Do you wonder if the rapidly growing costs of traditional textbooks are worth the immense cost students are being asked to bear? Both you and your students probably know that there are countless free and frequently updated web pages out there providing much of the same basic information to your students for no cost, assuming that the recent-backroom-discussions and not-so-loudly-publicized ‘net-neutrality’ arguments are resolved sensibly. Such a situation naturally begs the question, do professors need to have students to buy an expensive textbook when free options exist?

There is no question that textbooks are an expensive part of the student experience—not compared to tuition of course, but certainly compared to the cost of snacks. In my own situation, my previous publisher raised the net-price of the introductory science textbook I wrote from $85 to $120 in just a single year. And bookstores, naturally, have to add a profit on top of that price too, making books seem incredibly expensive for students taking several classes. One could delve into why textbooks are getting ever more expensive, and who’s fault that is, but that is a different discussion. The question I am posing here is, who needs an expensive textbook in a web-enabled, ubiquitous cell-phone enabled world?

The answer is perhaps initially unexpected—your students actually DO need and will BENEFIT from using a textbook that is tightly aligned with your course goals. Before you cast aside my position as just another textbook author trying to get more students to buy their book, I beg you to hear me out.

You might be surprised to learn that all professors do not use their required textbooks to the same extent. If you ask, many of your students will readily tell you that most professors tell all students they must buy the textbook, and cannot succeed in class without it. When pressed, students will reveal that a common student strategy is to wait a few weeks after the class starts because all too often, the threat of a truly needed textbook is idle and that students do not actually need the specified textbook, except perhaps for getting end-of-chapter questions, which students can obtain from mostly unchanged previous editions of the textbook. Such a situation occurs when professors naively view themselves as the official “dispenser of all information” needed in a class. At the extreme, more times than I wish to remember, I have been sitting in a college class and watched a professor stand at the front of the room and actually read the book to students. The underlying thinking here is typically that “well, if my students won’t read, then it is my responsibility to give them all the information they need by telling it to them.” If this describes your class, then, actually, students probably do NOT need to purchase the assigned textbook for your class.

Alternatively, if your view of your teaching is that you are the coach, the guide, and the person there best positioned to help students learn the prescribed concepts in whatever way works best for them, then you do need to provide students with an appropriate textbook. As it turns out, a textbook can be vitally essential for many students in your class because a growing fraction of today’s students are those where English is not their first language. In this case, although you might provide an excellent and clearly articulated lecture, having a written authority of information students can slowly and carefully refer to helps many students have a better chance at achieving your course learning goals.

But, one might say, free web pages can play this role of being an additional source of information. The problem here is that an entire class usually requires not a single web site, but many different web sites to comprehensively cover the course topics. And, for an expert like the professor, it is obvious which web sites to use; but, for a novice learner, all web sites seem to be created equally. As a conscientious educator, you can allocate tremendous time and energy collecting and maintaining appropriate hyperlinks and URLs for students, but this does not actually solve the larger problem. The larger problem with using a collection of web pages is, unlike a single textbook where every page looks the same in terms of font size, color scheme, use of pedagogical markers like bold faced words and similarly color-coded figures, web pages vary tremendously from one to another.

Consider these two common inconsistent-design examples from a single government information source – NASA. NASA spends like a gazillion dollars of your tax money each year trying to make their corporate brand and web site look like a single portal. Unfortunately, when one digs a little deeper, every page ends up looking different, and requiring different skills and cognitive overhead to decipher for novice students. And, if you throw Wikipedia into the mix, a reader gets an altogether different layout and writing-voice to mentally manage. I’m not picking on NASA specifically, as it turns out, nearly every information source suffers from this at some level. Using a single textbook is a big improvement on this problem.

Competing webpage layouts on same topic unnecessarily frustrates students

Systematic research by well-respected Professor Richard Mayer for the University of California Santa Barbara among others has repeatedly shown that when students have to read about one idea with one set of fonts, font sizes, and color schemes, and then change to a different font, font size, and color scheme, that unnecessarily burns a student’s scarce reserve of cognitive energy, and reduces the amount of learning that occurs. A single textbook helps remove this task-switching cognitive energy expenditure students experience.

Bottom line here – pick a textbook that is aligned with your course learning goals, and use it to help students learn your course material, and make it worth students’ while. My experience is that students rarely complain about the cost of a textbook if it really helps them learn and be a different person as a result of your carefully designed learning experience.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

Suggested citation: Slater, T. F. (2017, April). Should you assign readings from free web pages or an expensive textbook? Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(9),


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