Free and Open Resource Optimization & Custom Textbook


Clearly, 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:


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 UMass Phys 131 Textbook

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 are currently in the process of creating a custom edition of the OpenStax College Physics textbook. This edition has a few important features:

  • 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 below 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. For the pdf version, we provide the link. In addition, we can 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 it is appropriate
  • People can give feedback on the book at

Fine chunk-ing of material

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.


This project has benefited from the work of

Chasya Church




David Nguyen




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

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