13. July 2023 | Press releases:

When the university textbook is easier to understand than the school textbook Experiment by TU Braunschweig on the comprehensibility of learning materials

School textbooks are widely used learning materials. However, many pupils and parents complain about the low comprehensibility of textbooks for self-study. But what influence does comprehensibility have on understanding and motivation to learn? The Institute of Educational Psychology at Technische Universität Braunschweig wanted to know and investigated this in an experiment. The results were published in the journal “Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht”.

Textbooks play a central role in everyday school life. “However, it is not entirely clear what the purpose of textbooks is: Are they only there to support the lessons or should the pupils be able to learn with the books on their own?” asks Dr Marcus Friedrich from the Institute of Educational Psychology at TU Braunschweig. For self-study at home, however, the learning materials must be more comprehensible, says the scientist.

Although the influence of comprehensibility on learning performance is well documented, there is a lack of studies on the influence of the comprehensibility of textbooks on the particularly important goals of teaching—understanding and intrinsic motivation. Meaning: the action itself is attractive to me, like playing football. So it’s not about incentives outside the action, for example grades, finding recognition or financial incentives. The Institute of Educational Psychology has now analysed this in an experiment with four texts from school and university textbooks.

Comparison of school and university textbooks

A total of 164 students from the sixth to ninth grades of two Gymnasiums took part in the experiment. The students first completed questionnaires on their motivation to learn about the topic and took a prior knowledge test. Afterwards, the researchers randomly gave them each one of four texts on the topic of “central tendency” to read. The topic is included in the core curriculum of the subject mathematics for the fifth and sixth grades. Two of the texts were taken from school textbooks, one from a reference book for pupils and one from a statistics textbook for university students. The texts differed in terms of their linguistic simplicity, with the text from the statistics textbook being the simplest of the four texts. After reading, the students answered questionnaires on the comprehensibility of the texts and on their motivation to learn, as well as a comprehension test in which the students had to apply the formulas from the text to different data sets.

The more comprehensible, the more joy in learning

The results show that the more comprehensible the text they read, the better the pupils understood the content and the more they enjoyed learning. The university textbook actually proved to be more comprehensible than the texts designed for pupils. “Many sixth-grade students complained in the study that the school textbook texts were too difficult for them, even though the texts were intended for fifth grade,” says Dr Marcus Friedrich, the head of the study. “It is surprising that the textbook text for psychology students performed best in this study.”

To re-examine the results, the linguistic complexity of the texts will be deliberately manipulated in follow-up studies. “Overall, this and previous studies argue for making textbooks more comprehensible,” Dr Friedrich emphasises. “It would be desirable for pupils to be able to learn with the textbooks on their own. For example, when they catch up on content that they missed due to illness, did not understand in class or that was cancelled during possible school closures in a pandemic.”