During many semesters, I have my students do an anonymous mid-semester survey that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the course. Sometimes, the mid-semester survey reveals weaknesses in my teaching methods that are important for me to recognize, even if unpleasant for me to read about.
The most interesting finding of my mid-semester surveys is not about my personal strengths and weaknesses, but those of law school textbooks. Unlike most standard student evaluation forms, my midsemester surveys allow students to give a separate rating for the textbook. Routinely, those ratings are far from flattering to the texts. Cynics might suggest that the textbooks' ratings are driven down by my own ratings. To that reasonable conjecture, I respond that the textbooks' scores are routinely a lot lower than those the students give to me. Even when I have an unusually bad semester, the textbooks usually do even worse.
Why do so many students dislike the textbooks? It's hard to know for sure. On my surveys, students have an opportunity to write comments explaining their ratings. The most common complaints in the comments about the textbooks are that they are either boring or inaccessible (i.e. - don't explain the material very well).
Two caveats apply. First, I have only done these surveys with respect to textbooks in constitutional law and property. It may be that textbooks in other fields are more popular with students. I am fairly confident, however, that the ratings do accurately reflect the two fields I teach in, since the books I use are routinely among the market leaders at elite law schools.
Second, while I don't believe that my ratings are driving down those of the books (because they are actually much higher than the books' scores), I can't rule out the possibility that part of the problem is rooted in the interaction between my teaching style and the textbooks' approach. Perhaps students like the textbooks more with professors who "teach to the book" to a greater extent than I do. Ultimately, I doubt that such factors account for more than a small fraction of my students' dissatisfaction with their textbooks. But it's hard to know for sure.
To readers with relevant expertise, I pose two questions:
1. Is it in fact true that law students dislike law school textbooks, or is my experience idiosyncratic?
2. If so, why is that? Are boredom and inaccessibility the real culprits? Or is something else at work?
Particularly welcome would be systematic evidence of student attitudes to law textbooks, such as from large-scale surveys or experiments. Anecdotal evidence is useful, too, of course. But it's often hard to tell if it's representative of a broader trend.