College Insights · Article

Dear Faculty: Your Students Need Books

February 14, 2019

Faculty know that college students need books: They’re an essential component of education. But some students have begun regarding required course materials as an optional expense. Many teachers have heard the call for more affordable textbook adoptions. Even more are aware that students don’t always arrive in class prepared.

Fewer teachers may realize that when students don’t complete their reading assignments, it might not be for the usual reasons: jobs, social lives, families. It might be because they don’t have the required course materials available to read.

A decline in course material purchases

More than 80 percent of students forgo a textbook purchase at least once in college, according to eBook platform VitalSource. Over 90 percent of those who skip a book purchase say they do so because of cost. That suggests that more affordable textbooks will beget more purchases, which, in turn, will ensure more students are prepared for class.

However, Barnes & Noble Insights data show that some students don’t regard course materials as important. It also suggests that faculty might see improved student achievement if they devoted a portion of class to explaining why course materials are important.

In a 2019 BNC survey of undergraduates:

52% said having required books for class is either somewhat important, not that important or not important at all

64% said that their teachers explain the importance of course materials only sometimes, not much or not at all

Why students don’t buy the course materials faculty require

Yes, textbook costs soared a phenomenal 1,000-plus percent between the 1970s and 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They have dropped slightly in the last two years, largely because faculty are adopting more affordable texts, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

However, data on Generation Z, those born after 1995, suggests that the problem goes beyond finances. Student reading habits have changed with the rise of the internet. While most high schoolers spend at least six hours daily checking social media, far fewer voluntarily engage with a book or periodical, whether its print or digital, according to San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, whose book iGen examines the attitudes of the latest cohort to enter college.

According to Twenge’s research, the percentage of high school students reporting that they read daily by choice dropped from 60 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2016.

Young people who have little experience with reading would find it difficult to comprehend the cost of course materials. A Norton Anthology of Literature, for instance, lists at about $73. New textbooks for science, economics and mathematics courses can easily cost $200 to $400. A reading-averse student who encountered such prices would be far less likely to buy their required books than one who understood their value.

Affordable course material options

One way for faculty can approach this issue is to become educated in lower-cost course material options that have become available in their discipline. The selection has increased greatly in recent years.

Adopting OER (now available in print via Rice University’s OpenStax) or digital eBooks saves students money. Another increasingly popular option is inclusive access, which incorporates a charge for course materials into tuition or fees and ensures students have their books on the first day of class.

Finally, teachers responsible for large general education courses might find a solution in OER-based courseware. Companies like BNED LoudCloud bundle OER with faculty-vetted assessments, video and study guides that allow teachers to easily monitor student progress. Even with the courseware, the cost per student for LoudCloud course materials is far lower than it is for standard textbooks.

Teaching the value of course materials

Beyond investigating lower-priced options, faculty can make a habit of including a discussion about the value of course materials in class. Textbooks may be costly, but they’re typically much more reliable sources of information than students may realize.

Many smart-phone-raised young people start college without awareness of the distinction between Googled information on, say, the workings of the human body, and information that comes from a vetted scholarly anatomy text.

Good information exists on the internet, of course, but students must learn (usually in college) to distinguish solid material from tripe. How can they do that without a strong basis of comparison? They need books, and they need teachers who can show them the difference between their textbook chapter on slavery in pre-revolutionary America and the Wikipedia entries on such topics.

Every class a student takes in college furthers his or her fundamental reading skills, which, in turn, furthers metacognition. Learning how to learn independently is an extremely valuable skill in today’s ever-changing workforce. However, students must have access to their required materials for this to happen.

Taking steps to encourage your students to attain copies of the required reading material for your course will help them graduate as stronger readers and learners. This ensures they will be better prepared the complexities of work and life beyond college.

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