Tips for making textbooks and study materials more engaging

This blog was written by Chris Joynes, Senior International Advisor, Education Development Trust for World Book Day

The role of textbooks and study materials, regardless of subject, is to present learners with key content and to help them to acquire necessary skills. However, a key challenge is how to make the textbook itself engaging enough to stimulate interactive study. Interactive study takes place when learners are stimulated to engage with textbooks through techniques that encourage them to read, respond and explore ideas in a way that offers some replication of the face-to-face learning experience.

In this article, we will outline some of the basic approaches you can use to help textbooks engage learners through interactive study.

Credit: Dylan Thomas / UKaid / Department for International Development

Why is interactive study important for textbook design?

Textbooks and study materials that encourage an interactive approach are more likely to stimulate deep rather than surface learning. ‘Deep’ learning is based on developing your understanding and on challenging ideas and assumptions, while ‘surface’ learning is more associated with only memorising information and following instructions. Deep learning approaches include encouraging learners to try things out for themselves, helping them to process new ideas, and linking learning with existing knowledge and experience.

There are a number of basic techniques you can use to stimulate deep learning through textbooks:

1.  The use of language styles

Since textbooks should be designed to facilitate learning, they should use language that is easy to understand, suitable for the level of the learners, and which is engaging and stimulating.

Firstly, you can appeal to the individual learner by using a conversational and personal language style, including greetings, being friendly and encouraging, and addressing learners as ‘you’ and yourself as ‘I’.

Secondly, to ensure that learners are not just passive readers, you can use language that actively encourages them to think and reflect. Approaches include asking them to think about their own experiences in relation to the subject content, encouraging them to think about how to use the given knowledge and skills themselves, and asking them to criticise and supplement the content provided.

2.  Providing aims and objectives to explain the study process

At the start of a new section or chapter within a textbook, it is always a good idea to explain to learners what topics they will be covering, how it links to what they have already studied, and what they can expect to learn as a result. Providing this information will help your readers relate the new information to what they already know, prepare for what is going to happen, and plan their study time accordingly.

Further to this, you can also provide the learners with some clear learning aims and objectives. An aim is a broad, general statement describing what the learner might learn from a piece of instruction, or what the textbook will cover. An objective is a more specific statement about what the learner will be able to do as a result of working through the materials.

Such interventions help learners determine what is required of them to successfully complete each part of a textbook and direct their own activities toward achieving the stated objectives.

3.  Including activities as part of the study materials

In creating interactive study materials, it is always a good idea to insert tasks and activities at key points in the text. These require the learner to actively engage with the content of the materials in some way. The purpose of this is to motivate learners by keeping them focussed and interested, to help them process new information and encourage deeper learning, and help them explore any new skills or knowledge they have recently acquired.

The types of tasks and activities you can feature are the same as those that might take place in a classroom setting. They include:

  • practical activities doing or creating something based on suggestions made in the materials;
  • reflective activities that link information in the text with learners’ previous knowledge or experience;
  • or investigative activities researching for new information not contained in the materials.

Each of these types of activities can vary in length and in complexity. Some may take only minutes, some may require additional resources or require the learner to speak to other people, and some may need to be completed over a longer period of time. You also need to explain this when describing each activity.

4.  Providing guidance and feedback

Each time learners are given a task or activity, it is a good idea for you to provide them with some feedback or response. Designing activities that encourage interaction is one side of the coin; the other side is providing feedback to learners so they will know whether they are on the right track.

Interactive feedback can present ideas in a discursive fashion to encourage further reflection, alert the learner to any key elements involved in undertaking the tasks set out in the activity, and also link forward or backward to other information in the study materials.

5.  Visual presentation for interactive learning

When presenting content on the printed page, the use of visual aids and signposts is a very useful way of guiding learners through the study materials as well as stimulating interaction. Some examples you will already be familiar with using include: title headings, bullet points, italics, and changes in typeface and font size.

In addition to these common visual signposts, there are others that are especially useful to educational materials. They include, for example, icons and images to indicate the function of different parts of the texts; and text boxes and shading to section off certain portions of text, such as a ‘sidebar’ of additional information.

Finally, the use of illustrations and graphics are a useful addition, and can help to emphasise a particular point, present information more clearly than text, and help break up the text and make materials look attractive.

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