Busy contemporary textbooks vs straightforward textbooks of yesteryear

A student of mine has a copy of an old, old edition of a logic textbook. The textbook is still in use, in a sense–but in a much newer edition.

The contrast between the two is striking. The contemporary textbook has illustrations placed all over the page, multiple columns of text, little notes and pointers on the side, boxes with separate text, and so on. The much older edition, meanwhile, reads much more straightforwardly, as in, start from the beginning and move onward to the end, reading things as they are presented from left to right, top to bottom, in the text.

The addition of section and sub-section (and sub-sub-section etc) headings is welcome IMO, as well-done headings can be a great help to students. (I like to show my College Readiness students how reading just the section headings can both teach them a lot and get them ready to learn by priming them with questions and thoughts about their own views etc.)

All the other stuff, though, I’ve always been dubious about. But I haven’t had a particularly good reason to be dubious–my reasons boil down to what feel to me, basically, like aesthetic preferences.

So there’s a GQ question here. Is there actual evidence that all the busy-ness of contemporary textbooks helps students to learn? Or is it all fluff added in so that publishers can seem forward and with-it and charge more money for different colors of ink? (This is a false dichotomy of course but you get the gist of my question, right?)

I recall “contemporary textbooks” like you describe, with call-outs, highlights, etc. when I was going to school in the late '70s, so they aren’t all that new in that regards.
I suppose it’s sort of basing the format on media (TV at that time) with supposed shorting of attention span and stand-out marketing techniques.

I have seen more recent such books, and they do look even busier and more fragmented it seems.

I think it would be easier to demonstrate that new, glitzy, textbooks sell more textbooks rather than demonstrate they improve learning.

A question: is there more text (word count) in the old textbook than the new? When my wife was writing a high school bio textbook she went nuts because of the large number of topics to cover in a very few words. Large margins and pictures cut down word count, and total page count is limited to keep the price of the textbook down. That meant she had very little space for examples or transitions. I don’t think that helps learning at all.

Does glitzy sell better though? After all, with textbooks it is teachers who are making the decisions that influence sales, not students. It does not seem to be appealing to Frylock, at any rate.

The only old logic textbook I have is Elementary Logic by Benson Mates. It does read very directly from beginning to end. It is also one of the most brain-stabbingly difficult-to-comprehend books I’ve ever read.

To the author’s credit, he does point out from the start that it isn’t intended to be readable on its own. That always strikes me as cheating.

IMHO the busyness of modern textbooks is one way publishers try to reach students with different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, written). Examples, and illustrations are a good example of this.

There are also other benefits to that busyness: Sidebars let the author present a tangent that may be uninteresting or irrelevant to a portion of his intended audience, while narrower columns seem to make skimming ahead easier.

And you are right about one thing: those extra features do make an updated version seem more worthwhile and less of a ripoff.

I’m a coauthor of a college math textbook aimed at business and liberal arts students. We have a number of features we put in that we think make the book more interesting, readable, and helpful for students. These features are highlighted with different visual treatments – headings, colors, fonts – to make them stand out both for the students and the teachers. Although we’re writing for students, we know that we’re selling to instructors. We also know that, when instructors or departments are considering what book to adopt, we have very little time to get their attention and convince them to take a closer look. If those features don’t stand out at first glance, they may as well not be there as far as serving as selling points for the book.

On the other hand, we don’t want the book to look like a grade-school textbook, either, so it’s a delicate balance. We spend time discussing with the publisher with each new edition what the design should look like so it’s not too garish. With luck, we strike the right balance; the proof is in the sales figures.

So, it’s partly to get us in the door. On the other hand, if students and instructors don’t like the book after using it for a while, they’ll move on to another book in a year or two. So it’s not all glitter – we need to deliver the goods in terms of helping the students learn. Which is really the point, of course.