As I have been recently informed, it is a good idea to consider free calculus textbooks for college and university courses.

However, this feels risky to me, because:

  • I don't know anyone who is using one, so I don't have a core "users group" to chat with and I don't have any assurance of quality control.
  • I want to be sure my course will transfer to other institutions (at a community college this concern is paramount).
  • The distribution of the textbook sounds tricky; what about students who want a hard copy to read?

So, with these concerns in mind, which free calculus textbooks are the best? I know this is an opinion question at its core, but to make it more objective, my ideal free textbook would have:

  • A users group, message board, or Github page, that allows discussion and shows a history of the authors fixing errors or issues with the text.
  • A group of respectable colleges that have adopted the book for their calculus courses.
  • A "printable version" of the textbook or some optional hard-copy version available.

Of course I am open to criticism of my assumptions, and I am also open to hearing about any other considerations I should have.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ ocw.mit.edu/resources/… looks pretty good. $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2014 at 18:09
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ aimath.org/textbooks/approved-textbooks might be a good place to start $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2014 at 19:06
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I'm at a community college, use free texts in all my classes, and have never seen any issue with my courses transferring in the last 18 years. Schools that are deciding whether to accept a course for transfer generally don't know or care what specific book you're using. E.g., if I change books tomorrow, that will have no effect on the course outline, or on articulation decisions that were typically made decades ago. Four-year schools may care what book you're using because it's a shorthand for the level of the course. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Oct 3, 2014 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is more a comment than an answer, but an additional textbook which isn't mentioned on the aimath.org website (as far as I can tell) is the textbook available at openstax.org. Strang is listed as a senior contributing author, but this is different than his MIT OpenCourseware text as far as I can tell. $\endgroup$
    – Opal E
    Oct 29, 2019 at 21:24

4 Answers 4


We started here: http://aimath.org/textbooks/approved-textbooks/ as suggested by David Steinberg. Their selection criteria seem very good, and as a result many good candidates appear at that page, but many have very subpar image quality and would feel like a "budget book" to our students and administration.

We've settled on Guichard's Calculus, since it was the only one on the list, in our opinion, that:

  • Has an early transcendentals version
  • Goes all the way through Stokes' Theorem
  • Has a nicely navigable PDF
  • Has good image quality (not obviously scanned from an old book)
  • Has online resources -- WebWork already implemented to some degree
  • Has a clear history of refinement and improvement over time (the MAA review mentions a section of the book that should be there -- the newest edition has that section added!).

All the other options we looked at had deficiencies in one of the above areas. I am still sad that the Google Group does not seem to be active, and many of the sections in the textbook do not have enough exercises, but for the first year, at least, we plan to have a required purchase of something like a Schaum's Outline at the bookstore to provide supplemental practice problems.

Thanks all!

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Very cool that you ended up picking a free text! If there is a shortage of problems in Guichard, one option would be to start building a collection of problems, perhaps some combination of problems from other open-source books and problems you wrote yourself. If you put such a collection online under an open-source license, then you'll be contributing back to the digital commons. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Oct 19, 2014 at 18:43

Chris. I know you are really excited about this idea, but I'm very worried about a critical omission from your list of considerations.

I notice that you teach at a college with a lot of faculty members. One of the biggest blind spots that many faculty (and apparently, you) have is which publisher resources their fellow faculty use.

  • Some use online homework as the core component of the coursework.
  • Some use publisher-provided Powerpoint slides as the core component of their lectures.
  • Some use publisher-provided Test Banks as the core component of their exams.

The point here is not whether those resources are a good idea, but rather whether your colleagues are accustomed to using them and will be blindsided if they disappear when you switch to an OER textbook.

I noticed that nowhere in your question did you mention these kinds of resources. I would strongly recommend that you do research in this direction and include it as potentially the most important factor in your decision. Especially in your situation, where many faculty (did you even consider dual-credit instructors?) will be affected by the decision of a small core group, you could cause significant long-term disruption and animosity by making a change without taking the issue of educational resources seriously.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Chris, your answer doesn't really seem to be an answer to Chris's question. Chris posed the original question as "How can I choose a free calculus textbook?" Note the singular pronoun. This was not a question about how to convince others in the same department to choose a free textbook as well. There is no reason that every class in the department has to use the same book. (If the book cost money, there might be some practical issues, such as students repeating the course and needing to buy a second book. But that's not an issue here because you're choosing a free book.) $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Oct 29, 2019 at 19:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what Chris was thinking exactly when posting the question, but he explicitly asked for "any other considerations he should have." So I think this answers the question. I also have a feeling that maybe this is just the answer that Chris needed to see! $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2019 at 0:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Chris, what a great answer. You left out that some instructors want computer-based exercises, sometimes called lab exercises. These may rely on a particular software product, and sometimes even on a particular version of that product. (I often wish there were a mailing list where authors of open texts could discuss these things.) $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2023 at 15:23

For the most part, what you're going to look for in a free text will probably be the same as what you'd have looked for in a commercial text.

If you're interested in the ability to customize a text, then the good news is that many free texts make this easy to do. Look at the license and the format that the text is available in. For example, Robbin and Angenent is available in LaTeX format and is under the GFDL license, which means you can modify it however you like and redistribute it to your students.

A "printable version" of the textbook or some optional hard-copy version available.

If the license is permissive, then you can do this without depending for permission on the authors, either through your campus bookstore or through a company like lulu.com.

If you use nontraditional teaching methods, then you may want a book that supports those methods. Boelkins is specifically designed for active learning.


Would be interested to hear the "after action" report on the text that you used. Also interested to hear if you decided to require a drill book like Schaum's and how that went. Even if it did not work out 100% to your liking or if the kids did not appreciate what you were trying to do for them (or even better if it did).

I would love to see colleges using the better Dover paperbacks. (I think this is cheap enough so that it is virtually free. And you were considered to require a Schaum's so I don't see your cost avoidance stance as absolute.) For example Tenanbaum for ODE. I think in this case, I would definitely try for the ones that have the answers in the back as an instructor or solutions manual may not be an option. So you can't automatically pick one. But there are many good ones available. I'm sure 90% of the students will appreciate your lowering the semester cost of textbook from 200 to 20. (Imagine what that is like for the kids when you add all their classes.)

I do think a paper format is desirable as it is still much easier to skip around in a book than a digital format. I just think it is a more convenient tool than a screen.

  • $\begingroup$ We are completing our last year on the book this year; I'll ask on meta what is the best way to write the after-action report. Basically the adoption went neutral-to-okay overall, but some details in the specific text we chose became gradually unacceptable over time. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2017 at 18:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.