One Computer Teacher's Massive Review of a Cengage Middle School Textbook

Note from Bri: This is a guest post from Frank DiMaria, a middle school computer teacher in Fort Mill, SC. Frank has written a number of articles about educational technology and tips for other computer teachers.

At AES, when talking to teachers about Business&ITCenter21, we are often asked questions about other resources for computer classes. In hopes of providing information to computer teachers about other options out there, we asked Frank to provide an in-depth review of the computer applications textbook he uses.

I hope you find Frank's review helpful and informative!

Within hours of signing my first contract as a computer teacher I was at the local Barnes & Noble searching for a textbook to use in my classroom. I didn’t find one. So, I turned to the Internet. Still, no textbook. It was 2002 and few schools were offering computer classes and textbook publishers were not stopping their presses to print computer textbooks. Now, nearly 15 years later, several publishers have moved into the middle school textbook space for computer classes.

Last April the middle school computer teachers in my district attended a textbook caravan to consider adopting a new computer applications textbook. We came away with samples of the following options for consideration: Business&ITCenter21 by Applied Educational Systems; A Guide to Microsoft Office 2013, 1st Edition by EMC Publishing LLC; Learning Microsoft Office 2013, Level 1 by Pearson Education, Inc. publishing as Prentice Hall; and Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course by Cengage.

After careful consideration - some might say heated discussions - we chose the Cengage title. I’ve lived with this textbook for twelve weeks and now it’s time to offer an unbiased review of this title.

An Overview of the Cengage Microsoft Office 2013 Textbook

Cengage Microsoft Office 2013 Textbook

The Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course textbook offers students detailed procedures, colorful screen captures, and plenty of practical, hands-on assignments. Among its list of instructor resources are learning outcome maps, a teacher manual, a sample syllabus, solution files, and exam test banks. At the end of each unit there is a concepts review and several independent challenges for students. 

The book begins with a unit on Computer Concepts, which covers the digital world we live in, memory, storage, output devices, and so on. The next three sections discuss Windows 8 features, File Management, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Office 2013 Suite features.

In the sections that follow, which I consider the meat of the text, the book features units on:

  • Word 2013
  • Excel 2013
  • Integrating Word and Excel
  • Access 2013
  • Integrating Word, Excel, and Access
  • PowerPoint 2013
  • Integrating Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint
  • Outlook 2013
  • The Cloud

In addition, this Cengage title offers 10 Capstone Projects: two for each of the four major software applications and two integration projects.

What Does the Cengage Microsoft Office Textbook Content Look Like?

The units of this Cengage textbook are laid out exceptionally well with a professional theme running throughout the book. Students taking the course “work” for a fictitious company called Quest Specialty Travel. The spreadsheets, documents, presentations, and databases all relate to professional tasks associated with this company.

Each unit comprises a host of procedures that guide students to the learning objectives for that unit. Each procedure is one page long and always begins on the even numbered page.


Cengage Middle School Textbook for Computer Classes - Example Figure Sample Figure from the Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course Text


That means that as students are viewing the procedure on the left side of the spine (the even page), they can readily see the screenshots (figures) with arrows and callouts indicating key steps in the procedure on the odd or opposite page. They don’t have to turn between pages as they complete a lesson. Students thrive on routine and repetition.

Cengage did a great job making each lesson the same length and using the same layout for each. This strategy allows students to become familiar and more comfortable with the text quicker than if each lesson were laid out differently.

To complete the step-by-step lessons featured in the textbook, students use a set of data files. The textbook comes with a Student CD that contains a complete set of the data files students use to complete each lesson, a set of solution files (that show what a file should look like when a student completes it correctly), and a set of annotated files. The annotated files show you what a correctly completed file looks like, with extra information. Using textbox bubbles and arrows, the annotated files indicate exactly what students need to do to in order to modify the original file and complete the lesson.

The student data file names are listed on the first page of each unit. As students work through the lessons they are instructed to open the files as necessary, rename them with a specific name (which I changed to match my naming protocol), and save them to a location of the teacher’s choice.

This textbook does an exceptional job of indicating the results of every procedural step and lets the students know what they can ignore or what is extraneous within a given scenario. After each numbered step, students get a brief explanation of what should happen if they follow the procedure correctly. Explanations refer to figures (screenshots) on the opposite page so students can see what their document, spreadsheet, or presentation will look like if they follow the procedure correctly.

Help for Students: Quick Tips, Trouble Warnings, Action Indicators, & Clues to Use

The Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course textbook includes many tips and helpful details for students.

Quick Tips & Trouble Warnings:

In the margin of each procedure page teachers and students find Quick Tips and Trouble Warnings. These road signs point to specific steps and indicate alternative ways to accomplish a task or warn students how to correct errors they may have made in a previous step.

