Tag Archives: educational resources

Creating textbooks that help students to learn

Michael Pershan is a high-school maths teacher and writer with an interest in pedagogy. In this post, he draws on academic research and his own experience to consider how writers, editors and publishers can create textbooks that students find easier to learn from.

I recently opened the latest edition of a college-level meteorology textbook. Each page, I happily discovered, was colourful and bright. Tricky details from the text were illustrated with well-selected images. Boxes were offset from the main text to expand on interesting points. It felt warm and vibrant, so I read on.

A few minutes later, I was overwhelmed. While each individual sentence went down fine, the cumulative effect wore on me. There was an example I couldn’t make sense of, and then a whole section that as a student I might not have understood at all. It left me wondering, is there a better way to design these things?

I wish I could tell you that there’s a science of textbook design. As far as I can tell, there is not. What we have instead is psychological research that can help us think more clearly about design choices. That is, there is an art of research-informed textbook design.

Here are two recommendations that I think would most improve most instructional texts:

  • Ask more questions, more often
  • Structure ideas into manageable chunks

These ideas both emerge not just from experience, but also from research on teaching and learning.

Recommendation 1: Ask more questions, more often

From a pedagogical perspective, studying a text is somewhat akin to learning from a lecture, video or explanation. In other words, it is a form of direct instruction. All that’s missing is a teacher.

One common problem of direct instruction is that it can leave students not thinking deeply enough about the content. What happens instead could be called surface-level comprehension, or even shallow information processing. Classroom teachers are familiar with this – students nod along, seem interested enough, but hardly remember a single thing the next day. How do we avoid this when we ask students to learn from texts?

The answer, in short, is urging the reader to think more deeply. In the area of research I’m most familiar with – worked example research in mathematics – a three-stage structure has emerged[1] for encouraging students to learn from presented examples:

  1. Provide the information. First, information is presented to students. In a book, this is the main text.
  2. Prompt for explanations. Students are prompted to think more deeply about the information. These don’t need to be open-ended explanation questions – they could be multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions woven into the main text, or even in the margins.
  3. Ask for application. Students apply their knowledge in a new, but similar, situation.

The practice questions that appear at the end of a textbook chapter play this role, but research suggests there are benefits for also asking questions closer to the information being presented. Questions should be presented more frequently, closer to the relevant material.

How frequently? Hard to say. Too few questions, and students might fail to make important connections. Too many and the text becomes difficult to read. But most texts, it seems to me, ask too few.

woman reading a textbook

Recommendation 2: Structure ideas into manageable chunks

In 2003, researchers Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno published ‘Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning’. Try remembering a seven-digit number while also reading Twelfth Night. You’ll likely feel overwhelmed: that’s too much ‘cognitive load’, and it harms your thinking and learning.

Textbooks often trigger cognitive overload in their readers. Many new concepts are just hard to take in. But often, the overload can be managed by delivering the new idea in smaller chunks while following research-based design principles.

Mayer and Moreno’s paper is worthwhile reading for anyone in the business of designing learning materials of any sort. Here are four techniques they mention that I find particularly relevant for improving textbooks:

  1. Cut stuff. When ideas are challenging, ruthlessly exclude information that doesn’t pertain to the content; even interesting facts, trivia or tidbits can contribute to cognitive overload. Another common issue is redundant text.
  2. Preview the structure. If a process is complex, structure it for students. Break it into little chunks and name each one. Then dive into the details.
  3. Segment complexity. If an explanation or a process is long, consider chunking it up and explaining each chunk individually.
  4. Aligning. When illustrations or examples appear on another page (or another website, for digital texts), the student must remember information from the main text to learn what is intended. This is a memory burden that can contribute to overload – better to align text with illustrations and diagrams, to whatever extent possible.

In a mathematical situation, an example of what not to do would be to present something like this lengthy example[2] with a picture of a skateboarder nearby, describing a context in which he might want to know how to solve a system. (This isn’t far off from common textbook practices!)

Maths question and answer example

A better way to handle this would be to first preview the structure, mapping the terrain of the forest before describing each tree. This means articulating to students the shape of events prior to a more thorough explanation. ‘The period leading up to World War II was characterised by (1) aftershocks from World War I, (2) the rise of fascism and (3) war in Asia,’ we might say, before diving into greater detail.

Then we should segment the explanation so that each sub-step or component is clearly labelled. In other words, we should connect the details with the structure that we have previewed.

Here is what it might look like in a mathematical case:

Applying knowledge

We can end with an exercise. Find a textbook that has a difficult passage. It might be an example intended to illustrate the concept of ‘opportunity cost’. It may be a description of how various elements move through the layers of the atmosphere. Every textbook has parts where multiple ideas need to be juggled by the reader.

Once you’ve found a tricky passage, try to identify its component parts. It likely has somewhere between two and four sub-steps, each of which might be teachable on its own.

Write an explanation or example that conforms to this structure. Think about how you could preview the structure for the reader.

Finally, write a question or two that students could use to check their understanding of the passage. Make it quick, so as not to interrupt the flow of the text too badly.

Maybe it shows a line of poetry and asks, ‘True or false: this poem shows iambic pentameter.’

It could also be good to prompt students to make connections and explanations: ‘Which choice below best explains why prices dropped when there was a production surplus?’

These are not the way great novels or non-fiction texts are typically written, but that’s just fine. A textbook can’t be a great book – it needs to be a great teacher. We should look towards teaching research for inspiration on how to design excellent, learnable texts.

[1] Booth, JL, Oyer, MH, Paré-Blagoev, EJ, Elliot, AJ, Barbieri, C, Augustine, A and Koedinger, KR (2015). Learning algebra by example in real-world classrooms. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 8/4: 530–551.

