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I have studied at 4 universities, and in 3 different programs.

I always observed that when asked for a recommendation for a book to understand a topic easily and clearly, university-professors always referred to books that are not student-friendly, i.e. written for more advanced level than that of the student. Then, after several years, I discovered that there were easier-to-comprehend books available which could have helped me acquire better grades.

Is this intentional?

If Yes, why?

If No, is there anything wrong with the higher education culture of the country I am studying in?

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    Wait, if a university student isn't an advanced level reader, who do you think is? – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 12 at 7:14
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX OP obviously means advanced in the topic, not advanced in reading. – DKNguyen Aug 12 at 13:18
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX There are "advanced" textbooks and then there are ADVANCED textbooks. That is to say, there are books written with different audiences and intentions in mind. – DKNguyen Aug 12 at 13:22
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX Plenty of academic books are intended as compiled references for professional researchers. They are not at all didactic and make no effort to teach the material - they expect that you are an expert and either already have an advanced command of the topics or at least otherwise have the research chops to fill in the blanks yourself. For postdocs and professors this can be a reasonable assumption of the audience. For undergraduate students, less so. – J... Aug 12 at 16:28
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    Some of the answers here make good points, but part of it may also be how you are asking. When I first read your phrase "a book to better understand the topic" my first thought was something that explains things at a deeper level, and thus a more advanced book. E.g., if you find the course text hard to understand, and want something "easier" you need to make this clear. – Kimball Aug 12 at 19:18

13 Answers 13

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One possible reason is that I feel the style of textbooks have changed in the last years, so that newer books are sometimes easier to understand (use more modern-day language and symbols, is friendlier to the reader etc.) (This does not necessarily imply that they don't cover as much details as the older ones or are more superficial) But the professor, being older, does maybe not know about them or is used to the older style. And often, some old books are considered classics that all students should know regardless of whether something better came out in the recent years.

Additionally, another reason might be that your professors don't have any education in teaching and don't know much about it. Most of my professors thought the most effective way of teaching is to copy lecture notes onto the blackboard and read it out loud with a monotone voice, without any explanations or motivation because they assumed that having it written down means students know it. Those may also be the types of professors who recommend you a hard-to-read, but factually correct book.

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    This is the most logical answer to me. – user366312 Aug 12 at 16:49
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    Also consider that individual learning styles differ, so your professors may be recommending books that THEY think would be easy. For me, a lot of that "modern-day language and symbols" gets in the way of understanding. – jamesqf Aug 12 at 22:50
  • Learning a subject is partly understanding the material, and also substantially understanding the vocabulary. But one way to make a text seem beginner friendly is to avoid nuanced industry terms. Indeed, you only need them to have an efficient conversation with knowledgeable folks. But what are professors if not knowledgeable folks? Perhaps they are trying to give the tools to understand the material and to understand how to ask questions when you want to expand on what you've learned. – kojiro Aug 13 at 0:40
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    It may also simply be that the professor recommends a book that they, personally, learned from. Their background at the time might have been different from the student's background now. They might not realise that "easier" books are now available, or they might simply prefer recommending something they can personally vouch for. – Nathaniel Aug 13 at 4:21
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    It may also be a matter of dignity and reputation. There are lots of well-written books under the "_____ for Dummies" brand, but if your professor assigned one as a textbook people might think twice about his credentials. So he'll assign the $300 database textbook from an educational publisher instead of the $20 SQL for Dummies even if the latter covers all the materials his students need. – workerjoe Aug 13 at 16:47
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Faculty (and people in general) do not have time to read multiple books that describe the same thing. So they will suggest the book they have read, not the best book.

Further, it is unlikely for two people to agree on which book is best.

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    While the "best book" is often debatable, some books are clearly, let's say, not the best. For a real-world example: every student and faculty I asked shares my opinion that the Landau&Lifschitz about statistical physics is worse in every respect compared to the Diu/Gunthmann/Lederer/Roulet book. – UJM Aug 12 at 13:41
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    @UJM I doubt a student can tell the difference though between not best and worst. – DKNguyen Aug 12 at 13:43
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    Faculty... do not have time to read multiple books that describe the same thing — Yeah, actually, we do. – JeffE Aug 12 at 14:55
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    ''Faculty (and people in general) do not have time to read multiple books that describe the same thing'' That's so untrue I can't even comprehend that you said that. – Tom Aug 13 at 23:38
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Note that you and your teachers might have divergent goals. Their ideal goal is having you understand the topic, as this is what matters in the long run. Grades and exams are only a tool to this end. After all, if they want everyone to get good grades, they could just make the exam easier.

