To Textbook or Not to Textbook (Karen Gunther, Wabash)

Karen L. Gunther, Department of Psychology, Wabash College.

Wax Writing Tablet, Greek, 2nd century ACE (British Library)
Wax Writing Tablet, Greek, 2nd century ACE (British Library)

In 2009 I changed the way I teach Sensation and Perception from using a textbook to using what I call “non-fiction novels,” books that are real, but have more of a story line than do traditional textbooks – Oliver Sacks’ writing is a good example.  I wanted to introduce the students to this genre of books, and to provide them with engaging material upon which they could hang the facts that I presented in class lectures, hoping to thus increase retention of course material.  In addition, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had found that one-third of college seniors did not read at all for fun, and reading comprehension was decreasing.  My hope was that studying the non-fiction novel genre would spark a greater interest in reading in the students.  This project was supported in part by the GLCA Pathways to Learning Collegium, a program funded by the Teagle Foundation.

My Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project was conducted in two phases.  In the first year I used non-fiction novels for half of the units, and a standard textbook in the other half.  The textbook used for comparison was Wolfe et al.’s Sensation and Perception (2006). I do want to make it clear that I think this is a good textbook – it is, in fact, the one I had chosen to use in my classes before switching to the non-fiction novel format.  Many SoTL projects simply ask the students how they feel that the implementation affected comprehensibility of the material, interest or motivation to learn.  In addition to this traditional subjective assessment, I also objectively measured learning gains by comparing exam scores across units with the two genres of reading material.  In the second year I only used non-fiction novels, but compared exam scores this year with previous years.

Over the years I have changed which books I use.  Currently the list includes:

  • Island of the Colorblind (Oliver Sacks, 1997), about a population with a high incidence of rod monochromacy (a form of complete colorblindness);
  • Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World (Michael Chorost, 2005), about a man who lost all hearing in his early 30’s and received a cochlear implant;
  • Pride and a Daily Marathon (Jonathan Cole, 1995), about a man who had a bizarre autoimmune response to stomach flu and lost all proprioception (knowledge of body part location);
  • Feeling Pain and Being in Pain (Nikola Grahek, 2007), a philosophical examination of dissociations between having painful stimulation and experiencing the negative affect of pain;
  • The Emperor of Scent (Chandler Burr, 2002), about Luca Turin, who developed an alternate explanation for how we smell, but he non-tactfully informed the rest of the olfactory scientific community that they were wrong, he was right, and was (not surprisingly) ostracized from that community – this is a great book to show how NOT to behave as a member of the academic community; and
  • Neurogastronomy (Gordon Shepherd, 2012), the thesis of which is that what we think of as “taste” is really more olfaction, or smell.

One of the goals of our department is to show how psychology is done, not just to present the facts.  Thus, each book is paired with a primary research article.  For example, in the Island of the Colorblind unit, we read the article that determined the mutation that caused the rod monochromacy discussed in the book.  In the Emperor of Scent unit we discussed an article that tested some of the hypotheses put forth by Luca Turin.

Multiple measures were conducted in the SoTL study.  In the comparison of exam performance, modest improvement was found with the non-fiction novels as compared with the textbook.  In the Fall 2010 class, the students said that they felt it was more difficult getting basic sensation and perception information from the non-fiction novels, but their exam performance did not support these concerns.  Every year that I have taught this course since switching to the new book format, the majority of students prefer the non-fiction novels to the textbook.  Some students still say that they would prefer a textbook – I do list the Wolfe et al. book on the syllabus as an option, and point out that older editions are fine – I’m not sure how many students do purchase this book in addition to the required texts.  I have also started posting my lecture notes online, so the students have access to those – I had worried that attendance would drop if I did this, but it has not been a problem.  Two additional measures are from the course evaluation.  First, “the effectiveness of the instructor in stimulating student interest” has been consistently higher with the non-fiction novel format than with the textbook format.  Second, the question “Did reading the non-fiction novels make you want to learn more about our sensory systems?” consistently scores around 2.8, with 2 reflecting “somewhat” and 3 reflecting “yes”.  Thus, perhaps this course will help alleviate the decrease in reading that the NEA found.

Since the publication of this SoTL project, I have instituted reading quizzes – I gave the quizzes about ten times per semester for a couple of years, then last year on all days with non-fiction novel reading assignments.  My intent with this new format is for the students to have an interesting story on which to hang the facts from lecture (and one English professor told me that a student said he was enjoying my class for this very reason).  If they aren’t doing the reading, they don’t get this benefit.  The reading quizzes are open book – my intent is for them to read, so open book is not a problem.  The daily reading quizzes do help some, but some students reported that other students scan an electronic version of the book just to find the answers.  I have tried to make the questions a bit broader, and relate more to class, but this is still somewhat of a problem, and perhaps not one with a solution.  I post the quizzes on our course management software (Canvas) the night before, and they’re accessible until 1pm the following day (class meets at 1:10pm MWF).  Having the reading quizzes done online and not during class thus doesn’t take away class time.

In retrospect, I am glad that I made this transition.  I enjoy teaching the non-fiction novels.  The students and I refer to the characters in our books throughout the year, both in Sensation and Perception in the fall and the follow-up course, Research in Sensation and Perception in the spring.  Students will make comments like, “I tripped, but didn’t fall thanks to my proprioception – Ian Waterman [from Pride and a Daily Marathon] would have been down”.  Student performance in the course is, if anything, stronger than when I used a standard textbook.  And maybe the project has inspired the students to read more for fun, not just assigned texts.

For further information, this project was published in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education [Gunther, K.L.  (2011).  The use of “non-fiction novels” in a sensation and perception course.  Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 10(1), A14-A23], an open-access journal published by the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, a division of the Society for Neuroscience.


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