For example, in a procedure in which students are learning how to copy and paste text, a Trouble Warning reminds them that they can click Undo if they accidentally moved the text instead of copied and pasted it. The authors lay in enough of these quick tips and warnings to enrich the learning experience, but not too many that they detract from it.

Trouble Warning tip for students from the Cengage middle school textbook for Microsoft Office Trouble Warning from Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course

Action Indicators:

Within procedural steps the actions are clearly indicated in a green font. For example, when a student is instructed to click Cut, the action appears in green. Likewise, keystrokes are indicated with brackets. For example, press [Ctrl][Home].

Clues to Use:

At the bottom of some procedure pages students find Clues to Use. These yellow boxes offer tips on accomplishing tasks beyond the procedure. For example, in the copy and paste procedure the Clues to Use box offers information on splitting the document window to copy and paste within a long document. Students will not likely use these clues as they are taking the course, but they will surely benefit from them as they move beyond the textbook and complete more complex tasks.

Cengage Clues To Use
Clues to Use from Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course

Additional Resources for the Teacher

In addition to the student content, the companion Teacher CD contains an instructor manual that offers lecture notes that summarize each section, figures and boxes found in the section, teacher tips, classroom activities, and lab activities.

This textbook also comes with a set of rubrics. You can use these rubrics to grade the skills reviews at the end of each unit. Because the rubrics are Word documents, you can fill them out electronically or print them and manually mark them up. I found it curious that the rubrics do not have a space for the student’s name, but have spaces for the professor’s name, class, notes, and indicate the solution file name.

To familiarize myself with the textbook and in particular the data files, annotated files, and solution files, I printed a set of each and paper clipped them to each unit. As I become more comfortable with the book, this will not be necessary.

How Can the Cengage Middle School Textbook be Improved?

Using the Cengage text, there aren't many downsides... but there is room for improvement to save the instructor time and provide better clarity.

My Suggested Improvements for Solution Files:

I think Cengage should have listed the solution files on the first page of each unit next to the student data files. Perhaps they could have presented all the files in a table so the instructor could see which solutions files are associated with which student data files.

Although it was relatively easy to locate the solution files on the CD, I had to flip through the textbook page by page and physically highlight the names of the solution files within each procedure so I can locate them while I was teaching.

Also, Cengage could have done a better job cross-referencing the solution files to the pages on which those files are used in each unit. For the most part, Cengage did a great job making the student data files and the teacher solution files available and accessible.

My Suggested Improvement for Better Page Numbering: Cengage Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course Page Numbering

The only other downside I found using this book with students is that the pages are not numbered 1 through 315. Rather, the authors decided to restart numbering each unit from one. To draw a student’s attention to the procedure on Adding Slide Footers they have to first locate the PowerPoint unit by color (it happens to be orange) then find page 40 within that unit.

I find that when working with students it’s always easier to have one page 40 rather than a page 40 in every single unit.

Fitting the Text into my Existing Computer Curriculum

Adopting a new textbook or a new technology seldom comes without a learning curve, and adopting this text is no exception. For the past 16 years, I’ve taught without a textbook, creating my own lessons with solution files (I call them models). I present those lessons as follows:

  • I introduce the lesson
  • I model the lesson
  • Students work independently to achieve the objectives

Every now and again I’ll find a lesson on the Internet or pick one up from a colleague, but for the most part the lessons I teach I’ve created out of necessity. When we adopted this text the first question I asked myself was: “How will this textbook fit into my well-established curriculum?” As this school year unfolds I’m getting a clearer idea.

For now I’m content to present the units in Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course as guided instruction. I read each step of each procedure to my students and model them on the SMART Board as they follow along in their textbooks and complete the tasks on their computers.

In the past I’ve used written procedures to teach. However, I found my middle school students were not receptive them. They preferred an in-person lecture, guided instruction, or a recorded tutorial. (I’ve made tutorials of all my lessons using the SMART recorder for use as enrichment or when students are absent).

Overall I give Cengage a good solid “A” for this Microsoft Office textbook. My colleagues and I chose it after careful consideration, and in my opinion it lives up to my expectations. I look forward to finding new ways to integrate it into my curriculum next semester and in the years to come.

About the Author:

Frank DiMaria Headshot.jpegFrank DiMaria is a middle school computer teacher and freelance writer living in Fort Mill, SC. You can connect with Frank on LinkedIn.

The AES Team thanks Frank for his time and effort in providing such a great review of Microsoft Office 2013: Illustrated Introductory, First Course to help other instructors learn about the text.


November 23, 2016