One April fool’s day in my childhood, I caught sight of my brother filling the sugar bowl with salt. I then watched the diminutive, demented genius spoon jam into my dad’s slippers. I blame this incident both for my deeply suspicious nature, and my paralysing fear of fruit conserve.
You might think that this underlying paranoia is behind my distrust of textbooks, but there’s more to it. The BBC examined some popular study guides and workbooks for errors. All of them contained faults and one contained ninety errors. They interviewed the publisher’s spokesperson on camera, it was magical.
“We do our best.”
Unreliable practise questions are particularly bad because they undermine students’ confidence, make them doubt their abilities and give a false impression of their progress. So, what can we do about it?
Past Paper Questions
Past exam papers are rigorously checked and are always worth looking at, but they are not without their drawbacks. Only some of the syllabus will be covered by an exam, so it can be difficult to find enough questions to practise a specific topic. They can be too challenging to use early in revision and, if it’s unclear why an answer is correct, there won’t be much help in the marking scheme.
Mock exam papers may also be available for college exams. They should be well battle tested if they’ve been used beforehand, but the level of detail in the answers is still going to be a crap-shoot.
Later editions of textbooks
We can’t rely on proof readers to have done more than read through practise questions, leaving students to pick up on the faults. Errors get gradually corrected as new editions are released, so buying later editions makes us less susceptible.
It’s tempting to buy a textbook for the previous syllabus. They’re cheaper, have been thoroughly checked by students, and there are plenty of online reviews to help you choose. The core principles for the subject haven’t changed, so what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, the way that subjects are taught does change, along with the terminology and the examples that are used. So, in subjects like psychology, the case studies are likely to be considerably different. I am a big advocate of having a fall back textbook so that you have somewhere to turn when things don’t make sense, but I wouldn’t use a dated textbook as my primary study guide.
If you’re working on a exam where the syllabus has just changed, you might be stuck with a first edition textbook. In this case, the reputation of the publisher and author are good indicators. For example, a university press publisher is likely to be highly invested in the accuracy of its textbooks. If early editions of their guide for the previous syllabus received glowing reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, that’s also a positive sign.
I’m wary of free resources from the Internet for the same reason. For a previous project, I played around with a flashcard set on Memrise and had to ditch it because of errors in the content. It’s hardly surprising because checking material thoroughly is tough work and there’s no incentive.
Detailed explanations and walk-throughs
Workbooks with detailed explanations are more helpful for students and easier for proof readers to check. It’s easy to pinpoint where an answer seems to go off-track, which in turn makes it easier to get help.
A good study group is the best antidote to the ‘is it just me, or is this gibberish?’ moments that plague revision. If you’re grinding through the questions in a work book, being able to get an immediate second opinion will nip frustration in the bud.
A final word
I’d like to encourage, not the mistrust of textbooks, but the attitude that authors are teachers rather than unquestionable authority figures. From that perspective, the ability to pick a teacher who engages you is a huge advantage.