Textbooks Aren’t Written for Students

Frank Vahid
Prof. of Computer Science and Engineering, Univ. of California, Riverside
zyBooks co-founder and authoring co-lead

Having been involved in university teaching and publishing for 25 years, and authored three textbooks for two major publishers, I’ve learned this:

                 Most textbooks aren’t written for students. They are written for instructors.

That’s because instructors make the adoption decisions. 

At zyBooks, from day one we insisted that zyBooks are to be written for students. That means:

  • Less text: Students don’t read walls of text. Nor should they have to today, with better alternatives. We’d rather students read 5 sentences than skim 20.
  • More activities:  Students learn better via interactions. We use questions for learning (not quizzing) to engage students. We let animations do the talking. We build tools that enable students to build understanding.
  • Down-to-earth writing: We use straightforward language. We aggressively minimize word-count without losing information.
  • Core topics: Including all possible topics creates a monster book. We focus on core topics; teachers today can supplement with the web or other materials if needed on occasion.
  • Not a reference: Past books had to teach AND serve as a reference. We point students to web references. The web is a more current/comprehensive reference than any book.

A zyBook thus looks quite different from a traditional textbook: Much shorter in appearance, but richer in interaction. It’s the same information, but in better form.

Unfortunately, instructors evaluating a zyBook often mistake the less-text more-action material as “light,” “not rigorous,” or “supplementary.”


One has to put oneself in a student’s shoes to understand why that’s inaccurate. The student will really read the minimal text instead of skimming, will explore the animation, will diligently attempt the questions, and will interact with the tools. The learning is better, not lighter.

Some ask why coddle today’s students with interactivity? It’s not coddling. First, instructors must remember they are the winners of the old way of learning. But think of the many students who only learned superficially, or dropped out because they couldn’t learn that way; many could have been outstanding. Second, today’s student is different, and they have strengths we don’t. Remember, there was a generation lamenting us: Look at these students reading, instead of engaging in dialogue (textbooks were once a new technology too).  Third, zyBooks aggressively minimize words without losing information. Minimizing words, and simplifying content in general, is deceptively hard (consider a newspaper headline, or a thoughtful famous quote).

So, when you see one of our zyBooks, view it from a student’s perspective.

You cannot evaluate a zyBook looking for the length dedicated to each topic. Instead, look at the quality of the interactions. Ask yourself: Will this help my student really learn the core material, better than my current textbook?

I hope you’ll conclude the zyBook indeed will help your students learn. Maybe even that a zyBook is more rigorous. Our published research studies have certainly shown that to be true. And that’s one reason why over 150 universities use zyBooks, and why the U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded us three grants so far; there’s some serious student learning going on. In my estimation, bloated static textbooks — the current bread-and-butter of university courses — will be gone in about a decade, replaced by superior interactive online learning material.

zyBooks are complete textbook replacements, and much much more, despite how they may first appear.

Visit us at zybooks.com


What’s wrong with my textbook?

Why is it so hard to learn from?

Your textbook was not written for you, but for instructors.
More topics means more adoptions.
Each instructor sees favorite topics and adopts.
Your book is thus enormous, a mountain of information.
Perhaps a good reference.

More supplements also mean more adoptions.
Exercises. Solutions. Lab manuals.
Presentation slides. Videos. Teacher versions.
If an instructor might want it, creators make it.
That means less time improving the key topics.

Great formatting is confused with great content.
Formatting is done superbly. Exquisite really.
But that’s hard.
So is synchronizing your book with its many supplements.
Improving your book is hard, because even small changes are hard.
Like a car in the mud, your book gets stuck.

Reading walls of text is hard for you.
It’s not your fault.
You grew up with computers, smart phones, and pads,
running interactive software, apps, and videos.
But writing text is easier, so text it is.
And some think you shouldn’t rely on new technology,
forgetting that textbooks were once new technology too.

Moving existing books online doesn’t help.
Same wall of text, just online.
No wonder they haven’t taken off.
Maybe some questions or animations are added.
But afterthoughts can make things worse,
a chaotic hodge-podge of stuff.

Why so expensive?

Textbook prices have soared, twice more than inflation.
Hundreds of dollars for a book today.
The printing cost is just a few bucks.
What’s going on?

Quality books and supplements come from hardworking people.
Authors. Editors. Product managers.
Proofreaders. Illustrators. Compositors.
Accountants and secretaries too.
Don’t they deserve to be paid?
They produce something valuable.

