Our college is switching to an Early Transcendentals calculus text, and this seems like a good time to consider which text we are using in general. Larson, Stewart, Thomas, Briggs/Cochran, etc are all on the table.

However, the books we have no experience with have the burden of proof. If we don't form a strong enough opinion about any of them, we will certainly decide to just stay with the one we have been using.

What is an example of a good reason to change entirely from one author to another? This change would cause inconveniences for faculty and students alike. I don't currently have any preferences that are strong enough to outweigh this textbook inertia, and I'd like to know how other faculty have approached the problem.

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    $\begingroup$ Switching to a free textbook would be great for students, for instance. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gubkin Oct 1 '14 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ The discussion of free textbooks is valuable to be sure, but I hope others are not dissuaded from answering the question more directly for fear of seeming too old-guard. I'll definitely be looking into free textbooks but would also like to hear an answer or two about how an institution switched from Larson to Thomas because X. $\endgroup$ – Chris Cunningham Oct 2 '14 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ Now that I think about it, if you are reasonably happy with the late transcendentals book, why not just shift to the early version of same. Wouldn't open up a general new textbook search. Just stick to something...if it is working. (And yes, I know this is old.) $\endgroup$ – guest Mar 13 '18 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ Kind of makes me wonder what the advantages/disadvantages of late/early transcendentals are? I never even realized this was a thing. Just checked my books and the Granville is late. T&F .'81 is early and then I have two Swokowskis (early 80s) with late and early versions. But I never until now really noticed much of a difference. You get there soon enough. And trig is a prereq. But maybe late is a little easier for weaker students? $\endgroup$ – guest Mar 13 '18 at 2:51

I would like to encourage consideration of a free textbook. The conventional textbooks are outrageously expensive. (Actually, if your department insists on one of the choices you mentioned, I'd want to go with the cheapest.) Students are suffering from massive amounts of debt these days, with no guarantees of good jobs with which to pay off the debt. Expensive textbooks are an added burden.

(If your department does decide to look into free and/or low-cost textbooks, choosing among those is a different question.)


What is a good reason to change calculus texts?

Reason #1: the text you're currently using costs money.

Reason #2: your current text uses an online homework system such as MyMathLab that costs money, rather than a free one like WeBWorK.

Some good free texts:

Robbin and Angenent - http://www.math.wisc.edu/~angenent/Free-Lecture-Notes/

Boelkins - http://faculty.gvsu.edu/boelkinm/Home/Open_Calculus.html

Keisler - http://www.math.wisc.edu/~keisler/calc.html

I'm currently using my own spin-off of Robbin and Angenent.

Picking a text based on cost may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but in fact the commercial texts are all very much alike, and although the free ones show a little more individuality, what you're still getting is basically a freshman calc book.

It's also worth carefully considering the assumption that the department must adopt a single text. The only good reason for this is economic: students need to be able to sell back their books, you want there to be a used market, and the bookstore may want the option of holding on to unsold copies rather than having to ship them back. But none of these economic reasons holds if you're using a free text. For example, nothing bad happens if your department decides to recommend to all faculty that they use either Larson (commercial) or a free text of their choice. A simple desire for uniformity is not a valid reason to force everyone to use the same book. This is an academic freedom issue. If someone can't be trusted to pick their own book, then that person isn't qualified to teach the course in the first place.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for " It's also worth carefully considering the assumption that the department must adopt a single text." $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Oct 2 '14 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer! The link to Robbin and Angenent appears to be restricted to only certain users, though; I do not have access. $\endgroup$ – Chris Cunningham Oct 2 '14 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisCunningham: Oops, thanks for pointing out the broken link. Fixed. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Oct 3 '14 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ In many schools, calculus courses are partially or wholly coordinated, different classes share tutoring and support resources, and the classes are part of an ongoing sequence taught by multiple professors. All of these seem like reasons to consider selecting a textbook uniformly. $\endgroup$ – Henry Towsner Jun 27 '15 at 13:35

At my university we were using the 6th edition of Stewart and the publisher informed us that they would no longer be willing to sell this book (even at exorbitant prices).

If we wanted to continue with Stewart, we would have to "upgrade" to the 7th edition, wiping out most of the benefits of continuity: students would no longer be able to sell their used books, and instructors would not be able to reuse their lists of problem numbers. (This was especially a problem for instructors using online homework systems.)

In addition, the publisher had previously promised to hold the price of their book constant, and had then not honored that promise.

So, when we had to stop using Stewart 6/E, we decided to review multiple calculus books, of which Stewart's 7th edition was just one alternative considered. We ended up deciding to switch.

(Incidentally, at a large university, announcing to every publisher in sight that you will be changing your departmentally required calculus book is an excellent way to get an impressive quantity of unsolicited free calculus books. If your department is lacking in doorstops, or you need objects on which to place computer monitors, this might be worth considering.)

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    $\begingroup$ What did you switch to? $\endgroup$ – Amy B Jun 26 '15 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ We switched to Thomas. $\endgroup$ – Frank Thorne Jun 26 '15 at 21:38

I think a possible (near?) future solution is Rice Univ Richard Baraniuk's OpenStax (Wikipedia; OpenStax website), which I learned from a talk by Richard at Bryn Mawr's Blended Learning conference. Despite the current availability of 25 free open-source textbooks in a variety of fields, we have:

Calculus (forthcoming in 2016).

