Of Books, Teachers, and Inversion
© 23 Dec 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Student comment: “‍Sometimes I had to read the book to understand the topic.‍”


I just finished my first semester as a university instructor. Many of my more than 300 students wrote comments on their course evaluations, these have been interesting to read. Some have been pure praise; others were suggestions or complaints that I wish I had heard earlier in the semester so that I could have improved my teaching earlier; and some have really made me think.

A few of the students made comments along the lines of “‍I had to read the book to understand topic X.‍” They intended this as criticism, a way of saying “‍your lessons were incomplete,‍” but I am not sure I am able to take it as such.

Since the advent of inexpensive publishing, college courses have been accompanied by textbooks. The learning is supposed to be conveyed through a mix of lecture, reading, and exercises. Since at least my first college class, and likely for many decades if not centuries before that, there has been a fundamental disagreement about how these elements interact.

Most students expect to learn it in class, then prep for the tests from the book.

Most instructors tell students to read before class so that they can move past the text in lecture.

As a student, I often followed the learn-first-in-lecture approach. There were two reasons for this: first, it worked well enough most of the time; and second, it took less effort than the other model. But the first of these reasons annoyed me when I happened to be in a class where I wanted to move past the book. The lectures were close to a repeat of the textbook. Even so, I was still glad I paid the teacher; there were usually a few points I misunderstood in the reading in small ways which, if not corrected by the instructor, could have compounded over time to leave me thoroughly confused. But it remained annoying that I was gaining little more than that.

I did have a few classes where the teacher picked up where the book left off. There was a short review of the highlights to help elicit any questions and then we dived into what all that meant and who it interacted with other ideas. I loved those classes. Even the one where I didn’t actually care about the topic was so interesting, so mind-expanding, that I still think of it, if not of its subject matter, fondly.

There has been a recent push to “‍invert the classroom.‍” As generally posed, this involved three elements. First, you record the lectures as videos. Second, you require the students to watch the videos before class. Third, you use class time to work through assignments and activities. Those skeptical of this movement often ask “‍how does that differ from having them read the textbook before class?‍” Usually when I have heard an advocate asked that question they dodge it completely. “‍Lectures are mostly the same every time you give them‍” they observe. “‍Why waste class time on something so rote?‍” It is a good argument, but it is not a new one. Inverting the classroom boils down to the old read-before-lecture ideal with a particular model of how you go beyond the text and the use of videos instead of textbooks.

Thus, the complaint that sometimes the textbook was important strikes me as a compliment. And yet… most students still assume they’ll learn it in class first. And there are enough students who struggle in an introductory course that I have to spend some time refining their understandings even if they read first—enough time, I wot, that many student can skip reading much of the time.

What then? My friends in education agree that students should learn before class. My students agree that they shouldn’t. I landed somewhere in between this semester. In which direction should I move from here?

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