They only get paid from new book sales.
But today’s web means used books are easier to get.
So publishers produce frequent new editions,
and increase their price,
to pay those hardworking people
from the few new sales that occur
before used books dominate again.

Are free open-source textbooks the answer?
If you want a great movie about Abraham Lincoln,
do you crowdsource it?
No, you hire Spielberg.
A great textbook requires great authors.

Are free government-funded textbooks the answer?
We ought to learn from history.
Great products come from visionaries
motivated by competition, impact, and reward.

What can be done?

The solution lies in the web.

Textbook creators can help,
by writing from scratch, for the web.
People learn by doing, so use the web for doing.
Less text, more activities.
Publishers will have to compete with their existing books.
It’s the classic Innovator’s Dilemma.
Kodak didn’t lead digital photography.
IBM didn’t lead personal computer operating systems.

They can help by making books configurable by instructors,
so students can focus on their own class’ topics.
No mountain of information.
Less is more here.
Homework systems, videos, quizzes, should be built in.
No disorienting jumping between technologies.

A web-native textbook
should have a much lower price,
because each student subscribes.
The losers are the middlemen,
those dealing in used books or rentals,
who take your money without contributing to creators.
The winners are the students,
who get fair-priced textbooks that continually improve.

Instructors can help,
by not equating formatting with content.
Beauty is only skin deep.
Let authors focus on real material, real learning.
The modern textbook should not be a static masterpiece,
but a dynamic entity
that is continually improved.

They can help, by embracing web-native material,
even if not as polished as Nth-edition incumbents,
or as familiar as hardcopies.
By pressuring publishers for moderately priced options,
that include long-term personal access for the student.

And you the student can help.
By taking pride, when prices are reasonable,
in supporting content creators,
whether for music, movies, or books.

By speaking out to instructors about change,
because silence supports the status quo.
Find active material you’d like to learn from,
and ask instructors, before the semester, to consider it.
Provide feedback to instructors after the semester
about whether the textbook was useful.
Instructors love to see students interested in learning.

United students—rational, outspoken, and persistent—
have more power than they think.

Copyright (c) 2014 Frank Vahid, Roman Lysecky
Frank Vahid, Prof. of Computer Science and Engin., U of California, Riverside.
Roman Lysecky, Assoc. Prof. of Electrical and Computer Engin., U of Arizona.
Both are authors with zybooks.com

(View the original post here)

Visit us at zybooks.com

Meet the zyBooks development team


Scott Sirowy
zyBooks Director of Engineering

Sometimes in the midst of all the great tech that surrounds us, it can be easy to forget that the cool websites, great apps, and can’t-live-without devices that you use daily are designed and built by teams of people.

I’d like to introduce one of our core teams at zyBooks, our product development team.


From left to right: Ryan, Josh, Sarah, Daniel, Alex, and Scott.

That’s me on the very right… My name is Scott and I oversee our engineering effort for zyBooks.  I started with the company in February, making me the rookie amongst this group!  I have had the fortune to work with this group in rethinking and redesigning our platform from the ground up.  The output of our effort is zyBooks.com: a faster, more modern looking, and more fun website that delivers our STEM-based content in a really easy and intuitive manner.

Right next to me is Alex.  Alex is the creative genius behind many of the interactive tools in our zyBooks that really differentiate our material from other content.  Alex has a passion for taking hard concepts and making them easy or straightforward through the use of animation and interactions, both hallmarks of our platform.

To the left of Alex is Daniel.  Among other things, Daniel is in charge of our backend server development.  This includes a variety of tasks, but at a high-level means making sure zyBooks are delivered correctly and quickly.  Daniel is determined to deliver the fastest possible product, and his efforts serve as the foundation for our entire platform.

Sarah stands tall next to Daniel. Sarah takes great pride in building intuitive animations that turn that difficult What are Pointers concept in C++ to an instant Aha moment.  Sarah has also been pivotal in giving our product a face, building our home and feature pages that we’re excited to release soon.

Josh shows off his serious face right by Sarah. Josh mainly works on and has made big contributions to our front-end website, a project we affectionately call zyWeb. He is also responsible for several internal tools to help us address your issues/concerns/bugs as quickly as possible.

All the way to the left is Ryan.  Ryan has been described by some as the face of zyBooks, and for good reason.  If you’ve ever had to contact zyBooks Support, you’ve likely interacted with Ryan (actually, our whole team deals with supports issues because our product development team is the support team).  Ryan and rest of the team make sure your issues are given the priority they deserve, and we pride ourselves in our support effort.  Ryan also works on system-wide unit testing, ensuring confidence in app reliability and performance.

