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Learning At Any Cost Or None

28 Sep 2017 5:00 PM | Anonymous

By Regan A. R. Gurung, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

There are many ways to learn. I like to think that armed with a curious mind and the right resources and motivation, anyone can learn by themselves. Of course, when we think of learning we don’t think of the solo pursuits of motivated individuals. We tend to think of schools and colleges. While master teachers can inspire with their passion and masterfully deliver content, most students rely heavily on course materials the faculty assign (though the students may not always read all of it) to solidify content acquisition. Consequently, the quality of course material is of tantamount importance. For years, faculty required students to buy textbooks. Students mostly bought them (and sometimes read them). Now there are a variety of free resources available. How do they compare to the expensive versions?  Are they all created equal?

 Once upon a time, you could rely on the simple heuristic that “pricey equals quality.” After all, standard textbooks (STBs) have the backing of major publishing companies who invest large sums of money to ensure quality products. The development editors, slew of peer reviewers examining every draft of every chapter, and focus groups should ensure a quality product. Then there are the bells and whistles.  STBs are packed with pictures, cartoons, and come with a wide array of textbook technology supplements (online quizzes, etc.; Gurung, 2015). Many believe that given a STB is put out by a publisher whose name is recognizable it must be good.  If an author who is familiar writes an STB, it must be good.  In fact, these are all empirical questions that are never really tested. The market research that big publishers cite and the student and faculty endorsements peppering the back covers and promotional materials of STBs rarely (if ever) represent true empirical comparisons of learning. To be fair, true comparisons of learning are difficult. A variety of factors- the student, the teacher, the textbook- all influence learning, which makes such research difficult.

Are all STBs equal? In one study I did some years ago students rated a number of most adopted textbooks in the introductory psychology market (Gurung & Landrum, 2012). Students did differentiate between texts rating some books better than others but does the student preference matter? In a number of national studies, colleagues and I had students using different textbooks take a common quiz (ours) so we had a common measure of learning (Gurung, Daniel, & Landrum, 2012; Gurung, Landrum, & Daniel, 2012). Quiz scores did not vary.  Students seem to learn similarly from different textbooks regardless of the company. But now for the big question: Given that STBs are extremely expensive (and students complain) what about textbooks for free?

Enter Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs provide students and faculty with free electronic materials. For a great review of the growth of the OER movement see Jhangiani, and Biswas-Diener (2017). The OER movement sprouted from the creation of MERLOT by California State University in 1997. MERLOT provided access to curriculum materials for higher education, and Open Access and the Budapest Open Access Initiative further fueled the rise of the OER movement.  OER strode into the public consciousness when MIT, with funding from the Mellon and Hewlett foundations created OpenCourseWare, online courses designed to be shared for free. Are OERs better than STBs?

The best studies using standardized or similar exams show no differences in exam scores between OER users and STB users. Sadly, the bulk of the studies available are fraught with limitations and validity issues. In an attempt to transcend the limitations of extant studies, I recently published a study (Gurung, 2017) comparing a group of OER users to STB users. In two large, multi-site studies, I compared students using OERs with students using STBs, and measured key student variables such as study techniques, time spent studying, ratings of the instructor, and rating of the quality and helpfulness of the textbook. All students completed a standardized test using a subset of items from a released Advanced Placement exam.

In both studies, students using an OER scored lower on the test after controlling for ACT scores. Study 2 also compared book format (hard copy or electronic) and showed OER hard copy users scored lowest. Using books predicted significant variance in learning over and above ACT scores and students variables. Results provide insight into the utility of OERs and the limitations of current attempts to assess learning in psychology. On the upside, students using an OER rated the material as more applicable to their lives.

When we talk about quality in higher education we tend to rely on the credibility of authors and the peer review process. While my findings urge caution in using OERs, it sheds light on how little learning outcome data there is for the use of STBs. Faculty still adopt these books, requiring students to pay thousands of dollars a year in textbook costs.

Well-curated OERs, those where the writing and content is monitored and reviewed by peers and contributed by credible sources, deserve to likewise bask in the reflected glory of STBs. While OERs are ready for their time in the spotlight, scholars of teaching and learning need to work to assess true quality of all educational resources. OERs present the opportunity for every member of the public to learn for no cost. We all need to pay attention to what we can get for free but also to ensure materials are tested for effectiveness.


Gurung, R. A. R. (2015). Three investigations of the utility of textbook teaching supplements. Psychology of Learning and Teaching, 1, 48-59.

Gurung, R. A. R. (2017). Predicting learning: Comparing an open education research and standard textbooks. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3, 233-2498.

Gurung, R. A. R., Daniel, D.B., & Landrum, R. E. (2012). A multi-site study of learning: A focus on metacognition and study behaviors. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 170-175. doi:10.1177/0098628312450428

Gurung, R. A. R., & Landrum, R. E. (2012). Comparing student perceptions of textbooks: Does liking influence learning? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24, 144-150.

Gurung, R. A. R., Landrum, R. E., & Daniel, D. B. (2012). Textbook use and learning: A North American perspective. Psychology of Learning and Teaching, 11, 87-98.

Jhangiani, R. S., & Biswas-Diener, R. (Eds.). (2017). Open: The philosophy and practices that are revolutionizing education and science. Retrieved from

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