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09 June 2010

Textbook? What textbook?

I spent many years in search of an AP textbook that students could and would read, and that had good end-of-chapter problems in it.  Several books meet the latter criterion -- often by posing so many problems that sheer probablilty ensures a few good ones.  But none of the mainstream texts truly are readable by a typical AP student.  They cover far more than is on the AP exam, which one might call a strength; but a newbie physics student doesn't want breadth, he wants concise, to-the-point prose.  My students gave me heck about the $150 cost of a new book that they didn't find particularly helpful. 

My response:  I eliminated the textbook altogether for AP physics.

First, a couple of caveats.  The College Board's audit requires that each student have access in- and out of- school to his own copy of a text.  I meet that requirement because I now have an enormous set of books left by graduating students, donated by friends who didn't need them anymore, salvaged from lost-and-founds.  I take these text to our library and put them on reserve.  (I teach at a boarding school -- students have access to these books in the library day and night, and can even check them out.  Only one student ever did so.)

Secondly, I wouldn't recommend eliminating the textbook to a relatively new AP physics teacher.  Even though my students only used the texts occasionally, in my first few years *I* used the text regularly.  It was important that I figure out for myself which were good problems, how the text advises approaching each kind of problem, how the text presents material.  In those first few years, I needed to ask students to read some things out of necessity -- I didn't yet have the skills or the class time to teach every topic properly. 

Now, though, I have a generous bank of questions that I can ask for homework, virtually all of which are written by or at least substantially modified by me.  I don't need the end-of-chapter problems any more.  I also have taught each unit enough times that I actually don't *want* students reading a text.  (If I use slightly different language or procedure from a textbook, the students get crazy confused.  In the first few years, my correct approach was to adjust my language or procedure to match the text.  Now, I want the freedom to do things my way.)

Sure, a textbook offers more than just a how-to guide to approaching AP physics questions.  But I ask you:  is the extra enrichment privided by a textbook -- at least, provided to those who bother to read something beyond the immediate scope of the class -- worth $150 per student per year? 

My answer was "no".  Although I continued to require the $15 5 Steps to a 5 book, this year I did not ask students to buy a text.  I received no complaints.  One student did make use of the library reserve books, especially to read more details than I gave in class about atomic physics; that's consistent with the average number of students who did the same reading in the past few years.  An unintended consequence of eliminating the text was that more students read the 5 Steps book more frequently.  Since that book is carefully focused on only the information necessary for the AP physics exam, my students got far more significant benefits from what reading they were willing to do. 

In sum:  eliminating the textbook was an unmitigated success.

Now, all that remains is to find a similar approach for the general physics course.  Even though I've never found a decent textbook for that level, I'm not comfortable asking lower-level students to rely exclusively on their class notes for studying.  I'm not convinced that the textbook -- I use the Glencoe-Merrill monstrosity seemingly written by education majors for education majors -- does much good.  But in general physics I can't justify the lack of a text to a parent or administrator.  For AP, the justification is easy.

1 comment:

  1. What about The Physics Classroom?

    Or Kinetic Books?

    I don't give out a text in my General Physics (Regents-leve) class. We have enough copies of Glencoe for all students. Glencoe is so bad, I think it does more harm than good! I tell students if they want a book, I can loan them one. I have about one student each year who does this.