Tips for choosing college textbooks for classes you teach

by Julie Dodd

An important part of your success as an instructor is based on the books and other materials you select for students to use as part of your course.

Good textbooks and online readings can help students be both better prepared for class and provide some of the instruction.

Barnes & Noble screen capture

Barnes & Noble and Follett are two of the companies that operate many college bookstores. As of March 2018, Barnes & Noble College operated bookstores on more than 780 campuses in the US.

Selecting a weak textbook or requiring too many textbooks can lead to students being overwhelmed which can be reflected in the students’ participation in class, academic performance, and the evaluations they give you at the end of the semester.

Let me offer ten tips for selecting textbooks and other course materials (i.e., online readings, textbook online resources).

Tip #1 – Determine the purpose of the textbook

Remember that the book is not the creator of the course – you are. The book (or other materials) should support your approach to the course. Finding a textbook that will include everything you’d want – and in the way you’d want it presented — probably will be impossible, unless you write the textbook yourself.  Look for materials that support what you are doing that provide a good background, examples and illustrations.  Consider the following questions when considering a textbook:

  • Does the book provide foundation information for the course?
  • Will the book provide assignments, exercises, labs, or case studies for student practice or assessment?
  • Does the book provide a point of view or different points of view that contribute to a broader understanding of issues involved in the course?

Tip #2 – Find out what textbooks other instructors are using

Amazon textbooks screen capture

Amazon has more than a 20 percent share of the college textbook market, as more students move to renting college textbooks.

When you are assigned to teach a course for the first time, you can ask what book(s) the previous instructor used. If you’re assigned to teach the course just a few weeks before the start of the course, you may have to use the book the previous instructor adopted because that is the book that was announced for the course or you don’t have time to review other books in time to order a different book.

Find out how your course fits into the curriculum and what books are being used elsewhere in the curriculum. You also can search for the syllabi and websites of similar courses at other institutions and see what books those instructors are using. Textbook representatives can provide you with textbook options for your course.

Tip #3 – Review materials before adopting them

Most textbook companies and publishers are eager to have you adopt their materials. So most will provide an examination copy for your review. Typically you will complete an online form or talk with a publisher’s representative to request the book. You may be asked to return the book if you decide not to adopt the book.

Reviewing the book enables you to evaluate the writing style, the readability of the book, and the resource materials included, such as maps, diagrams, index and examples. A book that looks promising when you read the table of contents may not be as effective when you actually read it.

Tip #4 – Decide if students must purchase textbook access codes or support materials

Cengage screen capture

Cengage, as other college textbook companies, provides textbook in print and digital formats and offers course support materials that require a paid access code.

Some textbooks comes with a wide array of support materials – workbooks, test banks, online practice assignments. Sometimes those materials, such as the workbook, may be a physical book and come “bundled” with the textbook. More often, those materials are behind a paywall and require an access code, which can add $100 to the cost of the book.

Are those materials necessary? If you decide that they are, be sure to talk with your students about the benefit of those materials for them and be sure to utilize those materials so students consider that they are getting value for the investment.

Tip #5 – Decide what is required and what is recommended

As you decide which books the students should buy, consider the students’ money and time. screen capture is one of many online sources of college textbooks.

Always check to see how much the book costs. You may be surprised to find that a seemingly modest paperback textbook will cost more than $100. From 2006 to 2016, the cost of textbooks rose by more than 70 percent.

If you require several books – even if you consider each book essential to the course  – you may find that some students aren’t doing the readings because they didn’t purchase all of the books due to the cost.

Also consider the time involved for students in doing the readings and completing outside-of-class assignments. You want to strike the balance of creating a challenging course and recognizing that students are taking four or five courses in addition to your course.

You can select a primary textbook and then provide a list of recommended readings. Be sure to clarify – in your syllabus and in class – what you mean by recommended. You don’t want students to think that they need to purchase those books but then you don’t do more than make a few references to those books. Are you recommending those books for their professional bookshelves? Are you recommending a book as a more in-depth discussion of some element of the course?

Tip #6 – Select materials that reflect diversity

As you select textbooks and readings that represent your field and support your approach to teaching the course, strive to present diversity based on gender, race, ethnicity, and point of view. That includes the authors of the readings, the examples used in the readings, photos. If needed, online readings can supplement the diversity reflected in the required textbook. You also can make recommendations to the textbook company about making additions to better reflect diversity in the next edition of the book.

Tip #7 – Use free or open education resources when possible

A targeted web search can help you identify online resources that you could include as free reading assignments in your course.

Open Education Resources screen capture

Educause provides links to locations of Open Education Resources (OER).

A number of organizations provide open education resources, and Project Gutenburg provides more than 56,000 online e-books that are in the public domain.

Be aware that some online materials can “disappear” if you are using a less established site. Some sites limit the number of times an individual can access free content. So consider those factors as you evaluate online readings assignments.

Tip #8 – Contact your campus library about course materials

Your campus library may have materials that students can access with their student IDs. In some cases, the library can order materials for class access, which will be paid for by charging the students with a fee for the course.

Tip #9 – Announce course materials before the start of the term

You want to get the word out about required course materials well before the start of the term. Many universities require faculty to make textbook selections several months before the start of the term to provide students with time to have more options in purchasing their books.

Gone are the days when students went to the campus bookstore and purchased their books. Now students have multiple options. Textbook sites like and sell, rent and buy back textbooks. Students can chose to order the printed version of the book or have access to an online version. Students can rent the book for the term or purchase the book to keep.

Post your course syllabus, which includes information about textbooks and other materials, well before the start of the term. Most courses use  a course management system component, such as Canvas or Blackboard, to post course materials and provide communication between the instructor and the students. As students register for the course, they can see the syllabus and begin the process of purchasing their books.

Tip #10 – Promote the value of the textbook

In the syllabus and in class, talk about why you selected this textbook and promote the importance of completing the readings. Incorporate the textbook in class and in assignments so students see the role of the textbook in their learning.

One day before class started, I heard a student tell a classmate, “I love this textbook,” and the classmate agreed. That’s just what you want to hear as an instructor. I joined in their conversation to hear why they liked the book.

You may not overhear your students say they “love” your textbook selection, but by following these tips, you can make textbook decisions that support your teaching and the students’ learning.

Please add a comment about how you make textbook decisions.

2 thoughts on “Tips for choosing college textbooks for classes you teach

    • Jessica – I appreciate your feedback. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions from your own experience.

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