On SAGE Insight: What Happens When Trained Graduate Student Instructors Switch to an Open Textbook? A Controlled Study of the Impact on Student Learning Outcomes

From Psychology Learning & Teaching

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Instructors face a dilemma in selecting course textbooks. On one hand, they are important for students’ success), and may even influence student learning more than the teaching methods themselves. On the other hand, students across disciplines report using required textbooks far less than expected with around 60% of students avoiding the purchase altogether likely due to prohibitive costs. Textbook costs have increased at sharper rates than tuition, fees, or housing which, together, increases demand for financial aid). Given that earning a college degree is associated with greater income, health, relationship stability, and overall quality of life increasing access to higher education by reducing costs—without sacrificing educational quality—is a social justice imperative. The most effective approach to reducing textbook costs is arguably the adoption of open educational resources (OERs), which are any educational material found in the public domain or introduced with an open publishing license. Freely accessible to the student, OERs can be copied, printed, modified, and distributed at little to no cost and can be accessed and updated indefinitely. Furthermore, the digital form of most OERs includes many of the same benefits as e-texts. Accordingly, OERs have become celebrated as a viable alternative that can drastically reduce financial burdens on students. Despite these advantages and plentiful options, OERs still show low adoption rates by faculty, likely due to two key factors: low awareness of availability and avoidance due to expectations of low quality

This research examined the effects of an OER versus traditional textbook among students enrolled in multiple sections of General Psychology. The Participants included 3,678 students enrolled in General Psychology during the Fall 2016 (n = 1,896) and Fall 2017 (n = 1,782) semesters at a large public university in the southeastern United States. However, as noted below, most of our analyses relied on smaller subsets of students. All students enrolled in Fall 2016 used the Lilienfeld, Lynn, Namy, and Woolf (2013) traditional textbook and all students enrolled in Fall 2017 used the OpenStax (2017) OER textbook.

As institutions grapple with how to increase the persistence and success of all students, but especially those underserved, questions of cost continue to be important. The accessibility of higher education is a social justice issue. The results here suggest that traditional textbooks and their associated costs do not necessarily ensure greater academic success in General Psychology courses relative to low-cost OER, at least in the hands of well-trained instructors. Institutions committed to increasing access and decreasing costs should consider devoting resources to instructor training and support in the adoption of OER textbooks, which allow a greater number of individuals access to course material without negatively affecting those who could otherwise afford a traditional textbook.


Open educational resources (OER) are increasingly attractive options for reducing educational costs, yet controlled studies of their efficacy are lacking. The current study addressed many criticisms of past research by accounting for course and instructor characteristics in comparing objective student learning outcomes across multiple sections of General Psychology taught by trained graduate student instructors at a large research-intensive university. We found no evidence that use of the OER text impeded students’ critical thinking compared to use of a traditional textbook, even after accounting for instructor characteristics. To the contrary, we found evidence of a slight increase in content knowledge when using an OER text. Importantly, this effect was driven by improvements from both our lowest-performing students and our highest-performing students. Moreover, student learning outcomes were not influenced by instructor experience, suggesting even novice instructors fared well with OER materials. Finally, students from traditionally underserved populations reported the lower cost of the book had a significantly higher impact on their decision to enroll in and remain enrolled in the course.

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Article details
What Happens When Trained Graduate Student Instructors Switch to an Open Textbook? A Erin E. Hardin, Bret Eschman, Elliot S. Spengler,  J. Alex Grizzell, Anahvia Taiyib Moody,
Shannon Ross-Sheehy and Kevin M. FryControlled Study of the Impact on Student Learning Outcomes
First Published November 14, 2018 Research Article 
DOI: 10.1177/1475725718810909
Psychology Learning & Teaching

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