Read between the lines to discover why you shouldn’t teach everything by the book in chemistry class

Textbooks in a school backpack

Source: © Evgen Prozhyrko/Getty Images

You can’t always judge a (chemistry) book by its cover

Students and teachers use chemistry textbooks as either the main focus of a curriculum or as a supplemental resource. Textbooks help students learn chemical concepts through detailed, descriptive explanations and practice questions.

Textbooks are also a lens through which students perceive the field of chemistry. They have the potential to influence students’ motivations for study and career aspirations.

US researchers have completed the first ever review of published research studies of chemistry textbooks. Their goal was to better understand the literature landscape to inform the design of future textbooks and to identify areas for future research.

They reviewed over 40 years of research, including 79 individual studies, the majority of which were focused on secondary school textbooks.

The researchers put forward some interesting findings that may guide future research, such as noting a recent increase in the number of studies looking at chemistry textbooks. They also critiqued many of the studies for failing to use an appropriate research framework. Their findings reveal many useful considerations around quality and use of textbooks that are helpful for those of us using textbooks regularly.

Teaching tips

  • Thoroughly evaluate a textbook before using or recommending it.
  • Be ready to provide further guidance or supplemental explanations so students can meaningfully engage with aspects of the content.
  • Prepare supplementary questions as required – practice problems in textbooks may not adequately represent the learning outcomes of your course. The types of question, such as problem solving or recall, are unlikely to be sufficiently varied or numerous.
  • If you heavily rely on textbooks in your teaching, consider sourcing additional resources to showcase diversity.

A case of inadequacy

Several studies highlighted inaccuracies in textbook content. One noted that 14 out of 15 organic chemistry textbooks had errors in the presentation of curly arrows. Many textbooks incorrectly inferred that the octet rule was the reason for bonding, rather than presenting it as a model. Some covered important areas like green chemistry only superficially.

The researchers identified appropriate language use as a cause for concern in some textbooks. Despite the high frequency of anthropomorphic language use (eg atoms ‘liking’ to do something), the limitations of this language was rarely explained in the textbooks. The same was true of analogies and metaphors.

Another theme was the appropriateness of worked examples and practice problems. Researchers identified that textbooks provided different weightings for different question types, such as recall and problem-solving. These also varied substantially by topic. For example, while secondary textbooks mostly used recall-type questions, questions specifically about gas laws were mostly problem-solving in nature. Another study found that questions about some topics were simply missing, such as those associated with metallic bonding.

The researchers identified issues with the images and representations used in textbooks to accompany text. These images could either be explanatory and useful, such as representations associated with Johnstone’s triangle, or simply decorative, with different textbooks containing different proportions of these categories. Even when a useful image was used, it may have had problematic or missing labels or figure captions. The study also revealed that gender and racial representation in the text and images used in textbooks is not representative of those working in the field.

This review is useful to both students and teachers as it exposes key aspects of textbook design or usage that should be considered when selecting or using textbooks.

More on textbooks


B Thompson et al, J. Chem. Educ. 2023, 100, 8, 2884–2895 (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.3c00385)

Fraser Scott