(Pre-Calculus has been available since October 2014). One notable aspect of this project is that publishers are joining the effort.

An impressive number from his talk: \$1M (\$U.S.) to develop a textbook.

See also the NYTimes article, "Putting a Dent in College Costs With Open-Source Textbooks."

Update (5Jun2017). The OpenStax Calculus books are now available:

Here is a link to the Preface of Calculus Volume 1.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to see a breakdown of that $1M. How many hours are put into developing good open source textbooks? Developing these is service to our profession. $\endgroup$ – Sue VanHattum Jun 6 '17 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum: I cannot answer your question in any detail. I will only mention that Calculus Volume 1 has two primary authors, about 18 contributing authors, and over 30 reviewers. Presumably they all were paid. And of course there are artists, designers, and other production costs. $\endgroup$ – Joseph O'Rourke Jun 6 '17 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ I've been using OpenStax College Algebra and I think it's pretty good. Not perfect, but quality improved to over my threshold in the last few years. I'll note that there are quite a few grant opportunities these days for OER writing (possibly buy back teaching time to focus, etc.) $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Jun 6 '17 at 1:23

I myself learned from the Larson book, which I enjoyed at the time. When I finished my degree, I realized how sparse Larson really is, particularly with proof. Larson's visuals are very nice, but the problems themselves rarely are anything more than some algebraic manipulation.

My school (a community college) was using Larson, and switched to Briggs/Cochran last year. Again, a nice book, and the publisher was very good w/following up and providing additional resources, but most of the problems were similar and not too challenging.

I have directed my students to Paul Dawkins' excellent site:


He has a freely downloadable pdf of Calc I, II and III material, plus Algebra and Diff Eq. It's a great free resource for students.

I also base my courses on MIT opencourseware materials:


In particular, Prof Jason Starr's notes are incredible. Demonstrating the limit of a Riemann Sum for f(x) = x, for example, is a perfect way to tie together several topics at once for students in this environment, and it helps "scare" them into appreciating the power of FTC, as opposed to just memorizing it as another calculation.

Reasons for switching would be 1) less expensive for students, and 2) designing your own problem sets as a department, from the ground up. If the goal is for students to gain a meaningful insight into Calculus, the popular books can't do it - that's not their goal. If the goal is just to have non-majors pass the course for a requirement, then the popular books are fine and switching doesn't really change much.


We make good use of WeBWorK in many of our mathematics courses. WeBWorK is an open source online homework system supported by the MAA. My university uses a textbook rental system. When the stock of calculus textbooks got low a year or two ago, a significant factor in deciding on a new calculus textbook was the quality and quantity of questions in the WeBWorK National Problem Library that were well aligned with the textbook. Stewart Early Trancendentals was a good choice.


Late answer for you, but for searchers:

(1) I like how you consider the switching cost and would not underestimate it. Don't let perfect be the enemy of better. If teachers and department are used to one text, they can do a good job with it. [Analogy: The weapon the DC sniper used was not ideal for his task as a theoretical choice of rifle, but because he was FAMILIAR with it, it was a great choice.]

(2) Low cost is a reasonable rationale to switch.

(3) If there is a way to use a text that doesn't change to new editions (e.g. a Dover edition or Schaum's). I think this is advantageous as it fits in with points 2 and 3. But I don't have a specific suggestion.

(4) I prefer texts to have the answers to the homework problems. It is more conducive to drill. (It seems strangely like this is an area where modern day practice is LESS liberal than older practice.) This is a controversial point and your colleagues/department may not agree, but then if you can at least select something with large amount of problems and 50% answers would be good. Or one where the students can buy the full solution manual (and not the evil "student solution manual").

(5) I like Thomas and Finney back in the day but I used one of the last editions where T was part of T&F. Now it is a brand like "Gray's Anatomy". Probably any middle of the road text is fine.

(6) I would avoid reform texts (see Amazon for very negative student reactions to the DHH text). In addition to some experiments not working pedagogically, Harvard book has the feel of committee writing (too sterile).

(7) I would avoid ebooks. Yes, this conflicts with (2). The physical object is easier to learn from. Also, my impression is that a lot of ebooks have poor quality control (poorly edited). The topic is confusing enough for new students--if the book has a lot of errata, that is bad.

(8) Similar to (7) and (1), I would avoid new editions. Let someone else be the bleeding edge. New programs have "bugs". Work with "tested code".


Are texts even necessary anymore? With the plethora of information now available to everyone, text books seem archaic.

As far as homework problems, I just create problem sets to post online.

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    $\begingroup$ While I take your point, the plethora of information out there is curse as well as a blessing. Students can become overwhelmed and lost in the myriad of options. $\endgroup$ – J W Jun 27 '15 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ That is where the professor's advice can separate the good from the bad. $\endgroup$ – SlyPuppy Jun 27 '15 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ Texts are super powerful objects. Most content on the web has much more spotty editorial review than a text. And texts are actually easier to search and skim and view than computer files on flat panel displays. $\endgroup$ – guest Jan 18 '18 at 1:48

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