But especially for beginner classes there are often a bunch of books that drill the standard exam problems, without properly explaining much of the actual topic. They might seem helpful to you, but for the goal of teaching a topic they are actually counterproductive.

Furthermore there is also the less obvious to spot category of books that offer simple, intuitive explanations for most of the topics, which seem easier and helpful to you, but whose explanations just turn out to be too superficial or possibly even completely wrong. Most professors have experienced having to waste time helping their students unlearn such bad ideas, so they will be wary of any books that seem to easy.

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    As a former student I felt this was the case with some of my peers. They wanted a book that would show some examples and tell how to solve problems and pass the exam. The books suggested by profs are usually those that explain what is going on and leave the exercises as exercises. – Džuris Aug 12 at 21:19
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    If there's a big gap between passing exams and understanding the topic, maybe the solution is making better exams, instead of recommending books that teach understanding but don't help with exams. – Mark Aug 13 at 7:57
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    @Mark In an ideal world, exams would indeed focus on understanding instead of blind calculation. In reality, at least in any attempt to do so I was involved in, a huge majority of students then will vocally complain about the exam being unfair and way too hard and so on, because they are unused to this style of exams. I would still pose exams that way, but I can understand why the result is not worth the additional effort for many. – mlk Aug 13 at 8:26
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    +1 I was hoping someone would say this. I think it's also the case that faculty are already used to thinking about the concepts behind a course at an abstract conceptual level, so they are predisposed to understand and like books that operate that way. Students who are new to the material may find such books more difficult, in part because they want a book that will directly tell them what they need to know to pass exams, but also because these abstractions can be hard to understand for some if you also haven't wrapped your head around the concrete examples too. – Zach Lipton Aug 14 at 2:16
  • "The goal of teaching a topic" depends on the student's goals too. A more abstract conceptual understanding of a topic may be vital if a student will go on to study it further and confusing if a student is more interested in practical applications (think proof-based Calculus for a future math major vs engineering Calculus). If the professor thinks you want to embark on an in-depth study of the theory behind, say, Statistics, but you actually want to know how to apply basic statistical tools and don't care to learn too much about how or why they work, you will find yourself with the wrong book. – Zach Lipton Aug 14 at 2:36
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Note that if one asks for a "reference" book, that is exactly what one should expect to get: a reference, which is a book intended for those who already understand the material and simply need a reminder. This is different than a teaching book to learn from that holds your hand.

I'm also sure that some of it also has to do with the professor already knowing the material and forgetting what it is like to learn something for the first time. When you already know what something is trying to say, it can be very easy to be unable to comprehend what it might look like to someone who doesn't know what it is trying to say. If breadth and depth of material are your selection criteria when this happens, you end selecting a comprehensive book not written to hold someone's hand.

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  • "it also has to do with the professor already knowing the material and forgetting what it is like to learn something for the first time" -- exactly. Once you understand the material, you understand even the hard-to-understand books. – cheersmate Aug 13 at 9:26
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Where I am (Germany), lectures do not "follow" a certain textbook, they cover topics listed in the curriculum. University students are expected to choose a textbook (or several) on their own which suits their style and covers the listed topics.
There is also nothing wrong with starting or also using a "lower-level" textbook (e.g. one from school, or one intended for students who take this subject only as minor side field).

Textbook recommendations will typically list a few popular ones (of which the local library holds a substantial number of copies), maybe together with "For the exam, the level of detail as e.g. in $textbook1 or $textbook2 is expected."

Literature or suggested reading lists often include large amounts of literature for those interested to dig deeper into particular topics than the lecture does. This is intentional.

I may add: like many of my colleagues, I bought books that are somewhere in between textbook and advanced reference book since I can use them longer throughout my professional life. Typically also after I had passed the respective exam, when I could confidently judge which one suits me. I usually learned with various textbooks from the library. Sometimes the literature recommendations were also along the lines "You won't need that level of detail for this course, but if you consider buying a book, consider $advanced_book since that is one you're likely find useful for a long time."


