majority of lecturers do indeed prescribe a core textbook. By their own reports in the Publishers Association 2006 survey, 40% of them stipulate the particular textbook the students require, while 55% suggest a range of textbooks, leaving the end choice to the students themselves. Research shows that 20% of lecturers recommend that students buy the books they prescribe, with 50% recommending the purchase of one book or more, while 23% suggest that students only consult the required books. Lecturers, however, are somewhat pessimistic about the likelihood of students actually making a purchase. Only around a fifth of them believe more than 75% of students purchase their own textbooks, while almost a quarter believe the proportion of purchasers to be fewer than 25% (see Figures 5, 6, and 7).

Figure 5: Higher Education Study for the Publishers Association by Harris Interactive (May 2006), p. 23.

Figure 5

Figure 6: Higher Education Study for the Publishers Association by Harris Interactive (May 2006), p. 24.

Figure 6

Figure 7: Higher Education Study for the Publishers Association by Harris Interactive (May 2006), p. 29.

Figure 7

How then do students perceive their lecturers’ recommendations? Data from the 2005 textbook survey shows lecturers recommending a relatively large number of books per course: five on average. According to the students, only 15% of lecturers recommend a single course book. The great majority (79%) recommend several.

Some leave students to pick from a reading list, while a roughly equal number suggest students pick one of several alternative main course texts. In passing, it is worth comparing this British experience in which only 15% of lecturers ‘adopt’ a required text with the American practice in which the almost universal practice is for the Professor to choose one book for his or her course, which is then bought new or used by the vast majority of students.

On the face of it, then, there is some discrepancy between lecturers’ and students’ reports of the range of titles being recommended, with students perceiving lecturers to be less narrowly prescriptive than lecturers themselves think. There is also some mismatch between what lecturers expect students to buy and students’ actual behaviour. For all the lecturers’ pessimism, students report that they are buying on average 2.0 new recommended textbooks per course plus on average 0.5 used books. First- and second-year students (2.3 and 2.2 respectively) are more likely to buy new books based on the lecturer’s recommendation than third (1.6) or fourth years (1.0). Surprisingly perhaps, only just over a quarter of students said they did not buy a recommended textbook for their last course. In cash terms, students report spending £61.40 on new textbooks per course per semester and £26.10 on used books. First years are the biggest spenders on both new (£65.30) and used (£30.70) textbooks.

In deciding what to buy, and whether to buy, the lecturer’s recommendation is crucial. Today’s students may be increasingly consumer-savvy in their approaches to learning but when asked how they decide which books and resources to use, they look to their lecturers first and foremost. The correlation between a strong lecturer recommendation and the purchase of a textbook is striking – 83% of students who received a strong textbook recommendation from their lecturer purchased a book compared with 30% of those receiving a weak recommendation. Of those who did not buy a book, 64% received a moderate or weak recommendation. In addition, of those who did buy, almost three quarters bought only books that had been recommended to them.

It is clear from this that students find textbook recommendations helpful – perhaps more so than their lecturers realize. The likelihood that a recommendation will result in a purchase depends significantly on the strength of the endorsement, which in turn relates to the centrality of the book to the course. As one student put it

‘If a book was continually recommended by both lecturers and seminar leaders, I would be more inclined to buy it as I would be more certain that it was going to be of use.’

The view from publishing

For publishers viewing this process from a distance, there must be some concern that lecturers may underestimate how positively students view textbooks, how much they value their textbook recommendations, and how likely they are to actually buy them. There may be some concern too that while students appear to value guidance in which books to use and buy, students perceive lecturers to give less precise and prescriptive suggestions than lecturers themselves think. A greater anxiety is that some lecturers may not be aware of how critical they are in the decision to purchase and may not appreciate that a less than strong endorsement for a book means is it less likely to be bought. It may also be sobering to publishers to see that there appears to be no clear correlation between book purchasing and grades achieved. But perhaps the clearest message publishers will take from this research is that the textbook is not the lynchpin of university learning materials, as perhaps it was when they were students themselves. As both lecturers and students make clear, the textbook is now just one (highly valued) part of a wider mix of learning resources, which now includes on-line journals, VLEs and custom-published materials. For publishers, that is both a threat and opportunity.


The Textbook Survey discussed here was conducted by HI Europe on behalf of the Publishers Association. HI’s Project Team was made up of Jim Whelan, Rob Horton and Julie Bauer. The lecturer survey was conducted by Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf. The Publishers Association 2006 Higher Education Study was also conducted by Harris Interactive, with Julie Bauer as Research Manager. Thanks are also due to all members of the Publishers Association Textbook Action Group, especially to Graham Taylor, Katherine Alexander and Vicky Read of the PA, Julie Francis of Bonsai and Dominic Knight, the TAG Chairman.


Philip Carpenter, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Philip Carpenter is Director of the Academic and Science Division of Blackwell Publishing Ltd. He is responsible for Blackwell’s book publishing for Higher Education worldwide in the Humanities, Social Science and Science. He is also a member of the company’s Management Committee and a Director of Blackwell Publishing Asia. He is a long-standing member of the Industry Advisory Board of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes University.

Adrian Bullock

Adrian Bullock is Principal Lecturer in Learning & Teaching, and Director of International Development, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University

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Jane Potter

Jane Potter is Lecturer in Publishing, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University. Her teaching and research interests include the history of British publishing, war literature and propaganda, and women’s writing. Her book Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918 was published by OUP in 2005.

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