Choosing Course Resources: A Conversation with Ioana Sonea and Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah

In the past, students could get by without the texbook becasue we tended to give lectures ... and they could survive on just that. In the new curriculum, that's been a big debate.

We wanted to know how professors choose classroom texts and resources.  So we asked them. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll post a series of those interview conversations. In doing so, we hope to spotlight some of the interesting ways our educators are making innovative choices to help us learn more and spend less. If you missed it, read the interview with MSU chemistry professor Melanie Cooper.

Interview Transcript:

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah:  Can you tell me about the texts and resources you use in your [teaching practice]?

portrait of MSU associate professor of veterinary medicine Ioana Sonea

Ioana Sonea, associate professor of veterinary medicine

Ioana Sonea: I’ve been teaching anatomy and a problem-based course that didn’t have a textbook. For anatomy we’ve always tried to find a textbook that was general enough that students could use it for more than one species — dog, cat, horse, cow, whatever — and that’d be readable. And something they could use in future years as well because it seems as waste of resources to buy a text and use it for only one course and never again.  

In [our] new curriculum we’re using a systems-based approach, so everything’s going to be merged together. […] Several topics are coming together per system. […] We’re going to recommend one book, actually, the same anatomy book I’ve been using for multiple courses.  Because again, it’s got the same virtues; it covers the right amount of species at the right depth. We’re going to use sources from different books, depending on which system we’re emphasizing. [We’re also trying to find resources] that are free. So we’re looking at some of the electronic resources that are available at Michigan State. And some are available for unlimited downloads. If possible, we’re going to go for those sources.

One of the things I found frustrating as a student was that some of my course textbooks weren’t useful. I bought them but I didn’t need them to be successful in the course. How integral are your course resources to your courses? Could students get by without them or are they absolutely necessary?

In the past, [anatomy] students could get by without having the main textbook because we tended to give lectures that were succinct and they could survive on just that. For dissection [classes], students did need the book but they could buy an earlier version.

In the new curriculum, that’s been a big debate. I originally thought we’d try to get people to read the books instead of course packs. Because the problem with course packs is that although they may be very good, but for a lot of subjects they’re quite static. And if you just rely on the course packs, then you’re stuck in the ’80s, if that’s when you learned the stuff. Anatomy isn’t one of those subjects that changes [quickly]. But what we found [with the pilot course] this summer is that students found the book a bit difficult to digest. And so I’ve gone back to using a course pack with the book as supplemental reading. I’m hoping that by giving them supplemental readings, they’ll be able to branch out and read more about the species that interest them. […].

I actually have a question for you.  What do you think about the option of renting books?

I was in James Madison College and we rarely had textbooks. More often we had smaller books on specific subjects. I bought most of them but my professors were also conscientious of cost and would note on their syllabi which books were available at the library. But I also like to write in texts, highlights and notes in the margins, so I like to own the text.

Me too, I like a hard copy.  I find reading a book on the computer very unsatisfying.

Do you discuss with students how and why you select certain resources?

Not before the fact, I haven’t. I’ve discussed it after the fact. I will ask them if they’ve used something. And then we do get into discussions as to why we selected that. That’s why I’ve gone away from one of the dissection guides.  Because students were only using it partially [and only for one course]. Now I’ve gone to an open source dissection guide that I’m modifying as I want. That works better.

With regard to required reading, what is a reasonable load for your course and how do you determine that?

That’s a really hard question. It depends on the density of the reading.  […] With the pilot course, I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum. In other words, what was absolutely essential. I haven’t added up the pages but it hasn’t been many per night. Maybe 2 or 3 pages, but it’s quite dense. I haven’t got an exact answer for you but we’re doing surveys and students are saying that they’re not feeling overwhelmed by the material. But it’s also a modular course, so students don’t have competing demands with other courses.

Do you think the reading expectations are comparable to those you encountered as a student?

That’s a funny question because I went to a French university and most of our textbooks were in English. So, we didn’t have much in the way of reading expectations and most people got by with course packs, which I didn’t like. So, I would read and I read a ton. I read more than students do now. But I’ve always read fast and I’ve always liked to read. I think if I had been in an English university, then the expectations would’ve been heavier than they are now. But that’s a lot of extrapolation.  

In your experience, does the choice between digital and physical texts matter to 21st century students?

To some of them it does. Some don’t care, but some like to have a physical book. Some people like texts online because they can search for a word and find every occurrence. I know some people in the program who are dyslexic  and they really like the online version. But I know an equal number of people who say they don’t like reading online and prefer the physical book.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you — it was interesting!

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