Choosing a Textbook

When you choose a textbook, you choose a co-instructor for your course. You will be in charge of the in-class interactions that your students have with the material. The textbook will be the primary way that your students interact with the material outside of class. So choosing a textbook is a critical decision to make when planning a course. A textbook that supports your learning objectives can give your students the best chance for success.

Applying your course objectives

Your course objectives should guide your textbook selection. They describe what you want your students to learn in your course, and the textbook should be a learning tool for your students. Look over your course objectives and identify a few key concepts and skills that students will need to learn in order to achieve those objectives. Any textbook for your course should be especially strong in covering those concepts and skills.

Narrowing the options

You can begin to make a list of possible textbooks by talking to colleagues, visiting publishers' webpages, and searching for syllabi for courses at other institutions. There is no substitute for being able to look at a textbook in person. Publishers will send you exam copies, but it may take some time for you to receive them. Many textbooks are put on reserve in one of the libraries on campus; it might be helpful to look at the reserve shelf in the library that your department uses. Consider starting a textbook library in your department, where instructors put their old textbooks and unneeded exam copies to make them accessible to other instructors. This way, new instructors can have easy access to potential textbooks.

The final decision

Once you have your final candidates, you can make some in-depth comparisons between them. The most important thing to check is how each textbook covers material mentioned in your course objectives. For each, try to get an idea of how well it covers the material by skimming the chapter introductions, study questions, and index. Choose one chapter to read in its entirety, and then read the corresponding chapters in the other textbooks. For example, if you're teaching a philosophy course and your course objectives require your students to understand analogical arguments, read the chapter on analogical arguments in each of your candidate textbooks. This reading will give you a good sense of which textbook will cover all of the material in the way you need.

Using your textbook effectively

One of the most common complaints from instructors about textbooks is that their students don't read them. The best way to address this is to use the textbook for more than reading assignments. For example, you can give short quizzes on the reading at the beginning of class. If the textbook has study questions in it, you can use them for the quiz questions. Or, when you assign the reading, you can give the students a list of key terms whose definitions they should be able to find in the reading. You can then collect their definitions in class. One way for students to learn the big ideas in the text is to provide questions for them to answer while reading the text. These questions can serve as discussion points in the next class period. Don't make such exercises simply a way of forcing your students to do the reading. Their primary purpose should be to prepare the students before you cover the material in class. Use the questions or terms as a way of structuring your class session. Such exercises should be worth little credit. Gather student feedback on your textbook choice. This is especially important when using a textbook that you haven't used before. When writing your mid-semester feedback forms, ask questions about how the students use the textbook; for example,

  • How often do you do the assigned readings?
  • Do you read the assigned readings before coming to class?
  • How well does the material in the textbook match what we cover in class?

The students' answers to these questions can then guide your use of the textbook for the rest of the semester. For example, if students complain that the textbook's study questions aren't helpful, you might want to make your own study questions. When collecting feedback at the end of the semester, ask questions about the textbook again. This feedback, along with your own reflections on the textbook, should help you decide whether you want to use the same textbook if you teach the same class again.


  • Selecting Course Materials is a guide on how to choose course materials—from the textbook to course packs to audiovisual aids—and strategies to motivate students to read the materials.

References & resources

  • Goss Lucas, S., & Bernstein, D. A., (2005). Teaching Psychology: A step by step guide. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Guptill, A. (2009, May). How do college students use textbooks? Insights from the literature. Presentation at The College at Brockport Teaching & Learning Day, Brockport, NY. Notes retrieved June 28, 2010, from
  • Wankat, P. C., & Oreovicz, F. S. (1993). Teaching engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.