In the past, I was only teaching graduate-level courses where I was creating the material myself. It was slides with material from various books, research papers, and my own work. Accompanied by exercises and small projects that I would build from scratch.

This year I have to teach a new undergraduate-level course. The material I need to cover is more standardized and there are at least two very good textbooks that cover the material nicely (pdfs available at the library, incl nice examples, etc.).

  1. Should I still build my own material? It seems like a waste of time since the material is very basic and standard and I could not reach the quality of the textbooks that are at several revisions. On the other hand, I would avoid issues like this: Professor only teaches what is already in textbook. Should I quit going to the lectures?
  2. If I teach the textbook, doesn't it feel like cheating? I mean, I'm explaining things they can find in the textbook. For some students, it's useful because they need someone to ease them into the subject before they dig deeper. For others, they can simply read the book.
  3. Another way to go is to develop complementary material to the textbook (lab exercises, computer examples, etc.) but still, teach the book. But, I am not sure how I feel developing supplementary material to someone else's textbook.

Any experience to be shared or references?

  • 1
    Is this for a mathematics course?
    – Buffy
    Jul 17, 2020 at 15:39
  • 1
    @Buffy Engineering course with extensive numerical exercises. They need to learn the technologies, basic principles, and methodologies to analyze case studies.
    – electrique
    Jul 17, 2020 at 15:40

4 Answers 4


I think that the third option is widely accepted. Students will complain about the other two, though different students and for different reasons.

The book is an outline and is a fallback for students. If it has good exercises, then they can get practice. But you will still want your own exercises to supplement in many cases, and certainly for exams. But I think a lot of, maybe most, professors follow the outline of the book even if they don't lecture precisely from it. Their exercises may be a mix of those taken from the book and those they develop themselves.

And, encourage students to take good lecture notes and not depend completely on the book.

And using your own material lets you adapt a bit for your students if they don't fit a standard model.

  • "And using your own material lets you adapt a bit for your students if they don't fit a standard model." Does this refer to the material I develop as part of option 3 or option 1?
    – electrique
    Jul 17, 2020 at 15:42
  • 3
    Both, probably.
    – Buffy
    Jul 17, 2020 at 15:45

Even for most graduate courses, I find having a textbook useful. Part of the reason for this is that I think it benefits students to get multiple perspectives on the same material. From my personal experience as a student, I know that sometimes having an instructor follow a text too closely can be a problem, since if a student has trouble grasping the particular presentation of an idea—and that idea is presented exactly the same way in the textbook and in class—it can be real difficulty. (This can be particularly an issue when a lecturer is teaching from a book they wrote.)

When I develop a course, using a given text, I try to do a few things. First, to avoid confusion, I adopt the textbook’s notation whenever possible. That means that students will have a consistent mathematical description of the material, whether they are looking at their notes from my lectures or reading in the book. Second, I try to choose examples for my lectures that complement the book. Sometimes, the specific derivations or examples in the textbook are complicated enough or important enough that I cover them in class in the same way that the book covers them. Other times, I let the students read the text and choose different examples, so as to expose them a variety of different approaches to the same kinds of problems. Third, I try to identify points in the book’s treatment that may be unclear, so that I can provide extra elucidation of these specific points.


I had a similar situation twice during my adjunct teaching career. Maybe my experiences are useful.

1 I was teaching an all-new undergraduate course. At that time, there were no textbooks (there are some now). I planned to teach entirely from my notes. I was advised by the more experienced members of the department that students really like to have a textbook assigned. So I assigned some text (which covered about 1/3 of what we did in class) and used a lot of my notes.

2 I was teaching an undergraduate course that other people taught before in this department. Everyone involved felt that the books used before were unsuitable. (One was someone's Ph.D. thesis - a very good one, actually, but it assumed from page 1 that the students already knew everything that they were supposed to learn in this course, and then proceeded to discuss interesting stuff outside the scope of the course. Another is a "popular entertainment" style text, not suitable as a textbook at all.) Once again, I said I wanted to teach from my notes and was advised by other more experienced members of the department that students really like to have a textbook. After a lot of searching, I found a combination of 2 books that covered most of what I needed (I still have out lots of notes).

TLDR: Students like to have a textbook, to have homework problems assigned from a textbook, and to have assigned readings, even if you don't use all of the textbook, and supplement it with a lot of your own materials. Therefore I vote for option #3.


This is from the perspective of someone remembering what it was like to be a student.

These are some reasons why having a textbook was very useful.

  • When you are solving a hard problem on a problem set, it helps to be able to go and study text and examples written up very carefully to check every step of your understanding. Notes taken in class are imperfect records of a lecture and so are not a substitute. A good set of lecture notes from the teacher could serve this role as well, but they won't be as "student-tested" as a text book, which can lead to them being too high level or skipping too many steps.
  • The same goes for studying for exams. The lecture notes are often a really good starting point for remembering what material was covered and going through examples done in class. But if there's a point where one can't remember what the point was based on the notes (or maybe never understood), having a textbook means you can go back and review those points in detail.
  • Being able to read ahead in the book before a lecture lets you have an idea of what the material is before seeing it in lecture, which can mean you know what parts are tricky and that you need to pay attention to. Although, to be honest, I did not do this as much as a student as I probably should have.

Having said that, these are some reasons why I didn't like it when professors did some version of "just teaching out of the textbook" without adding any of their own insight (for example, showing slides that were just going through the textbook material in order)

  • The lectures often felt "stale". I think classroom learning is partly about transferring material, but on a deeper level it is also about transferring enthusiasm about the subject and showing how an experienced person thinks about it... in other words, how to learn and to "be" a practitioner of that field. This comes across much more clearly if the professor organizes the material in the way they find the most logical. It is very obvious if the lecturer is bored with the material.
  • The lectures often felt pointless. Even if this wasn't strictly true because one can ask questions to a lecturer they can't ask to a book, it is hard to feel motivated about attending a lecture as a student if you know you are only going to get information you can also get in a textbook.
  • A person can explain something in different ways than a book. Much like a film should not be a shot-for-shot remake of a book, a lecture should not be a word-for-word reading of a text. The lecturer should take advantage of the medium and their experience to explain things in a way that can't be done in a textbook (demos, live coding, videos, informal arguments, little tricks, adding some personality, tangents, examples of how these concepts show up in the wild, making the material "feel" more personal and approachable by having a person talk about it...), and leave aside things that can be better done better in a book (every single step with every notational i dotted and t crossed of a 10+ page derivation).
  • Having access to different explanations of the same material is incredibly valuable. If your lectures are based on, but modified versions of, material in the text, then students automatically have access to two different ways through the terrain.

For these reasons, from a student-centered perspective, I would vote for option 3.

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