To give some examples (German, sorry): e.g. for inorganic chemistry a recommendation we got would be that the level of the Riedel (back then, ≈ 1000 pages) would be good for our 1st and 2nd year exams, but if we'd want to go for a book that "lasts us longer", the Hollemann-Wiberg (back then "only" 2000 pages small print on "bible paper") was recommended. I'd characterize the latter as a mix of textbook and reference book, possibly what @DKNguyen calls ADVANCED textbook. I certainly did a whole lot of learning where lecture notes were for the concepts plus reference-type books for more "data", and I hardly touched typical textbooks. But there were other subjects (e.g. physical chemistry) where I worked with several textbooks and I also worked through a whole lot of excercises from textbooks for engineers (though I'm "plain" chemist, not chemical engineer).

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    I am also from Germany and your experience does, sadly, not transfer to several math lectures I took as a CS student at one of the TU9 universities. We did have several lectures which were, in fact, following a book, or portions of a general purpose book on the subjects that was written with different courses of study in mind. – LokiRagnarok Aug 13 at 11:22
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Also be very careful about WHAT you ask for, if you ask a prof. to recommend a book on say the Foundations of electronics, do not be surprised when it STARTS with Maxwell and the maths get worse from there.

The Problem is that "Foundations" has a very specific meaning in academia and it is NOT the same as "Introductory", I made exactly this mistake, surface integrals and partial derivatives are NOT usually first month of first year undergrad friendly.

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    A good teacher would understand this possible confusion and ask clarifiying question to find out what the student really wants. Of course, professors are not neccessarily good teachers.. – user111388 Aug 13 at 5:45
  • lol. You asked for a book to help you understand surface integrals and partial derivatives, and thusly discovered just how deep the rabbit hole goes. – DKNguyen Aug 13 at 19:25
  • @DKNguyen Yea, but kind of unintentionally, I thought I was asking for an introductory book on Electronics not an advanced book on the underlying physics and maths. I mean that stuff is cool, but it was NOT what I was looking for at that point. – Dan Mills Aug 13 at 23:01
  • @DanMills You asked a book to provide you with a foundation, not the foundation haha. – DKNguyen Aug 13 at 23:30
  • Well I mean okay, if you took this book by yourself. A prof who recommended you this book without asking first if that is what you really want is wrong at a teaching job. – user111388 Aug 14 at 13:43
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I've had pretty much the opposite experience, the recommended textbooks were often more beginner-friendly than the alternatives. For biochemistry the recommended book was the Stryer, not the Voet. For physical chemistry it was the Atkins, not the Wedler. And for organic chemistry it was the Warren, probably one of the best textbooks for learning the topic for beginners I've seen. And in most cases while there was a recommended book, the lecturers also provided some alternatives with a short description of how those are different and why you might want to read them.

My experience was in Germany, where the textbooks are generally recommended, but not required. You're free to choose a different one if you like. But my experience was that the professors did in almost all cases recommend the book they genuinely thought was the most appropriate and useful for the students at that level.

There are some cases where I'd argue that some textbooks are simply better than others. But there are also many where they simply take different approaches, and none of them is clearly better, they're just different.

I would take the recommendations seriously, but it's also a good idea to take an independent look at what textbooks are available. There are some topics where the differences are large between the books, and where it is worth it to look at other options.

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    To emphasize that everyone needs to find the textbook that suits them: I liked the Wedler much better than the Atkins (which I never used after a short try; I also used older Näser and Hummel-Moore) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 12 at 20:24
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I bought the Wedler, and I wasn't entirely happy with it. Which does prove your point, there often is no universally better book, there are books with different approaches. – Mad Scientist Aug 12 at 20:32
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There is nothing wrong with the culture of the universities you mentioned. At least, not that is evident from your posts. This problem comes up with any expert, not just academic faculty.

Once you know a lot about something, it's hard to imagine not knowing it. Your professors know a lot about a subject. If you ask them to recommend a book, they do so from the perspective of having a very detailed technical knowledge of their subject. Those books are likely very good - but not for you.

"Teachers" don't recommend hard to comprehend books. Think back to your primary and secondary education. Those books were usually written explicitly for learners at a desired level of ability. But most professors aren't teachers in the sense that they were specifically trained to teach. Rather, they are experts in a particular subject matter who also have to teach.

