I always wince a bit when I do my regular search of my textbooks to see what if anything people are saying and I get a notice of a new scholarly paper that cites my books. These articles usually have a title such as “What Introductory Psychology textbooks get wrong,” or something along those lines. I’m happy to report that we generally do quite well in these analyses, but they still make me super nervous.

Most recently, a search of Cacioppo Freberg brought up a new article by Regan Gurung called “Predicting learning: Comparing an open educational resource and standard textbooks.”  My first reaction was “Great! Somebody should have done this a long time ago!” My second reaction was “Oh no! What if we don’t measure up to something free?” So it was with some trepidation that I retrieved the article and hurriedly began to read.

The very good news for us, but not for Noba, is that Gurung’s data make a pretty strong case for the superiority of performance by students using a traditional textbook over OER, whether the materials were in print or electronic form. In addition to Cacioppo Freberg, Gurung included students using Hockenbury, Nolan, and Hockenbury. Gurung controlled for ACT scores and assessed students’ understanding of the two most difficult topics in intro–learning and biopsych. In all cases. performance on the tests was superior for students using standard texts compared to those using OER. Perhaps there is something going on here that is similar to the superior outcomes for people who pay for a gym, weight loss program, or smoking cessation program. Maybe you just take something more seriously when you’ve invested in it.

Standard textbooks have been under fire for their perceived contributions to the cost of higher ed, but in many ways, I think this is unfair. For fun, I did a quick comparison of the percentage of my first year costs at UCLA (1970-1971; and yes, I was paying my own way through school so I know) taken up by textbooks–6%–with the percentage of costs at Cal Poly taken up by textbooks–5%. Hmmm. This is not to say that tuition increases have been reasonable. They are not. But as many have pointed out, the biggest driving factor in cost increases has been a remarkable administrative bloat. Still, I’m happy to see the publishers work on reducing costs to students, especially via electronic sources. The fact that these worked as well as print books in Gurung (2017) helps dispel the “I can’t learn from a screen” phobia many students still face.

Personally, I think textbook choices are a bit like car choices. There should be a range. Some people want a Mercedes, while others are happy with a Honda. But understanding differences in student outcomes should be an important  part of that choice process. Gurung (2017) gives us a start in understanding student outcomes, but more research is definitely necessary.


Gurung, R. A. R. (2017). Predicting learning: Comparing an open educational resource and standard textbooks. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 3(3), 233-248.


egonz124 · November 25, 2017 at 7:44 pm

I agree with the statement that there should be a range when it comes to textbook choices. Personally, I prefer a hardcopy of a book over an electronic copy, because I can highlight when I read and then transfer the highlighted material to my notes. I found it interesting that standard textbooks reigned over free material, but as you stated, the investment would probably make one pay more attention to detail.

Laura Freberg · November 26, 2017 at 10:10 am

Actually, using MindTap, you can highlight just as you would in a print text. Then you can export your highlighted sentences using Evernote, which can then be printed out. If you can’t see where to do this, I’ll demo this for you in class. At least we still have our final exam left!

emilyknighton · November 27, 2017 at 3:38 pm

I can’t say whether I prefer print textbooks or digital ones because for me, it really comes down to how the entirety of the course is designed. In your biopsychology class, I love the online book. It is accessible, easy to navigate, and the way it’s broken up doesn’t leave me feeling overwhelmed with the amount of reading. I also appreciate how closely correlated the MindTap homework assignments are with the information in the textbook, as well as how closely you teach to the book, because it leads me to feel like I’ve retained a lot more of what I’ve read. In other classes I’ve taken, there is always a range of how heavily the course relies on the textbook. For some of the more technical classes, like physics and chemistry, the textbooks tend to be difficult to follow so I’ll often rely on videos to accompany the subject matter. The more abstract the concept, the more I benefit from visual explanations rather than walls of text. So in either case, the way information is presented, whether in a textbook or from an open resource, is what matters most in my opinion. I do think there is truth in the idea of investing in something which results in motivation to follow through, as you mentioned. So I would believe that an open resource would be harder for students to discipline themselves to use as a lot of us do with textbooks, even if the material feels more accessible.

vmakovey14 · December 2, 2017 at 1:46 am

Dr. Freberg,
I completely agree with your statement: ” Maybe you just take something more seriously when you’ve invested in it.”
I think that once people actually spend those $150 on a textbook, they feel like they need to read it. Personally I am on the side of those children that cannot learn from a screen. I personally love to have something physical right in front of me so I can highlight, underline, rip out, ect. I am glad they are dong more research behind this and that your textbook is appreciated.
Valentina Makovey

brit · January 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm

This is a very interesting topic you brought up. Textbooks can cost a fortune which is a good reason for publishing companies to offer an online version as well as a textbook version so that everyones preferences are met. Personally, I like online versions of a textbook better because I am always carrying my laptop around but not necessarily books. Also, I like the price of online textbooks more than the price of the actual textbook.

ddenisov · January 9, 2018 at 9:37 pm

I can definitely relate with anecdotal evidence. The General Chemistry department here uses an open source text book, and I did not bother using it. On the topic of electronic vs. physical copies, both have a place and it comes down to personal preference. I can work with either, but if i have a physical copy, I feel like i can more easily isolate myself from distractions.

madisonklein118 · February 7, 2018 at 9:07 am

It is very intriguing to me that studying out of a physical textbook versus an online one does not make a difference in grades. I feel as if I have somehow been socialized to believe that having a physical copy of a book will increase my performance. I agree with some of the points made above about being able to easily tune out distractions when using a physical textbook however an online textbook does not add any weight to an already heavy backpack. When you mentioned in class that the type of medium being used does not make a difference in terms of performance, it made the transition to your online textbook easier for me.

lexipaduano · February 18, 2018 at 11:34 am

I would say that my preference on online textbooks vs hard copies varies depending on the class and material. For example, in math I prefer a hardcopy because I am typically taking notes/completing homework by hand and it makes it easy if it is all in the same form. Plus, it makes it easier to flip back and forward between the problem, the examples, and the answers. However, for a class like biopsych, where i take my notes online and the homework is all online, I prefer the online book. I have found your online book/homework to be extremely helpful because the content of the homework, book, and tests are all extremely similar, along with the way you present your notes in class. The way this is set up helps me to stay extremely organized and makes everything extremely clear and straight forward.

TakaShimokobe · March 11, 2018 at 1:32 pm

Interesting post! I agree with you in that I feel as though textbook prices are not unreasonable (considering how expensive tuition is in general). It makes sense to me that studying out of a electronic/online textbook versus a physical one would not make any difference in regards to increasing performance. As someone who enjoys using my computer and typing out my notes, being able to have all of my text, highlights, and notes in one laptop allows me to be much more organized than if I were to physically carry my books with me all the time.

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