What Students Want in Used Texts

What do students look for in used textbooks? Well, it’s often more than just paying less money–as important as that is.

Further to my blog about Kindle DX and textbooks, Clive Thompson notes the work of Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall on this topic. She “found that university students carefully study used textbooks before buying them.” Are they hoping to learn about biology while drinking their triple-shot latte without having to pay for the book? No.

They are looking for used textbooks with the best notes–the most helpful underlining with the most incisive lecture highlights and the smartest comments in the margins. Great used textbooks have their own “virtual” Cliffs Notes embedded in every page. So students not only save money–they save time and effort.

This presents a wonderful example of the difference between information and interpretation. That is a great fact to know. It’s fascinating and insightful and important. But what does it mean?

  • Does it mean publishers should start adding yellow highlighting to critical passages in their texts?
  • Does it mean print textbooks won’t die because a cold, heartless ebook can’t compete with great notes from a living, breathing human being?
  • Does it mean, as Clive Thompson suggests, that publishers need to develop technology to allow communities of readers to mark up and highlight the digital text of a
    master ebook?

Thompson doesn’t do much to allay the fears publishers have that digital books will be Napsterized so print goes the way of CDs or (more to the point) newspapers. But he is right that if there are better ways to do books and people want that, a way will be found to provide it. Yet at what consequence?

Will we be better off without music CDs? Musical purists would argue that we lost more in the switch from vinyl to digital than we did from CD to direct download. Will we be better off without newspapers and their bands of investigative reporters? I think more is being lost to society in that regard. Will digital books cause the the publishing enterprise to shrink in the same way, and will culture be better off for it? Maybe Cathy Marshall could start researching that!

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “What Students Want in Used Texts”

  1. How do we define “best notes”? My money is on “the ones that help me ace (or, at least pass) the test.” In undergrad circles with a jump-through-the-hoops curricula and a high course load per semester, I don’t see students exploring philosophical ideas but trying to get their homework done. In graduate circles with less hoop-jumping, the emphasis on tailored, individualized, applicable aspects also (nearly) removes the need for communal annotation/commentary.

    What is the survey sample–WITHIN individual learning institutions or BETWEEN? Most students I know purchase used textbooks at the college or university where they’ll be taking the course. So, they’ll probably get the same instructor, or at least be using the same syllabus, which means a match between well-annotated text and instructor. Because each university will have its own curricula emphases, I don’t foresee “crossover” amongst institutions.

    To all three of your questions, I respond no. But the first, along with the rest of the blog entry, raises my own question: Are textbook publishers not implementing best-practice teaching methods, such as telling students upfront what they’re to learn from the material to be presented? Of course, there are pros and cons to that practice; my concern is that it’s overlooked entirely.

    I do think there’s room for exploration/application of this idea within online learning communities but not within traditional classrooms.

    My two cents worth. (Thanks for the thought-provoking publishing jazz, Andy.)

  2. Jadell,

    I think you are onto something both regarding wanting to ace the test and that students are looking for help in acing the test of a particular professor. So you may be right that these kinds of notes won’t crossover as much from institution to institution.


  3. I think both are good.But if were to choose i would
    prefer the internet to used textbooks because i think the textbooks are more expensive.

Comments are closed.