When Courses become (Text)Book Clubs

By Ted Murcray

What is a (Text)Book Club?

You grab the syllabus, update the due dates, and you are ready to go.

Week 1 – Read Chapter 1, Discuss Chapter 1, Quiz on Chapter 1

Week 2 – Read Chapter 2, Discuss Chapter 2, Quiz on Chapter 2

Week after week, you meet with the students to discuss the reading.  For the most part, they didn’t read it (or read just part of it), so you spend the majority of the class session interacting with a couple of students while painfully reviewing the key details to be sure everyone got the point of the reading.  You make sure you go over the parts you know are on the quiz, and you hope they get enough of the material to do well.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

You feel stuck.  Perhaps you are frustrated.  You are doomed to cycle over and over again into a book club of reluctant (and sometimes hostile) participants who just “don’t see the point) of doing the reading.  You beg them to read on their own.  You have reasoned with them that if they just did the reading, you would be free to go over more material and make class interesting.  The truth is, you stopped preparing new material several semesters ago because you know you are going to walk in and go back over Chapter 14 to prepare for Quiz 14 because that is what is on the syllabus.

How to Get UnStuck

Good news!  You do not have to remain in the Book Club Rerun Cycle anymore!  Although texts are important components of a course, they are not the only way to engage students in the learning process.  We can go outside of the reading.  In fact, it is often preferable to do so.

About four years ago I was tired of my book club course, so I made a change.  I assigned the reading, and then I designed activities and discussions based on the reading for the next class session.  These activities required knowledge from the reading to be successful.  I made another ground-breaking change.  I moved the quiz from AFTER the discussion to BEFORE the discussion.  Students had to read the text and answer basic questions about it prior to coming to class.  Then, when they got to class, we engaged in group discussions and learning activities that built on what they learned from the text.

I’m not going to lie: the beginning process is a little painful every semester.  Students have come to expect the instructors to go over the reading material, so they don’t read to retain.  They read to be familiar enough to take good notes in class.  So, this is a paradigm shift for them that isn’t comfortable, and I have to remind myself of that each semester.  The good news is that the learning boost is worth it!  Students engage more fully in class discussions, are able to apply material to case studies, and can create products that incorporate information they have learned both from the text and from in-class activities.

Why do Book Club Courses exist?

If the learning accelerates so much in a class where students are engaging in learning activities beyond the textbook, then why are there so many book club courses?  The answer is that there are many reasons.  When we take on a new course, we often stick closely to the textbook to be sure we do not say anything crazy.  Additionally, if we have a lot of classes to prepare, it is more time efficient to use the textbook to drive the course.  It may be that all the quizzes and power point slides are tied to the textbook, so engaging in different activities and discussions would require creating a lot of new instructional material.  That can be daunting to instructors, so we might fall back on following the textbook.

With new courses to prep and in times of stress, it is normal and fine for an instructor to follow the textbook.  If the instructor is the author of the textbook, that is another good reason to follow the textbook (as it was likely written for this course).  In other situations, instructors should remember that the author(s) of the textbook did not write that text with your course in mind, nor with CBU in mind.  Your course objectives might partially align with the text, but I bet you will find that there is key information you want your students to have that isn’t in the textbook.  In those cases, it is time to develop good instructional activities that move beyond the textbook and engage students in quality learning.

Next Steps

While reading this blog post, you became inspired to change up your book club – or maybe you started reading because you already made up your mind to make a change.  Now you are ready for next steps, and here they are:

  1. Read your course description and course objectives carefully.  Which content and skills are required in your course?
  2. Review the textbook carefully.  What is taught in your course that is a) covered really well by the textbook, b) covered, but not in the best way by the textbook, c) not covered by the textbook.  You will use this list to guide your course transformation.
  3. Start small.  Choose three or four lessons that you are going to change up.  I usually recommend starting with the lessons where you feel you have the most expertise.  This will make it easier to design learning activities and find alternative resources.  However, you may have found in your review that the textbook does a particularly lousy job of teaching something that is essential to your course.  If you found that, you will want to start there, so your course lives up to the promise made in the syllabus.
  4. Create some discussions or learning activities for the three or four lessons that you chose.  Be sure to incorporate information from the text in the activity, so students see the purpose of doing the reading prior to coming to class.
  5. Consider adding a short quiz (no more than 5 questions) or moving a quiz that already exists.  Place the quiz prior to the course where you will do the lesson, so students read the text, take the quiz, and then come to class prepared for the discussion or learning activity. 
  6. Reflect on the lessons after they happen.  What went really well?  What did not go so well?  What might you do differently next time?
  7. Keep going!

As you develop more and more learning activities for your course, the textbook will become an important resource, instead of the driving force of the class, and your expertise will really begin to shine. 

If you have tried any of these suggestions, leave a comment below about what you did and how it worked.  As always, if you want to discuss this more and want someone to share your thoughts with, reach out to the TLC.  We would enjoy a chance to talk with you!

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