Not shown in the photo is our newest team member Susan – she’s based in Arizona. Susan mainly works on content development, and has been working hard on one of our newest zyBooks Digital Design which we are all excited about.

Of course, we are but a part of the zyBooks ecosystem. We have a fantastic group of authors, both internal and external, who contribute amazing content (which makes our platform useful), a talented sales and marketing team, and a host of others who have helped us with quality assurance over the years.

We are very proud of what we’ve built, and are even more excited to continue to deliver new features and support to you in the coming months.

Visit us at zybooks.com

zyBooks improve student learning outcomes


Alex Edgcomb

zyBooks software and content developer

Post-doctoral researcher, Univ of California, Riverside

I completed my PhD in CS earlier this year in the area of assistive monitoring of the elderly in at-home environments. My dissertation was on a camera-based algorithm for detecting when an elderly person falls down. Seemingly light years from education research.

However, on the PhD trek, I learned that I love teaching, both interactions with students and developing learning materials. I also learned that STEM retention was (and still is) a significant and unsolved problem. So, in my last 2 years of the PhD, I started investigating how to improve STEM retention.

A key aspect of STEM retention is improving student learning outcomes.

Recently, I conducted two studies on improving student learning outcomes: one focused on a single lesson; the other had a course-wide lense. Both studies found zyBooks significantly improve student learning outcomes over traditional textbooks/eTextbooks.

First, I’ll share the two studies, then I’ll share my research next steps.

With a single lesson, zyBook’s improved least-prepared students by 64%

I measured the effectiveness of a zyBook lesson to a traditional eTextbook lesson. I even added a programming environment along with the traditional eTextbook lesson so students could practice the lesson, if the student wished. 136 students in an intro. to programming class participated. Each student completed 4 steps:

  1. a pre-lesson quiz
  2. a lesson (randomly assigned either zyBook or eTextbook)
  3. a post-lesson quiz
  4. a follow-up survey

RESULT: The lowest-quartile of students on the pre-lesson quiz (a.k.a. least-prepared students) improved 64% more with zyBooks than the traditional eTextbook. Improvement score is post-lesson quiz minus pre-lesson quiz.

Static means traditional textbook. Interactive means zyBook.

-5 Why did students improve so much more with a zyBook? Simple: Higher level of engagement with visualizations and immediate feedback. Students self-reported 10.4% higher level of engagement with the zyBook. Also, students voluntarily spent 2x as long with the zyBook, even though, the zyBook had 1/2 as many words. One student comment about the zyBook was: “I can learn by practicing and auto-check the answer right away … the activities are fun and helpful.”

Across 4 courses at 3 Universities, zyBooks improved student grades by 1/4 letter

I retrospectively compared the same course across two offerings. The first offering was taught using a traditional textbook; the second offering using a zyBook. Both offerings were taught:

  1. by the same instructor
  2. during the same semester of the year, e.g., Spring 2013 and Spring 2014
  3. within 2 years of each other

I conducted the same comparison across 4 courses at 3 Universities: Univ. of Arizona, Univ. of Michigan, and Univ. of California at Davis. A total of 1,945 students were part of the comparisons. RESULT: zyBook students had more As and Bs, fewer Ds and Fs. The Univ. of Ariz. CS2 students improved pass rate by 8.6%. The UC Davis ENG1 saw students improve letter grades by 3/4 a letter.

Static means traditional textbook. Interactive means zyBook.

 -2 -1  -3     -4

Then, I combined the comparisons.

RESULT: Across the board, zyBooks very-significantly improved student learning outcomes. Students using the zyBook earned a 1/4 higher letter grade than students using the traditional textbook. Exams and projects significantly improved with zyBooks.

Exam Projects Class score Class letter grade
zyBook improvement % (higher is better) 13.6% 7.4% 14.3% 12.6%
Significance value (p < 0.05 is significant) p < 0.0001 p < 0.0001 p < 0.0001 p < 0.0001

Research next steps: Why do zyBooks work so well, and how can we optimize?

The two studies indicate that zyBooks improve student outcomes. But why?

zyBooks contain many content types: animations, various question formats (including true/false, multiple choice, and short answer), and interactive tools. I want to know which of these content types improve student outcomes most. Between the content types, there’s a trade-off between effort to develop and impact on student outcome, but at this point, only the effort to develop is known.

