Teaching & Learning, Textbooks

The pedagogical features of a textbook

Ever since I’ve started working on the BC open textbook project, one of the bits of research that I’ve wanted to do was deconstruct “the textbook” to dig into what exactly are the pedagogical features that make a textbook a textbook. As we enter into the creation phase of open textbooks – and with a book sprint coming up in June where we will be creating a textbook from scratch in 4 days – I’ve started taking a closer look at what makes a textbook a textbook.

Specifically I am trying to identify a couple of things.

First, I want to identify a list of common pedagogical features that textbooks have that make them different from other types of books. By features I mean what are the specific elements or attributes of a textbook that help students understand the content in the book. This can range from chapter outlines and summaries to practice questions and glossaries.

Second, I want to find out to what degree do those pedagogical features actually help students understand the content. Here I am searching for some empirical research that shows that specific features of a textbook may be more useful than others when it comes to helping students learn.

Third, does the format of the textbook change or alter the usefulness of a pedagogical feature? By this I mean are there features that were created specifically for printed textbooks that may not be relevant to an electronic version of the book, and are there pedagogical elements that can be done in the electronic version that can’t be done (or are done differently) in the printed version? This third question is challenging, but is important in the context of our work since students have the choice of format types – physical copies or electronic copies and the work we are doing has to be sensitive to the formats (and I think I have a future post brewing that may touch upon my frustration at having to work with both formats, both from a technical perspective and from an educational culture perspective. I’ve easily spent a majority of my time dealing with issues around “the print” vs issues with “the electronic”).

So far I’ve identified 24 different pedagogical features (or aids as I have seen them referred to) that are commonly found in textbooks. These are:

Pedagogical Aid/Feature
Chapter Objectives Chapter Learning Outcomes Chapter Outline
Checklists Headings & Subheadings Bold & Italicized text
Table of Figures Index Focus Questions
Chapter Summary or Review  Case Studies and Vignettes  Glossary/Key Terms
Demonstrations  Examples of Best Practices Maps
Interviews  Illustrations (which include photos, diagrams, charts & figures) Simulations
Further Reading suggestions Timelines Practice Questions
Multimedia (audio/video) Pronunciation Guide Table of Contents

From here, I am creating a description of what the feature is, what pedagogical purpose it might have for learners, what research I can find about that feature to see if there is any evidence that these aids help students, and, finally, some thoughts around how the feature might be different in the print and electronic versions of a textbook.

There is one pedagogical feature that I have intentionally left off of this list is, arguably, the most important pedagogical feature and that is structure. A strong structure provides a logical, well thought out path for students to navigate the content. But given the importance of structure, I think I need to tackle that on its own, perhaps using these 5 rules of textbook structure as a starting point.

Extending PressBooks

The other reasons I am trying to take this deconstructionist approach to analyzing features of a textbook is that we want to see if there are ways we can extend PressBooks to accommodate what we identify as the most useful pedagogical features. For example, in the user interface of PressBooks, Brad Payne has built some textbook specific buttons that insert specific types of content blocks into PressBooks (I spoke a bit about this in an earlier blog post). What we want to do is not only build buttons in the editing interface that inserts visible elements (like say a green box around a case study), but also inserts metadata that identifies that specific pedagogical feature as a chapter summary. Brad has been looking at the emerging Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) to see how we can begin to tag bits and pieces of the content in our textbook.

This is pretty exciting stuff. Theoretically, if we create a button in the user interface to insert a case study into the textbook, it could also insert metadata that identifies that block of content as a case study. Once you have content identified, you could then build API’s that could extract the textbook specific content chunks. From a reuse and remixability perspective, this makes a textbook modular. Build an API that can, for example, extract just the practice questions in a book and you can create a separate practice question handbook with nothing but the practice questions from the book. In essence, we can make the book modular and with that modularity comes flexibility to potentially mix and match content in interesting and unique ways.

But before we get to the point where we could have modular & remixable content, we need to focus and determine what are the really useful pedagogical features of a textbook that improves student learning. Once we can answer that, then we have some footing to proceed to the next step & build the technology to enable that.

CC BY 4.0 The pedagogical features of a textbook by Clint Lalonde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Profile Picture for Clint Lalonde
Wrangler of learning technologies by day, Dad, cyclist, soccer fan and, lately, home roaster of coffee by night. INFJ. I am the Manager of Educational Technologies at BCcampus, working primarily on open education projects. This blog is a personal blog and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of BCcampus.


