Evaluating Textbooks: A Recommendation Report Assignment for Introductory Technical Communication Courses

Michael J. Albers
East Carolina University
Spring 2009

In many introductory technical communication classes, students may have trouble finding recommendation report topics which lend themselves to a reasonable assignment length. If left to themselves, students tend to come up with variation on the infamous “new parking garage” report that frequently does not fit within 5-7 pages because the problem is too large. With other topics, the nature of collecting and analyzing the information results in a highly artificial environment with students unable to collect enough information to report. As a result, they end up making stuff up.

In order to address these problems, I have developed a recommendation report assignment that asks students to evaluate introductory textbooks in their majors. The basic assignment scenario is that the student is a member of a student/faculty group charged with evaluating textbooks for the introductory course in the student’s field. The student has been assigned two textbooks to evaluate in order to write a formal recommendation report. Then, the student has to give an oral presentation, designed for the textbook committee, on the results of the evaluation.

A textbook recommendation report has all of the components of a longer report, but in a more compact form. It is a complete report of 5-7 pages, rather than being a truncated version of what should be a much longer report. At the same time, the report is long enough and complex enough to require multiple levels of headings, lists, and graphics. (I have also used this assignment in graduate classes, although in those course I expect a longer, more detailed analysis.) Below I discuss the details of the assignment and some of the challenges it brings.

Assignment details

Each student has to find two introductory textbooks in his/her major. A book the student has already used can be one of the two. I recommend that students ask their advisors for recommendations for the second book. I limit them to introductory books and not advanced books so they have a reasonable grasp of the material. By evaluating books in their majors, the students also have a reasonable interest in the material.

The students develop 4-5 evaluation criteria, which differ based on their majors. For example, while end-of-chapter problems are essential for the sciences, they are less important for history or literature. The report has to include the criteria and justify why the criteria were chosen. Students are also told to explain why other major factors were not used as criteria. This variety of criteria supports a class discussion about considering audience needs and viewpoints and helps to avoid peer reader response statements such as “You didn’t talk about X; the report is worthless.”

Students use the criteria to evaluate the textbooks. They learn to write about each criterion separately (which emphasizes heading structure) and also how to make the evaluation easily readable. I tell them to write three paragraphs about each criterion, one for each book and one which compares the books and draws a conclusion about the relationship of the books to that criterion.

Class discussion focuses on information accessibility. I encourage students to place information into lists or tables designed for people who will be flipping through the report while in the committee meeting, trying to re-find what they read earlier. Writing for random information access is a new concept to the students, which leads to interesting design discussions.

The report also offers an opportunity to teach about graphics, which are typically scans of pages to show specific good or bad points of the books. This aspect of the assignment supports class discussions about using graphics ethically in comparisons, emphasizing that writers should compare equivalent images and not pick the best or worst examples.

Challenges Encountered

Although the assignment has many advantages, a few typical challenges arise.

  • Finding the a second textbook. Although I recommend that students ask their advisors for copies of common introductory textbooks, many have sold their books. Distance education students have the hardest time finding another textbook because public libraries and most academic libraries typically do not have textbooks.
  • Evaluating both books provided in a course rather than finding a second textbook. For example, a computer science major may try to evaluate a programming reference and a programming textbook, both of which were required for the introductory course.
  • Trying to use textbooks from two different courses. Some students may attempt to evaluate textbooks for two similar but separate courses, such as Accounting I and Accounting II.
  • Trying to evaluate books that are not textbooks. “Textbook” refers to a specific genre and within it, book design is relatively consistent and easy to compare. Trying to use paperback books on a specific topic (common in fields such as history) does not support comparison.
  • Trying to compare two editions of the same textbook. Books simply do not change enough between editions to make a valid report. Interestingly, I have found some students think they need to find and compare two editions of the same book.
  • Presenting the comparison without making a recommendation. Students present a report that essentially says, “Here is my comparison of two books; you can decide which is best.” In these reports, some version of that sentence almost always appears in the conclusion.
  • Writing a highly lopsided evaluation. The student decides early which book to recommend and writes a report that has nothing good to say about one book while the other has no flaws. It is surprisingly difficult for students to accept that a book may not be the best on all of the criteria but still be recommended. They also sometimes have difficulty understanding that a committee expects to hear good and bad points about every book evaluated.
  • Confusing an executive summary with an introduction. Rather than writing the executive summary as a summary of the report (I encourage them to think of it as a one page stand-alone version of the report), they write an introduction stating what the report will evaluate.
  • Writing a single paragraph executive summary. The students write a short one-paragraph summary of the report which provides only a sketchy view of the findings. This provides a good point for a discussion on the purpose of executive summaries, making information easy to find, and on fitting audience information needs.
  • Combining the criteria justification and evaluation of both books into a single paragraph. This typically gives a 6-paragraph paper with one level of headings: introduction, four evaluation paragraphs, and conclusion.
  • Adapting the oral report to the class and not a textbook committee. Students sometimes present only a linear description of the steps they completed but ignore the evaluation/recommendation itself.

Despite these challenges, I believe this assignment (or variations of it) can serve students well in learning to evaluate options while learning about audience analysis and effective report design.