Lauren Wong | The Poly Post

Most college courses should not require you to buy textbooks

By Oscar Huerta, May 2, 2023

With the arrival of every new semester, a certain amount of nervousness always washes over me when thinking about the new workloads to come. However, nothing can compare to the pure dread I feel when I look at my course requirements and ask myself, “How much time and money will my classes expect me to waste on textbooks this semester?” 

One of the things I have learned from college is that many courses use the word “required” very loosely. Not every course is like this, but in my experience, you could likely pass many classes without ever opening the textbook you were told to buy.  

In short, the amount of time and money that textbooks cost me often outweighed their usefulness for most of my classes.  

I first learned this when I enrolled in a couple of GE classes in Fall 2020. After checking the syllabuses and reading over my course requirements, I made sure to pick up the textbooks I needed so I could stay on top of the assigned readings. 

Trying to get all these books in time for class was tricky enough with all the different prices, formats and methods of receiving them. Even once I eventually got them, the actual assigned readings ended up taking up much more of my time than I anticipated.  

Despite those issues, I figured that making this effort to read them all would surely prove to be worth it by the time the semester finished. 

Fast-forward to the end of the semester, and that effort amounted to very little for my overall grades. Although the textbooks were technically required for those classes, the assignments that ended up needing the textbooks just felt so minimal and tacked on when compared to the rest of the coursework, which didn’t require them in any capacity. 

For example, one of my classes required me to read about 50 pages of the textbook per week. I remember spending so much time reading everything in the assigned sections thinking that it would all come in handy for the big assignments that I had coming.  

Yet when the time came, instead of helping with any major assignments, the readings were exclusively used for low-impact discussion board posts asking for thoughts on the assigned sections, while the majority of grade in the class primarily revolved around other assignments and group work.  

These other assignments were always very guided. They would only take instruction from the lectures and use knowledge from online sources, but nothing in these assignments ever required any specific information or instruction from the book.  

Once the semester ended, even though the amount of time I spent every week on the reading assignments was comparable to the amount I spent on the heavier assignments, the reading assignments ended up counting for less than 10% of my overall grade for the class. 

Not to mention, for some of my other classes, there weren’t any assignments that required you to have read the textbook at all.   

For another one of my classes, I was required to read a chapter before every class, but there were no assignments that would require any knowledge from those chapters. Every assignment had its own directions that usually involved researching with online sources to create reports, research which – once again – did not involve or need the book in the slightest.  

Even the readings themselves were made redundant because the important things worth mentioning from the book were always in the class lecture powerpoints. You could almost always just take notes on these powerpoints and understand essentially 80% of the readings at a quarter of the time it would take you to read them.  

These were common trends in all of my courses for fall 2020. My professors emphasized the importance of owning the textbook like your grade depended on it, but in reality, most of these classes seemed to only use them as a loose reference to help understand the lectures better, while the real graded assignments were completely separate from the textbook. 

Lauren Wong | The Poly Post

Before I gave up on the readings entirely, I thought that maybe it was just these specific classes that were barely using their required materials, and my future classes would start actually needing the textbooks for more important assignments.   

With this thought in mind, I moved on through the semesters and continued to buy and read the required textbooks. Sadly, the same trends continued as my classes would always end up using the textbooks only for small and inconsequential assignments, or at times, nothing at all. 

Some of my classes even required me to buy a specific access code for a website in order to access the textbook with no other alternatives. As if the tacked-on nature of the classes’ reading assignments wasn’t enough, I was now being forced to buy some textbooks at full price with no choice to rent or find cheaper alternatives. The small textbook quizzes and discussions for those classes stung even more when I thought about how little room I was given to save or strategize my spending.  

At a certain point, assigned readings stopped becoming a priority for me, and the textbooks that I was required to buy would sit and collect dust until I needed to crack it open for one small quiz or assignment. After that, they would return to their spot and never see the light of day until I needed it again for another small task. 

Obviously not every class will use its textbooks like this, and my experiences may not be exactly shared with some people. Textbooks themselves are not the issue either, as they can definitely offer a lot of useful information to help students with their classes. 

However, the way many of my courses arbitrarily made me use these textbooks is what bothers me. Requiring you to spend a good chunk of time and money on textbooks that would almost always only help you with 5% of your grade just makes it feel like your energy was wasted in the end.  

This overgeneralization of course requirements from these classes can make it hard to discern whether or not your efforts to read the required materials will amount to anything when the impact of their assigned readings can vary so much depending on the class.  

Such disparities are why certain classes shouldn’t require these textbooks, assigned readings and small assignments at all, and the “required” label should stick for the textbooks that certain courses actually need. Many classes will still require outside materials to help students understand more complex topics, but not every class needs that.  

I think this mostly applies to GE courses. The topics were usually so self-contained and simple that all it took to understand something was a brief class lecture. Every reading assignment always covered the same exact things discussed numerous times in lectures, which made them feel redundant and pointless.  

I feel many students could relate to me when I say that I currently have no use for all the GE course textbooks I was required to buy. Sure, some of those books might be helpful to have around in the future, but they didn’t do much for me when I actually “needed” to have them. 

I think a better term for these course materials would be suggested or complementary textbooks, because that is what they felt like most of the time. Some of my classes actually followed this naming method and would list both required and recommended textbooks. I always appreciated those classes because they actually took the time to distinguish between what was needed and what would help in the class, and the labels were actually accurate.  

I wish more classes could start doing stuff like this, but with the Equitable Access program coming in fall 2023, it seems that colleges only want to encourage student spending on course requirements. It’s a shame too, because a lot more money could be saved if they started looking at the bottom and asked if students should even need textbooks for certain classes in the first place.  

Maybe it’s just me, but I think if every class could give a little more thought on whether they actually need students to buy a certain textbook or not, then a lot of students could have more money in their pockets, more time on their hands and less textbooks taking up space on their dusty bookshelves.  

Feature image by Lauren Wong

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