How to evaluate medical textbooks

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Textbooks used to be the go-to source for information, apart from the lecture material, in medical school. Nowadays many rely on online resources and video tutorials. Regardless, many (myself included), believe textbooks still have a role to play in med school.

I have been a medical student, and I have used many of the books that I recommend on this website. In addition, when reviewing the books, I actually sit down with them (either with my physical copy or pdf) and go through a representative sample of the material. This way I have some insight which I then use to shape my review.

I try to use a relatively firm set of guidelines and criteria when doing my reviews. This helps to standardize the process, which means that each book is evaluated in the same way. This way, I hope to weed out any preconceptions that I might have and makes sure that I am in a better position to compare them.

Although these are my criteria/guidelines, I think they are relatively universal and can serve you well when assessing which textbook to get.

1. Make sure it is relevant

First of all, I make sure the books I review include everything that is needed for an average medical course in the given subject. I also make sure that it is written primarily for students.

In addition to my own experience. I have gone through several universities’ book recommendations for the various subjects, and multiple online sources to come up with a selection, which is then filtered down to only include what I consider to be the best.

2. Categorize it

Second, I try to group the books that I review into categories based on how long and detailed they are. 

The first is the full-sized textbooks that include everything. These books are in-depth and can easily be fit for any Ph.D. student in that given field. A subcategory here is the massive “bible” textbooks which are available for certain subjects (think Harrisons for internal medicine)

The second category is extensive-review books. They are in-depth enough for the detailed oriented, but yet compact and light enough for those that like to skim through faster than what is possible with a normal textbook. 

The third category is the review books. These are books trying to give a quick review on the subject by distilling the material down to as few pages as possible. Favored by the skimmers and criticized by the detail-oriented, at the end of the day everyone loves them in the last few days leading up to an exam.

3. Pay attention to the presentation

In general, most textbooks are boring, tedious, and full of detail. Regardless, purchasing one without having a general idea of how the book presents the material can make it even more challenging. Therefore, I like to assess the individual books for various pedagogical features that improve the readability and presentation of the material.

  • Layout/design
  • Chapter summary or review
  • Presentation (headings, subheadings, etc.)
  • Use of images/diagrams/graphics
  • Focus questions and practice questions, MCQ’s
  • Multimedia
  • Case studies, vignettes, and examples of best practices

With regard to this, it is very important to acknowledge that textbooks vary a lot between subjects. Some subjects are more visual than others and some subjects warrant more textual information. Because of this, there is seldom no point in comparing textbooks across subjects.

Another thing that I like to pay attention to is the usefulness of the presenting features. While having one or more of these features can be great, they have to actually help you as a student. Therefore, I always try to assess whether the diagrams/tables/pictures included actually made it easier to understand/comprehend the material. 

If there are too many added features and tables they might end up confusing you and take up unnecessary space. There is nothing worse than having an understanding of what you just read, only to have it shattered by a poorly constructed diagram.

4. Actually reading it

As I mentioned earlier, I actually sit down and read the books that I review. I find this to be the only fair thing to do in order to offer a serious recommendation and review.  That being said, I only read about 2-3 chapters on different topics.

One might say that that is too little to review a 800+ pages textbook with more than 40 chapters, and you might be right. However, most books follow a standard layout for how the material is presented, which repeats itself for each chapter.

When I read a selected chapter, I do so with the aim to learn the content. I try to ask relevant questions about the topic in my head before reading. Once I am done, I  think back on if I actually understood the topic and if it answered the questions I had before reading. If you can recite all or most of the chapter after reading it, it is more likely the book suits you and your style of learning.

5. Does it follow a framework?

Another consideration when reviewing a textbook is to take a close look at the way the content is structured. A good textbook should follow some basic rules of structure.

  1. A rule of the framework. This means that the book maintains a consistent structure that facilitates for effective studying as the reader can use the consistent structure to create a mental roadmap which makes it easier to navigate the material.
  2. The rule of meaningful names. This means that the book uses and creates consistent terminologies that are relevant and commonly used in the subject. For me, the consistency here is key. There is nothing worse than having a textbook switching the name halfway through the explanation. 
  3. The rule of repetition. Good textbooks repeat important concepts, which helps the student to make the information stick (transfer from short to long term memory).
  4. Knowledge hierarchy. This means that the new knowledge presented builds on previously learned knowledge. Very important in many subjects, as a basic understanding of concepts is necessary for the comprehension of the subject/topic as a whole.
  5. The rule of manageable amounts. Although it is challenging to balance for a complex topic, a textbook should try to limit the amount of new information coming it at once. In a good textbook, important topics are broken down into digestible chunks of information where the reader can pause after every step fore one can gradually increase the amount of information as comprehension increases.

Closing thoughts

There you have it. These are the criteria I apply when assessing all books reviewed on this site. Keep in mind that no textbook is perfect for everyone, and what works for one student might not be to the liking of the next.

Nevertheless, I hope you my criteria intuitive so that it can help you make a wiser choice(s) in textbooks.  If you have any questions or other inquiries, leave a comment in the comment section below.

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