I also want to know what the optimal usage of each content type is. For example, when is a multiple choice appropriate vs. when is a short answer question appropriate. Many eTextbooks predominantly (if not exclusively) use multiple choice questions, but does that benefit the student most in all cases? Intuitively, no. Multiple choice are inherently easier because they present all options. Seems that a student would learn more by being incrementally challenged to the point of answering short answer questions.

Also, how can student outcomes be further improved? One direction could be practice quizzes, including quizzes before the chapter has been started (see NY Times on how flunking exams helps).

A later step is exploring other methods for improving STEM retention. One possibility is showing the relevance of each topic to daily life. There are many questions to answer, but the road looks promising. Similar questions and more are being investigated globally, and investigated on different fronts. What a thrill to be a part of that.

Visit us at zybooks.com

zyBooks 2 Years In: What we’ve cared about from the beginning

Smita Bakshi
zyBooks co-founder/CEO

zyBooks is now 2 years old, and as I write this, we’ve just created the 167th zyBook for the Fall term.  167 and counting. That’s pretty cool. Over 10,000 students in 167 introductory undergraduate classes will learn computer science and engineering using interactive “web-native” materials rich with animations, tools, games, questions for self-assessment, a coding environment, simulators, embedded homework problems, and more.

We know that many of these students would otherwise have struggled as they tried to grasp concepts from textbooks, slides and notes. Some of these students, who otherwise might have been discouraged, will now do well in their course, go on to take the second course in the sequence, and the next and the next. They’ll graduate and enter a job market where their skills will be highly valued. That makes us smile, and that’s the “heart” behind zyBooks.

I’d like to offer some of the decisions and “guiding principles” we’ve followed – some conscious, others less so – that have brought us this far.

1. Less text, more action. For some, no text, all action.

We started with the premise that the STEM disciplines are best learned interactively. As my co-founder, Frank Vahid, often says, “You can explain to a child all day how to tie shoelaces, but until you just hand her a pair, she won’t learn it.”  Math, computer science, and engineering are just like that. So we decided to introduce concepts using animations and “hands-on” interactive tools. We observed that many students skipped over even the few short paragraphs of text, and went straight to the animations, tools and question sets. We listened, and the next version of zyBooks contained even less text – no more than 2 to 3 sentences at a time – and more tools, many of which are now adaptive to the student. We observe students, seek feedback, measure and analyze data, and that’s a guiding principle.  I wouldn’t call this a conscious decision – it’s just in our DNA.

The first of our user studies was recently published and awarded the best paper award at the ASEE (American Society of Engineering Educators) conference.  This paper presented results of randomized controlled studies which showed huge improvements in learning outcomes when students used zyBooks over traditional textbooks. You can check out the paper here. We’re currently working on a cross-semester study across 4 universities showing improved course grades, as much as 2/3rd of a letter grade improvement. Stay tuned for more details on that front.

2. Content first, platform next. Don’t fear the hard stuff.

Two years ago, as we kicked zyBooks off with a C++ zyBook used by 60 summer students at UC Riverside, many cautioned us not to work on content. It doesn’t scale. It gets stale. It’s costly. We acknowledge that some of this is true. But, what platform would we build without first knowing what the content should look like, and without first engaging with authors? We could see several emerging platforms that were making relatively little impact on learning. They were merely a different way of distributing or formatting content written for paper.

A zyBook weaves together several paradigms: it’s interactive, web-native, adaptive, data-centric, and customizable. To get it right, we decided to build content first, deploy it, experiment with it, and then use that experience to guide the platform. This decision is why we can proudly say 25,000 students this year have a higher chance of succeeding in their chosen STEM discipline. Next, our platform will help us reach 250,000 and more.

3. Do right by the student. In our world, the student is king.

Many of our decisions are guided by this principle. We remind our team – engineering, support, marketing, sales – that it **really is** about the student. Do right by them, and everything else will follow. That’s why we made our interactive content even more interactive, kept the prices low, allowed 100% refunds for students who dropped classes, provided immediate feedback to their homework problems, and so on. This is the reason why we have thousands of emails and notes from students delighted with the product and the service.

That said, we are very much here for the instructors too. They are on the front lines, some of them teaching an 800-student class, others teaching at multiple community colleges, others teaching with no assistance from TAs or graders. We provide them the best supporting material, automate homework grading, make it easy for them to reward students who “read before class”, point out the topics and concepts that students are most struggling with, make it easy for them to insert their own notes or links, and much more. We remove as much of the mundane parts of teaching as possible so they can focus on the useful and fun parts of teaching.