[2] The two mathematical examples in this post are taken from my book Teaching Math with Examples (John Catt, 2021); this book goes into more detail about how to design and present maths examples that work.

About Michael Pershan

Michael Pershan

Michael Pershan is a mathematics teacher and writer. He is the author of Teaching Math With Examples and lives with his family in New York City.




About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: header image by Madison Inouye on Pexels, woman reading a textbook by RF._.studio on Pexels.

Posted by Eleanor Smith, blog assistant.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

An introduction to editing textbooks

In this post Hetty Marx, author of the new CIEP guide Editing Textbooks, gives a flavour of what it is like to edit textbooks by describing ten aspects of textbook publishing that differ from other specialisms.

Editing textbooks, and educational resources more broadly, requires the core editing skills necessary for any field of publishing. But there are some aspects of textbook publishing that require a different set of skills or knowledge and in this post I will describe ten of these aspects. You might be familiar with some of these from other fields, for example complex designs in illustrated non-fiction, or scholarship in academic books.

1. Learning

Textbooks are designed to help students learn, and this principle should be at the forefront of most decisions in creating a textbook. It’s also one of the reasons why editing textbooks feels rewarding, as you know that your work will help students grasp a difficult concept or deepen their understanding of the subject.

2. Accuracy and scholarship

Accuracy of content and general principles of scholarship are important in textbooks. While fact-checking is not normally part of textbook editing, editors should be alert to any possible inaccuracies or inconsistencies. Textbooks should usually feel balanced and objective, so (depending on the project) it may be important to check that the author covers both sides of a debate, uses a neutral tone and avoids presenting their own views.

3. Differentiation

While textbooks are often written for a particular age group, they will be used by many students within that group, all with their own interests, abilities and preferred ways of learning. And these differences should, as much as possible, be catered for within each textbook. Textbook editors can help by checking that the author includes:

  • a range of different examples and photos (so that more students feel the content is relevant to them)
  • a variety of activity types that test different skills (multiple-choice questions, creative activities, speaking tasks, etc)
  • different levels of challenge in the activities.

4. Complex design

Textbooks are often full-colour and highly illustrated with several design features. Tasks like tagging/coding a feature-heavy manuscript or working with artworks (checking they are useful and suitable for the reader, pulling together artwork briefs, creating an artwork log, etc) can amount to a large part of textbook editing.

5. Pedagogical features

Textbooks include a range of pedagogical features to help students learn, such as boxed features, case studies and activities. Editing pedagogical features involves checking they are:

  • useful, ie that they are designed and written in a way that will actually help students learn
  • relevant, for example that questions test content covered in the chapter, and at a suitable level for the student
  • consistent, in terms of purpose, style, frequency and length
  • complete, for example that there is the required number of case studies or that answers are provided for all the questions.

Love to learn: editing textbooks

6. Multiple components

Multi-component products are ones where several resources are built around the main student textbook, such as worksheets, online quizzes, teacher books, revision guides and/or audio scripts.

The components are often closely linked to the main textbook, for example for every subsection in the book, there may be an online activity, a worksheet, a set of answers to the textbook questions, a lesson plan, a practice question in the workbook, etc. In addition to normal editing tasks, editors need to check that each of these linked aspects is provided, check that they are consistent with each other (eg in style and content) and keep track of any knock-on effects of a change in one component on the linked resources.

Editing multi-component textbooks adds various challenges (and requires good organisational skills) but it does offer opportunities for more varied work. Editing just one component (eg a teacher book) can also be a good introduction into editing textbooks, as they may be less complex.

7. Multiple stakeholders

Students are the main target audience that textbook editors need to keep in mind throughout the edit, but other stakeholders are also important, including:

  • The teacher: the main textbook for a particular course is usually chosen by the students’ teacher or lecturer.
  • The exam board: if the publisher wants the textbook to be endorsed by an exam board, the editor will need to check the text meets the exam-board requirements.
  • Ministry officials: in some countries teachers can only use government-approved textbooks, so editing textbooks for these markets involves checking the text and artwork for cultural considerations and ensuring it meets any official requirements in the target markets.

8. Curriculum and qualifications

At school level, most textbooks are written in line with a national curriculum (government requirements about what students should learn in each school year). For examined subjects, textbooks are usually written in line with an exam board’s specification (a list of the content that could be examined).

Particularly for examined subjects, editors often need to check that all the specified content is included, that the structure of the textbook matches the exam board’s specification, and potentially that the textbook meets extra requirements imposed by the exam board. Because of tight timescales, textbooks are often drafted before the specification has been finalised, which can result in last-minute changes to the textbook.

9. Competition

The publisher is likely to have planned the textbook with competitor books (other textbooks for the same course from other publishers) at the forefront of their mind. The main competition’s features may influence the publisher’s decisions on things like length, coverage, pedagogical features and online resources.

10. New editions

Successful textbooks are likely to be put into new editions. Editing a new edition often involves less work, as some of the (already edited) material will be retained from the previous edition. But it can add extra consistency checks (eg making sure the end-of-chapter questions match the new content), and if the book is revised by a different author there may be a mismatch in writing styles that the editor will need to smooth out.

Summing up

This list gives you a flavour of the nature of textbook editing. If you are interested in exploring editing textbooks in more detail, download the CIEP Editing Textbooks guide to learn more about how educational publishing works and how to edit textbooks.

About Hetty Marx

Hetty Marx is a freelance textbook development editor. She has nearly 20 years of publishing experience, including in-house as a commissioning editor at Cambridge University Press and as a development editor at Pearson. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP and author of the CIEP guide Editing Textbooks.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: header image by RDNE Stock project on Pexels, Love to Learn by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Posted by Belinda Hodder, blog assistant.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.