So what can you do? Instead of asking faculty, ask your peers what books were helpful to them. Your peers won't be experts, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can't tell how thorough, precise, or "correct" a book's material is. On the other hand, they will be able to tell you what they perceive helped their own understanding.

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Depending on the standard of the university/college and the reputation of the professor, the other aspects to consider are their own standing/ego/reputation and their tendency to stick to tradition and not rock-the-boat, especially since they are representatives of the university/college. Recommending a "highly-respected" author/book would be seen as more appropriate, since it would point to the high level of education or professional standing of the professor or institute.

My professor used to recommend "reputed" books, which we couldn't understand anything from. When we told him, he'd say "If you respect the book, the book will respect you and you will be able to learn". That's some of the biggest nonsense I've heard. My advice is that if you find it hard to understand concepts from a book, keep it aside and find books or tutorials on the internet that explain the concept well. After years of completing college, when I wanted to refresh my concepts on differential equations and integration, I was shocked at the "famous", "reputed" engineering maths books I had with me. I couldn't understand a damn thing, because the author didn't know how to explain concepts! It was only then I realized that it was not because I was stupid, that I did badly in those subjects. The explanation in the books were just pathetic!

So yes, there is something seriously wrong with the education culture all across the world (and this is something that people have known for decades and done very less about). There's something wrong with the way academia is run. I find it very strange that dedicated, intelligent academicians who expand human knowledge and push the boundaries of knowledge to give us all the impressive technologies we use, have to go through the rigors of research work with constant danger of having their careers and reputation dragged through the mud (while being paid so less) for the slightest errors, but people who predict the future based on stars or people who talk to the souls of loved ones or those who perform "miracle-cures" in front of audiences or use pseudo-science to trick people, happily make tons of money. I wonder what would happen if researchers stopped being so meek and pushed back to demand scrapping the exploitative "publish or perish" system. Researchers also need to be offered a better status and privileges in society. As of now it's the corrupt bullies who are taking a large share of the cake and enjoying life while the hard-working researchers are exploited. Imagine what would happen if researchers went on strike and refused to do any research unless the exploitation stopped.

Hopefully, online education will change this. Learning and understanding concepts is more important. Not choosing a hard-to-understand book, just because somebody says it's written by a "reputed" author or of "high-standard".

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Hard to comprehend is is a relative term. New students want lots of exposition, examples and informal explanation, while more experienced people probably prefer something which works good as a reference.

Compare a proper mathematics book, and a formula sheet. The formula sheet is useless for learning, but perfect as a quick reference. This example of course is rather extreme, but the general gist is there.

Professional people (teachers) tent to consult reference books, rather than books written primarily for teaching a subject, since reference books are more efficient for that. So, teachers will naturally be more familiar with reference books which are not student-friendly (but are professional-friendly).

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  • This may be how it is, but what those teachers do does not sound like teaching. – user111388 Aug 13 at 16:57
  • +1 I would have phrased it slightly differently, but I think we are getting at the same point: professors and lecturers are usually very intelligent, very experienced folk who have long since formed a solid understanding of what they are teaching or recommending for. E.g. in mathematics and physics (my background), they thus tend to value conciseness, rigour, elegance, and deep "connections". These things are all great, but for someone just learning the subject for the first time, too much of any of them easily makes the subject overwhelming and difficult. ... – Noldorin Aug 13 at 22:15
  • ... on the other hand, students (unless perhaps they are geniuses), tend to want a gentler introduction that builds up a conceptual framework, with lots of nice exercises, and not necessarily something too succinct. Alas, most lecturers in my experience are very poor pedagogues, and do not appreciate this fact, even though they may have gone through the same experience during their student career. – Noldorin Aug 13 at 22:18
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Note: English Google translation, original text in Portuguese below.

In my opinion, I do not see an intention in the teacher to harm and / or delay the student's teaching. The fact is, that books with their various authors and publishers create an educational "weight" through the experience on which it is based. There are books that will be easier to be interpreted and understood, but this may be the book that will not pass the experience that the teacher wants for the class, simply because of the content or even the language used. For students from Universities, colleges, undergraduate students in general, a cultural content greater than that of previous educational levels is expected and for this, the collection of books and teaching must be differentiated. A young man who is in high school should not fulfill or perform a task for a student of higher education, except for the simplest questions. However, it is worth emphasizing the desire of some teachers to want to complicate more than it already is, Higher Education. The big question that should come to mind is: "has the teacher been able to transfer knowledge?" "Was there any use of the content presented?" It soon follows that, being a book with content that is difficult or easy to understand, we can make it easier or more easy, it just depends on the interested.