4. Understand what’s working and why.

It’s often tempting to experiment with different business models (free vs. paid), different channels (direct to students vs. via instructors), and different/adjacent markets (middle/high schools vs. higher-ed). However, we decided to pay attention to our initial wins, to analyze them, and to figure out how to get from better to best. We learned that it’s really important to make it simple and hassle-free for instructors to adopt a zyBook. We added features to make it even simpler. We doubled down on our efforts to do more user studies across multiple universities and zyBooks, so as to make it an even easier decision to adopt.

Looking Ahead

We are thrilled with our success and growth, and this is just the beginning. Expect to see us continuing to innovate and experiment with our platform and content. We’ll keep on analyzing outcomes, studying what works and what doesn’t, and making adjustments accordingly. With every passing semester, we will have reached a larger number of students, across a larger number of STEM disciplines, with outcomes even more significant than what we’ve demonstrated so far. It’s an exciting journey, one that we look forward to sharing with you.

Visit us at zybooks.com

The Web’s Real Power for Learning

Frank Vahid
zyBooks co-founder/CTO
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
Univ of California, Riverside

Would you send your child to a piano instructor who teaches by playing in front of 50 students, testing and grading them every few weeks, and moving on? Probably not. Except for those with an initial knack or extra-strong commitment, most students would quit.

Yet that’s how most colleges teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to their students. Individualized instruction is lacking.  So, the only students who persist are those with an initial knack or extra-strong commitment, and U.S. STEM attrition exceeds 50%, approaching 80% at some schools.

The web can help. The web’s real power for learning is individualized instruction. A student can learn through interactive questions, simulations, and games. She can solve math problems and write computer programs, with immediate automatic feedback, and with the system adapting to her performance. Circuits can be created, chemistry experiments simulated, and virtual frogs dissected.  Less text, more action, with immediate feedback.

Most online learning efforts don’t use that real power of the web.

Professor-led online learning efforts usually emphasize video lectures. Videos do provide students schedule flexibility. But using the web for video lectures is like using a four-lane superhighway for horses. Professors emphasizing themselves in online learning is expected: If you ask taxi drivers to design a transportation system to an airport, it will surely feature taxis.  But lectures, whether live or video, have limited effectiveness. Plus, videos are hard to update, leading to stagnation.

Technology companies emphasize online software that connects students. If your child wants to learn piano, is your first thought how to connect her with other children? Connecting students is emphasized in online classes largely due to lack of individualized instruction. Companies also emphasize website features for highlighting, note taking, organizing, and searching. A website’s features are the online equivalent of a lecture hall’s chairs and lighting; they are needed in basic form, but aren’t the main point. Student rarely praise a course because of its chairs.

Publishers emphasize converting their textbooks to electronic form. Reading textbooks converted for the web is like watching someone recite magazine articles on TV. With only a few exceptions, TV and the web demand newly-made content that use the technology’s real power.

Investors often don’t differentiate education technology from other web technologies, so want quick development — if not through converting textbooks, then through crowdsourced content creation. But education isn’t entertainment: Web-based learning isn’t like uploading funny cat videos or discussing football; we’re building the foundations of society. Crowdsourced or quickly-made content usually lacks substance;  just surf youtube or cable TV to see.

Furthermore, teachers’ misuse of the web can make things worse. Past students just had to come to class, where everything was taught, assigned, and turned in. But today, students must come to class, review online powerpoint slides, watch for online announcements, monitor online discussion boards, submit online assignments, watch online supplementary videos, monitor online grades, subscribe to online homework systems, obtain clickers for online surveys, and more — this dizzying array can cause students to just give up.

Undoubtedly, a good college experience requires in-person human interaction with excellent teachers, supportive classmates, and newly-made friends. And professors play an important role in online learning, but in varied ways, only some of which involves lectures. The web, if used properly for individualized instruction, can significantly improve efficiency, can extend reach, and most importantly can help students persist in their pursuit of a STEM degree, leading to a rewarding career and often a dramatically better life for their families.

Visit us at zybooks.com


Here at zyBooks, we are very excited to start this blog. You’ll hear from us every few weeks on the issues we care about – STEM retention, the success of women in STEM, interactive learning, developing new technologies, building an edtech startup, new features we’ve released, zyBooks we are working on, and much more. We’d love to hear from you in return – comments are welcome, as are suggestions for topics you’d like us to write on.

Visit us at zybooks.com