Free and Open Custom Textbooks


High quality resources are critical both for TBL to reach its full potential and for helping students develop technical reading skills. During the transition from lecture to TBL, two major challenges have surfaced:

  1. The reluctance of students to actively engage with the reading and instead jump straight to the formative homework.
  2. The other common comment from students in evaluations has been that the various resources are difficult to navigate.

We believe that these two challenges are not independent. Our goal for this project is to both better organize the materials we have as well as using new technologies to encourage students to engage with the readings in a more productive way. Moreover, with an eye towards increasing texbook costs, we strive to use free resources wherever possible.

We have addressed these problems through:

  • The use of Perusall
  • The creation of custom textbooks specifically for Physics 131 and 132
  • The fine chunking of preparation materials


We tell students what we value by what we grade. If the only part of our preparation that we grade is the homework problems, then the students will spend their time focusing on the problems. If we truly want students to spend time reading and to develop skills to learn how to learn by reading then we should assess that. Perusall, is a system developed by Eric Mazur et al out of Harvard that makes reading a social experience. A subset of students shares a copy of the text and can comment on it, ask questions about it, or answer other students’ questions. These comments are then graded on a simple 0-1-2 scale. As long as the resources are free to use, Perusall does not add any additional cost.

Custom textbooks for Physics 131 and 132

Perusall works best with long contiguous sections of text as it provides freedom for students to comment on those points that they find genuinely interesting or confusing. Moreover, during our transition to TBL, we have collected and created a significant number of free resources for students to use in their preparation for class. Student evaluations, however, often mention that the plethora of resources can be difficult to navigate. To address these two issues, we have created two custom textbooks based upon the OpenStax College Physics textbook.

Physics 131: Forces, Energy, and Entropy
Physics 132: What is an Electron? What is Light?


  • Only those topics that we are interested in are covered are discussed, focusing students’ attention.
  • We have guides directly within the text like those shown to help students with our course goal of learning how to learn by reading.
  • We can embed videos from our course YouTube page directly within the text and improve accessibility by providing the transcript of the videos within the text.
  • We can add content from other creative commons sources such as University of Maryland NEXUS Project’s Wikibook directly in the text where appropriate.
Page 95 from Physics 131: Forces, Energy Entropy
A sample page from Physics 131: Forces, Energy, and Entropy showing the text and link to associated video as well as the “Instructors Notes” to help students focus.

Fine Chunking of Material in Homework

By embedding the reading instructions inside of our online homework system, MasteringPhysics, which is accessible by any internet-connected device, we have organized the reading and associated homework problems into one contiguous assignment organized into small topical chunks: one set of reading instructions followed by a set of problems which is followed by another set of reading instructions. Under this system, the connection between reading and problems is very explicit and students who are having difficulty with a given problem know exactly where to look to improve their understanding. Moreover, the modular approach makes it much easier for students to divide up the assignment.

A screen shot of our MasteringPhysics setup.


This project has benefited from the work of

OEI Logo

With generous support from the Open Education Initiative at the UMass W.E.B. du Bois Library