Ao meu entender, não vejo uma intenção no docente de prejudicar e/ou atrasar o ensino do discente. Fato é, que, os livros com seus diversos autores e editoras criam um "peso" educacional mediante a experiência na qual ele se baseia. Existem livros que serão sim mais fáceis de ser interpretados e entendidos porém, este pode ser o livro que não irá passar a experiência da qual o professor deseja para a classe, simplesmente por causa do conteúdo ou até mesmo da linguagem empregada. Para alunos de Universidades, faculdades, graduação em geral, espera - se um conteúdo cultural maior que os dos níveis educacionais anteriores e para isso, o acervo de livros e de ensinamento deve ser diferenciado. Um jovem que cursa o Ensino Médio, não deveria cumprir ou desempenhar uma tarefa para um aluno de Ensino Superior, salvo as questões mais simples. Contudo, vale ressaltar a vontade de alguns professores quererem a todo custo complicar mais do que já é, o Ensino Superior. A grande questão que deveria surgir em nossa cabeça é: " o professor conseguiu transferir conhecimento?" "Houve aproveitamento do conteúdo apresentado?" Logo conclui - se que, sendo um livro com conteúdo de difícil ou fácil compreensão, podemos torna- lo fácil ou mais facílimo, só depende do interessado.

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    Hi and welcome to Academia SE. This site is in English: for this time, I took the liberty to add a Google translation of your text, but for the next time please stick to the site's language. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 14 at 12:35
  • Sorry, but the Stack Exchange policy is that posts should be written in English (see this FAQ), and the burden of the translation is on the post's author. Posts which do not conform to the site's policies are deleted. Please, also have a look at the Tour and at the Help center to see how this site works. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 14 at 13:01
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In at least some areas, books that are easy to understand are not hard to find -- but they're usually not the same as the books that are right. If a student wants a book recommendation, I'll be much more inclined to offer a book that's correct almost everywhere over one that's simpler but will give them enticingly incorrect notions that are harder to correct later.

Teachers are people, too, and may often themselves prefer an easier source to understand, other things being equal. Certainly a resource should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Which is to say, what unskilled students would prefer to be given and what an expert in the subject believes would be better for them to have (albeit requiring more effort) are not always going to be the same thing.

My own subject area has a lot of "amateur" users in other subject areas - many of whom go on to write textbooks on it aimed at students in their own area of learning. While some of these out-of-area writers are widely read and highly skilled, many are not. Many of the textbooks that are written in such areas try very hard to make the basic knowledge of this out-of-their-area subject less technical/"easier" for the students.

Some of these books are extremely popular with students and teachers in their specific application area, gathering huge numbers of sales across many editions. Unfortunately, some of them are also quite brim-full of nonsense, and the ability to distinguish superficially plausible nonsense from the slightly less intuitive fact is fairly widely lacking; even when better books exist they may fail to generate much traction.

I try to point people toward "better" books, but it's not always successful.

One thing I have often told students is to use more than one book; it's not always the first book you look at that's the best one for you individually to learn from, and an additional source can provide useful perspective a single view loses. For my own learning, with a topic I'm unfamiliar with, I tend to start with looking through a wide selection of sources (if so many are to be had) before narrowing it down to a few to work from.

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At my (science) institution, the lectures / problem sheets / etc are entirely sufficient to pass the course. No recourse to books should be required. (At least that's the theory)

The reading list is primarily intended for expanding the student's mind, it is not intended to be a requirement that all students should read the book (and the library wouldn't cope with the demand for that). The book is there for those who want to read beyond the material covered in the course, and perhaps to see a different perspective on the material than the lecturer. It is therefore common to put books on the reading list that are more advanced than the lecture material - because the aim is to expand beyond the material in lectures, not merely repeat it a different way.

That is not to say there might not be a basic level book on there, but in reality only a few students will read it.

(Obviously it is different in subjects where books are the subject under discussion - in a class on the history of evolutionary theory it is difficult to get by without having read at least some of On the Origin of Species. But that's a primary source, not a textbook.)

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