  1. Agreed – a key question for open textbooks (when compared to a closed text) relates to the unique challenges for reuse and remix in different contexts. While these are not necessarily pedagogical there is a cross-over. The practical consideration, for example, is to avoid numbering of chapters and subheadings in the source text so that numbering could be automated in different reuse contexts. The pedagogical consideration is, where possible, designing chapters as independent components which can stand on their own.

    1. That’s a great point, Wayne, and illustrates how important it is to consider remix and reuse at every point in the process. It needs to be a key design consideration when making decisions – how can what we are doing better enable reuse and remix. Your comment also makes me realize that I should add a fourth parameter open textbook vs closed textbook and do some thinking around whether that distinction changes or alters those pedagogical features.

      1. I think it would be good to think through how reusable content really is. In my experience with FLOSS Manuals remix is hardly really very useful You almost always have to re-contextualise the work. By that I mean you have to ‘tweak it’ to make the content fit the parent context. When you do that it is very often better just to rewrite it…not trying to put cold water on the idea, just putting forward a tricky issue that you may come up on sooner rather than later if you pursue ‘remixing’ (its for this reason i prefer to talk about content re-use as ‘translation’ rather than remix…you need to translate the content to its new context)

        1. Yeah, in the OER world this is often referred to as the reusability paradox (http://cnx.org/content/m11898/latest/). And I agree with you, the remix is the most challenging activity any OER project has to deal with for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the contextualization you mention.

          However, I think we need to consider the granularity of remixability and create possibilities for varying degrees of remixability of the content we create. It doesn’t have to be a remix of the entire book. For example, an open license means that someone could simply copy and paste a few paragraphs that they like from one of our textbooks – take it from our web version and paste it into a Word document where they can wrap context around it.

          I think that educators are actually very good at recontextualizing content, only they might not recognize it as that. For example, I’ve seen many an educators find a photo on a random website that illustrates something in a lecture, grab that photo, copy it and use it in a Powerpoint presentation or in their lecture notes to illustrate a point that is completely out of context of where they found the original photo. They then create the context around the photo. A simple example, but an example I have seen of educators recontextualizing/remixing content.

          1. The trick is in the re-use. Making it easy to reuse. I think copy and paste is MUCH slighted in this area. It solves a lot of problems that other ‘more sophisticated’ approaches don’t (and its OS independent). IMHO tech systems that try and ‘enable’ remix beyond what C+P can do often create problems and ‘dis-empower’ people since somehow the techno whizzy magic makes them forget that Cut and Paste even exists…i find this very often in Book Sprints…many many requests for some magical reuse system and I tell them Book Sprints is so almighty and powerful that we built the reuse mechanism into the OS 😉 bruhaha..

          2. Ha! Those are some mighty deep hooks you guys have constructed 🙂 Really have to thank you for your comment, Adam because it has me thinking a lot about audience. It’s made me realize I have been working with an unarticulated assumption about audience, and that is there are really 2 audiences we need to consider when building resources & tools that could enable remix & reuse. There is the faculty, where simplicity triumphs. Then there are the other, more formalized projects where there is a level of technical support and understanding & where a term like “metadata” doesn’t make people scatter from the room like a zombie just shuffled in. I’m thinking that a good remix system should take into account those 2 different audiences & the way that the resources would be reused by those 2 different groups is different. Thanks for the comment.

          3. Avoid those Zombie shuffles! … thank you for your very generous thanks. If I might drop one more suggestion into the bucket…it might be interesting to change the language of reuse and avoid the use of remix. Its just my particular bug bear but I think ‘remix’ is more useful for talking about timebased media. However it is actually much harder to do this with text – you dont have knobs and sliders that you can twiddle to change the tonality of a text to make it fit. So, as mentioned before, I think ‘recontextualise’ or ‘translate’ is a good term to use. not only because its is more accurate but it helps others shift their frame of reference and understand the problem better.

            Anyways…good luck 🙂

    1. Thank Adam. I’m familiar with the OERpub project. I met Kathi Fletche, the project lead, at the Connexions conference last spring in Houston where Brad (our developer( and I took part in the OERPub code sprint. We were trying to see if we could incorporate OERpub as the front end editor in PressBooks, but the technical challenges were pretty significant. Needless to say, that project has been an inspiration to the work that Brad has been doing here around extending the PressBooks editor. I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to work with OERpub at some point in the future because they have paid a lot of attention to the user interface and have made a really nice editor.

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