“I Don’t Read the Book! I Just Do The Homework Problems In It!” – Re-looking at the Textbook, and How to Read a STEM Textbook
by Solomon Berman
I always look for feedback as a teacher. Its importance cannot be underestimated. I want to hear back from my students, from parents, from other teachers, from anyone in the room! At one point, I’d even taken to videotaping myself, a harrowing task, and reviewed it as I would tape before an important game, critiquing what can be done better, and marking what should be kept.
After my first year teaching AP Chemistry, and letting the dust settle a bit, I asked one of the students for an unabashed and frank critique on what she thought of the course. She didn’t even take a moment’s pause before giving a succinct response:
“It was probably the hardest course I took in high school. I always used my notes from your class to study. No one could understand the book; your notes are clear.”
Quickly, I realized that while I did a good job teaching this particular student the material, I had done her a disservice by not teaching her how to access the book and its contents. She, like nearly every one of my students, just used the textbook for the problems at the end of the chapter that we would work through. It was actually worse for students enrolled in general chemistry; as a department, we had it as a policy that students would take their books home, and leave them there until June. If we needed the textbook, we had a second copy at the school for them!
It doesn’t get any better at the university level. Most students hate their textbooks. And, with some, you can hear the crinkling on an non-creased spine of a new book as they open it before final exams.
We all need to learn how to read a STEM textbook, as it is not something we do in either high school or college. This is especially true if you bought one for class (unless you want a 100 – 200 dollar paperweight!). Here are a couple of steps to get us started:
- Examples and Sample Problems. Looking over or skimming a sample problem is just a waste. Reading through it is an improvement from skimming. To actually benefit from the sample problems in a section or chapter, you need to do the problem with the book as you read it, using a pencil and piece of paper. As you go through, ask yourself:
- What step am I doing?
- Why am I doing this step?
- How do I complete this step? What equations and facts are leveraged?
- How does this step fit into the larger context of solving the problem?
- What is the next logical step? How do I use what I have found previously?
You are actually teaching yourself not only how to solve the problem, and similar ones to it, but also to think through how to solve problems in general. You are using your hands and your mind to perform the mathematics, manipulate an equation, and find the numbers on your own. You can actually see how a scientific or mathematical fact relates to the equation you utilized or the step you completed. By practice, you learn how to use the tools of STEM subjects, equations and problem solving, to answer questions! Try it sometime.
- Vocabulary. Mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering, biology – they all have their own discipline specific vocabulary, and your textbook, your teacher, and the problems you will solve, will all employ that language. What would you do if I said that I was experiencing depressed respiration, cramping, and myalgia, due to hypokalemia? Sounds pretty terrible, no? Spooky, obtuse language! Personally, I’d enjoy a nice orange or banana, as someone who is hypokalemic is low in potassium. If you know the language, you can participate in the discussion.
- Key Concepts and Ideas. As I go through scientific journal articles or textbooks, I jot down the key concepts and take away messages from the reading. They form the foundation of my lectures and inform both lesson plans and learning objectives. In graduate school, it is how I was able to at least access a conversation in the lab or during departmental talks. This has to be your first line of attack. You’ll get more out of classes, labs, homework assignments, problem sets, and, ultimately, perform better on exams. If you are getting around this at the end, when you are studying for the exam, you will be disappointed with your performance.
Your textbook can be a great resource, if you know how to leverage it! It will help make things a bit easier for you; otherwise, it’s just a paperweight, and you end up doing more work in class and with your notes to learn what is being asked of you!
Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC. He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university. His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects. He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.