Textbook Design Rules

Design is a very important part of the creation process. Design can have an impact on the accessibility of the text and affect the overall experience of the reader. This is particularly important for open textbooks where the goal of the text is to engage and support students in their learning.

A textbook is an organized body of material useful for the formal study of a subject area. It should be discrete, and well-bounded in scope and the text material should relate to a solid understanding of the subject, usually mixing theory and practice for each topic as it covers the subject domain. The textbook should also use examples and problems to assist the student in better grasping each presented concept by following examples, and then applying the concept in structured exercises or problems. The textbook should have an internally consistent style and there should be little or no surprises for the student in terms of layout and presentation of material. The texts user can get comfortable with the layout, the tempo of presentation, and the pattern of figures, illustrations, examples, and exercises. Once reviewed, the textbook should isolate material that is useful to the future application of subject knowledge in well-organized appendices and tables. Finally, the textbook is a structured resource and is not just a collection of useful material. The textbook is a guide for the student for an order of review that will aid in mastering the subject area. Topics are presented in major parts, chapters, sections, and subsections that are organized in a way that facilitates understanding. This means that the text’s organization is based on the intersection of two requirements. The first of these are the requirements of the subject domain. Since most textbooks are developed by, or based on the contributions of subject matter experts, this requirement is usually well attended to.

The second requirement is defined by the limits of the student’s mind. Cognition is a common human ability, but its needs and limits are frequently ignored by those who have already mastered a subject area. To make the best use of the student’s abilities, some rules can be spelled out for the structuring and presentation of ideas, concepts, and material.

The following rules will help you create the best text possible for student learning.

Rule of Frameworks

Memory and understanding are promoted by the use of a structure that mimics the structures we all use within our minds to store information. Before we can use or master a subject, we have to have a mental road map that allows us to navigate within and through the subject domain. The text can best aid understanding by making this framework visible early on within each section or topic. The extent to which the student understands that they are using a framework, and knows what that framework is, is important as they internalize and make use of the material presented.

To follow the rule of frameworks, the structure of the text needs to act as a mental roadmap that allows learners to navigate within and through the subject domain. To best aid in understanding, the structure should be visible early on. This can be achieved by establishing a consistent organizational structure (including individual chapters), format and design elements (textboxes and colour choices). If your textbook includes many different textboxes or colour choices, having a front-matter section dedicated to explaining this is extremely useful.


Examples of the Rule of Frameworks

Business Ethics (OpenStax)

Frameworks can be seen in this textbook both in the overall organization and the individual chapters. Each section consistently starts with an introduction and ends with a summary, list of key terms used in that section, assessment questions, and the end notes.

Digital Accessibility as a Business Practice

This textbook uses differently coloured textboxes according to what information they contain. By clearly explaining to readers how the colours are used, readers can navigate through the content with familiarity.


Rule of Meaningful Names

Everything we know is tagged with an index or a title. These indices are critical to the ability to recall or retrieve the things we know and remember. Each concept, process, technique or fact presented should aid the student to assign a meaningful name for it in their own mental organization of the material. To be most useful, these names shouldn’t have to be relearned at higher levels of study. The names assigned by the text should be useful in that they support some future activities: communication with other practitioners, reference within the text to earlier mastered material, and conformity to the framework used for the subject. Each unique element of the subject domain should have a unique name, and each name should be used for only one element.

To follow the rule of meaningful names, create and use consistent titles and terminologies. Use terminology that is common in your discipline. These names are critical to the ability to recall or retrieve the things we know and remember. This can be achieved by including glossary/key term pages, planning your content structure, and reviewing for consistency.


Example of the Rule of Meaningful Names

Media Studies 101

The first section in this textbook is spent explaining and defining key concepts and terms that are used for later discussion of larger concepts and theories.

Rule of Manageable Numbers

When we learn from an outline, an illustration, or an example, most of us are limited in our ability to absorb new material. As we become familiar with part of a subject domain this number expands, but for new material four to six new elements is a reasonable limit. If a chapter outline contains twelve items, the student will have forgotten the outline before getting to the last item. When a text fails to support this rule, it requires even a diligent student to needlessly repeat material.

To the follow the rule of manageable numbers, limit the amount of information introduced at one time. Most of us are limited in our ability to absorb new material. As we become familiar with part of a subject domain, this number expands. This can be achieved by breaking your chapters into smaller sections, focusing on learning objectives at a higher concept level, and planning your content structure.


Example of the Rule of Manageable Numbers

The Word on College Reading and Writing

This textbook keeps their lists and concepts within the four to six range

Rule of Hierarchy

Our mental frameworks are hierarchical. Learning is aided by using the student’s ability to couple or link new material with concepts that they have already mastered. When presenting new domains for hierarchical understanding, the rules for meaningful names and manageable numbers have increased importance and more limited application. A maximum of three levels of hierarchy should be presented at one time. The root should be already mastered, the current element under consideration clearly examined, and lower levels outlined only to the extent that they help the student understand the scope or importance of the current element. This area is supplemented by two more rules within this rule: those of Connectivity and Cohesion. Connectivity requires consideration of what the student likely knows at this point. The more already mastered elements that one can connect with a new element, the easier it is to retain. Cohesion requires that the characteristics of new elements as they are presented be tightly coupled.

To follow the rule of hierarchy, your text needs builds on learned knowledge. When introducing new material, only refer to foundational material if it is relevant to the new material. The student needs to understand the foundational knowledge before being introduced to a new concept. When new concepts are introduced they should be explicitly connected to the foundational material. This can be achieved by planning your content structure, reviewing for connectivity, and have beta readers who are not experts in the subject.


Example of the Rule of Hierarchy

Information Systems for Business and Beyond

This textbooks spends the first section explaining core concepts so that readers will be able to discuss the later concepts with more familiarity. Each section builds off of what was previously learned and new information is learned with background and context already established.

Rule of Repetition

Repetition and patterns support short-term and long-term memory. Constructing your textbook with this in mind can support learners in the process of retaining the information delivered to them.

To follow the rule of repetitition, repeat important concepts. There is a pattern of repetition that aids in promoting the elements of a subject from short-term to long-term memory. This can be achieved by reviewing your content to determine which information should be repeated and how often.

Example of the Rule of Repetition

Vital Sign Measurement Across the Lifespan

This textbook repeats concepts taught within the chapter through a series of activities and self-testing exercises.



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UBC Open Text Publishing Guide Copyright © 2022 by Erin Fields; Amanda Grey; Donna Langille; and Clair Swanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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