Why do textbooks exist?

(ant) #1

This is a point I have been pondering for the past few years, but I have never really asked how anyone else feels on the topic.
After being in college for some time I do not feel I have found many textbooks to be useful at all, especially when it comes to memorization heavy topics. In memory heavy classes (such as anatomy, physiology) I feel as if the dialog on certain topics is just way too much and it would benefit to instead put the main points in bullet form, and a brief explanation of things that may need explained. Instead we get pages of paragraphs that open up much discussion of the points and honestly it just makes it difficult to find what is actually important.

Long story short am I the only one who believes that all textbooks should be written in either chart or bullet points instead of paragraphs upon paragraphs? This way we could know that EVERYTHING we read is important and use memory techniques to encode each bullet point into our mind, thus saving the time of having to read through the ridiculous word salad which are most textbooks.

It just seems that textbooks are an archaic remnant of the old word and come from a time when things were described in stories (which are meant to be put into paragraphs).

Example (would hopefully have a picture too but here)

The celiac artery branches into several other arteries which supply the liver, spleen, part of the stomach, and anastomoses with other arteries coming off of the superior mesenteric artery. The branches of the celiac artery include: the common hepatic, splenic, and left gastric. these further branch into (blah blah blah blah)


Celiac artery
supplies liver, spleen, part of stomach
anastomoses with SMA from gastroduodenal artery
branches into: left gastric, common hepatic, splenic arteries.

Paragraphs are just so overrated


Very much agreed. I would guess they are so long is that they are trying to be useful to a wide range of courses and teachers. In practice, it always seems that you are assigned pgs 89 - 112, and it lends to an overall feeling of fragmentation when you are thinking about what you are studying.

I think I remember a little movement by some academics, led by Stephen Jay Gould, that was calling for shorter, more basic textbooks. If the teacher wants to move out in other directions, they can add their own supplementary readings.

I think it would be best if at least textbooks in the early levels of studying a subject were fairly short, and when you finished a course, you could think to yourself, “whatever else I learned in this course, at least I know that little book inside & out!”

(ant) #3

Maybe some of it has to do with money. I have heard that they keep books thick so they can charge a premium. But you are right I do find that there is a movement toward more review style books (which aren’t really review thats how they all should be!) and away from paragraph ridden textbooks.

Of course even in medical school we hardly use textbooks. When I went through nursing school we had to buy a bunch of books and read through them (yuck). Overall the amount of material learned in medical school is so much more than nursing school, but if the layperson looked at the stack of books we used in RN courses vs med school courses it would seem nursing was a much more in-depth field when really we just read through powerpoint and denser review books. The nursing books were just very full of verbiage and fluff. Honestly 3/4 the time was filtering through the paragraphs trying to find what was important for the test and real life. With med school review books and powerpoint we had what we knew was important in front of us so we could read and review and recite it so it actually stuck to our memory.

Even during our rotations we hardly crack actual textbooks. With a month per rotation it is enough to read through the 200 page review book we use for each clerkship, even though oftentimes it is a 800 page textbook assigned for the rotation. Even the greatest on this forum would have trouble memorizing a 800 page surgery textbook while working 60-80 hours per week in one month!

(ant) #4

Just to put out a commonplace example of how I believe textbooks should be set up. I am posting a link from a car dealership. Lets say the information about this vehicle (2019 subaru outback) is what we need to memorize for the next test. All the specs, mech details, highlights of the vehicle, MPG, etc. Going through the list on the dealer’s website is SO fluid and to the point. No excess verbiage wasting your time. Just the info you need to memorize if you hypothetically were going on have an exam on “what features this car has” next tuesday.


I like word salad. Yeah, it contains lots of roughage that makes it harder to digest. But consider the additional nutritients. Text sometimes further explains things. This makes them easier to understand for beginners and prevents missunderstandings.

Please also consider that the human brain adapted to learn from stories that are either told by a human (in this case the lecturer) or written down as if they were told. On the other hand most people have a hard time when they try to memorize data sheet like informations and lists.

Extracting keywords and concepts from walls of text also helps to elaborate a topic because you have to decide what is important. Elaboration is a great way to store things in long term memory, maybe even better than mnemonics (which doesn’t mean that you can’t combine them).

That’s just my opinion of course. People are different.


I personally believe textbooks are extremely important because they cover more ground than their note counterparts. If I want to ace an exam, sure all I need to do is learn from the notes, I will even understand what these notes are supposed to tell me. What I then do not understand is how they fit into my own understanding, where they originate from and how to construct similar (but different) notes without any guidance.

Using a textbook makes the above doable and also gives you a stronger sense of security with your information. It gives you more of a completion to the said topic.

Also if you know nothing about the subject a textbook will be far quicker than taking classes. At the end you will also know more at least within focus of that book. Though I am saying this as someone who takes extreme attention to detail and at the same time can see the ‘concept’. Often the tiny bits and pieces of detail are exactly what you need to make significant progress on your own. They often are also the same things you will skip when consulting any references. They simply don’t form part of what is ‘standard’; as such you are often being given the illusion that this is all that is known about the subject.

Though I do understand your point, the textbooks are generally used badly because you already know things; a lot of the information is repeated or implied by previous points. They are extremely useful for someone who has no knowledge about the subject, some of them if you learnt them as well as you did your notes would do more than serve as a substitute for a degree. Having spent time with different memory techniques I definitely find it irrelevant or even hindering to have a paragraph over the bullet points of course.

In my experience ‘fluff’ is fluff because it is wrong, inefficient, indirect or the wrong subject. You only need to learn what you need to learn, processing doesn’t take long, neither does filtering out what you know already, but filtering out what you don’t know, that is what takes time (at least relatively) .

That is my opinion as someone who really doesn’t need any elaboration and prefers information as abstractly as possible.

(ant) #7

That does make sense, maybe nursing texts are just bad in general. I do not remember well much else prior to nursing school and the texts I used taking prereqs for medschool afterward were more conceptual (organic chem, physics) and those were not too bad (also not memory heavy topics).

I may pick up a copy of an internal med textbook (since that is what I want to go into) and start going through it and see if I can put to use the points made by finding and nagime.

Maybe the issue is my personal preference? or that most texts are just pain bad?


The ‘most texts are just plain bad’ is in fact true. I believe for medical subjects even more so there is always one sort of bible and the other books do not contribute much beyond it unless you are planning to extract specifics which are likely covered in the ‘bible’.

I also think it is much more likely to be a subject thing though, with a mix of being bad rather than a general thing.