The first textbook I remember reading was a spectacularly tattered copy of Tricolore. It gave me the impression that the French were obsessed with swimming pools and libraries, but little else.
More insidiously, it’s appearance established a view of textbooks as an unquestionable authority. Tricolore wasn’t presented to us as a French textbook, but the French textbook. It never even occurred to me that there might be a choice, that one textbook might be significantly better than another, or even – dare I say it – that some of them might be poorly written garbage.
I did enjoy drawing a moustache and monocle on Martine, though*.
Even with the realisation that not all textbooks are equal, it’s tricky to pick a good one without a clear understanding of what you’re looking for.
As I mentioned in my previous post, when we’re studying something we’re trying to improve one of three things: our understanding of it, our memory of it, or our ability to express or apply it. Those different abilities have different requirements.
If there are holes in your basic understanding it’s helpful to have clear, jargon free explanations presented in an unintimidating and friendly way. In this case a shorter and more informal textbook can be more helpful. You might describe this style of textbook as a ‘primer’.
Self-testing is the simplest way to strengthen memories but not all questions are suitable. Past exam papers might seem ideal, but they are incredibly time consuming. You can spend hours answering them and cover only a fraction of the syllabus.
I chiefly recommend short and direct, flashcard style questions. These can be answered very quickly and give you clear, immediate feedback.
Study cards can meet this criteria, but they vary wildly in quality and are not available for every exam. The ideal textbook to help you make your own would be concise but comprehensive – what you might call a ‘reference guide’.
I like to make a clear distinction between memory and expression because expression always used to trip me up. I particularly despised questions like this:
Q: Describe a catalyst (six marks)
This isn’t so much about what you know, but how you articulate that knowledge. If you can’t figure out how those six marks are being assigned, pure memory won’t help you.
‘Workbook’ style resources are the ideal way to improve this skill because they contain lots of exam style questions with detailed breakdowns of how the answers were worked out. Not just the problem solving questions either, but the long hand written ones too.
Wait, didn’t I just say that past paper questions are too time consuming?
A typical exam requires you to recall hundreds of facts and ideas, so you need a very fast method of self-testing to cover them all. However, perfecting expression is about learning how to tackle each kind of question, and as there will only be a dozen or so different styles that you might encounter, it’s possible to get plenty of experience without answering hundreds of questions.
You might have figured out by now that finding all these characteristics in a single textbook is a tall order. It’s better to anticipate needing more than one and there are definite advantages in having access to a few.
Here are your takeaway points:
- Some textbooks are better than others, and some textbooks are better than others for supporting different stages of learning
- A primer or beginner’s guide is helpful to improve understanding
- Good quality revision cards are one of the best ways to memorise material, but you can use a reference guide style textbook to create your own quizzes
- Workbooks are excellent for improving the ability to express or apply knowledge
*In pencil, obviously. I’m not an animal.