By the Book?

Let Learning (Not a Textbook) Shape Your Course Design

The deadline to order textbooks for fall is March 5. Fall probably seems like a low priority when you’re in the throes of midterm; but choosing a text or resources should actually come at the end of your course design process, so it’s worth taking some time now to reflect on your goals for your fall courses. You might even find that you don’t want to order a textbook at all, but might be better served by open education resources (see below!).

Your textbook can easily lure you into a content trap. Textbooks are crammed with material; they get longer every year, updated with new discoveries, and we want to make sure our students get their money’s worth… but the frantic pace actually undermines learning (Nelson, 1999). Learning requires time and sustained attention: students need practice, feedback, and reflection. If we want them to remember and be able to use the concepts we’re teaching, then we have to prioritize. To give students substantive experience with the most important skills and ideas, we have to eliminate others. We’re not just content experts: we’re engineers, crafting a learning experience for our students. You will build a better course if, instead of starting with the text, you begin by identifying the learning goals that are meaningful to you, and critical for your students’ future success. What do you really want your students to know or be able to do when they’ve successfully completed your course? What must they be able to do well next semester, or five years from now? Material that doesn’t facilitate those goals doesn’t belong in the course, however interesting it might be.

Once you’ve figured out what students need to master, you can determine the best way for them to provide evidence of their learning. What would successful performance look like? Then you can design opportunities for them to practice that thinking. When your course is aligned and intentional, you’ll be able to gauge your students’ learning accurately, and they’ll have a good sense of how they’re doing. What materials they’ll need (i.e. what—if any—text) will be one of the final decisions you make; and there are more and more free resources available, so you can select exactly what they’ll need, rather than a generic compendium. FSU Libraries have a list of OER collections, and the outstanding librarians are available to assist you in locating the perfect resources for your course. Contact Devin Soper and the Alt-Textbook Team at

Backward-designing your course in this way isn’t quick or easy, but it is highly effective, and the results are gratifying. If you’d like support or feedback as you’re thinking about course design, we’re excited to help: please contact us at The “Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” by L. Dee Fink, can get you started. We’ll be hosting a Course Design Institute in May: stay tuned for details, and application instructions. And please consider attending the Open Education Symposium! 


Florida State University Libraries will host a one-day Open Education Symposium on March 8th in Strozier Library’s Bradley Reading Room. The symposium is a free professional development opportunity for faculty and students, focused primarily on raising awareness about Open Educational Resources (OER) and their potential to support student success by reducing textbook costs and creating opportunities for open, learner-centered pedagogy.

“This symposium will provide faculty with effective strategies for relieving some of the financial burden on their students, advancing the University’s strategic goal of ensuring an affordable education for all students regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Julia Zimmerman, Dean of University Libraries. “In addition, the symposium will also surface innovative ideas related to open pedagogy, including open assignments that empower students to connect with a global audience, engage with real-world issues, and develop their skills as digital citizens.”

The symposium will feature a number of distinguished speakers, collaborative sessions, panel discussions, and a keynote address from Dr. David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning. Registration is free and participants are welcome to attend the entire event or individual sessions. Participants can also attend remotely via a live webcast. This program is sponsored by FSU’s University Libraries, College of Education, and College of Communication and Information.

For program details and to register or view the live webcast, please visit

There’s also a survey about textbooks, affordability, and OER. You can respond here: