Finding the right textbook for your course is no easy feat. Sourcing one that meets the needs of your Gen Z learners—and one that uses the best available technology to help students think and apply course concepts—is even more of a Herculean effort. 

Stephen Buckles, Principal Senior Lecturer of Economics at Vanderbilt University, encountered this issue first hand. The traditional textbooks he came across lacked essential active learning opportunities. They also weren’t able to offer relevant, timely content. His solution? Authoring three digital, interactive textbooks with support from 16 faculty currently teaching introductory economics courses: Principles of Economics, Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics.

We caught up with Buckles to understand how he customizes his textbooks to appeal to the evolving interests and needs of Gen Z. Plus, he shares how in-text assessments—and the insights that are generated—actively motivate and enable students in their learning journey.

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Why did you choose to author your own interactive textbook?

When I started teaching at Vanderbilt, I was using a standard textbook. I tried several bestsellers, but none of them took into account how students most effectively learned: through active learning. As serious educators, we must drill deeper than simple memorization and encourage students to put these concepts into practice in a tangible way.

Professor and Learning Theorist Eric Mazur at Harvard was one of the first promoters of the classroom clicker. The principle behind clicker use—getting students to productively think and discuss their ideas—holds true with what we’re trying to achieve in embedding assessments in textbook chapters. That is my primary motivation for this work. Students learn significantly more and are much more capable of applying that learning if they are actively engaged instead of passively reading paragraph after paragraph.

How does an up-to-date textbook with assessment questions woven throughout inform the way you teach?

I view frequent assessments as a way to make student learning easier. Students no longer need to go back and re-read the entire chapter again to make sure they understand the material—they’re given plenty of opportunities to do this throughout. In exchange, the insights I receive from these in-text assessments help me create flexible lessons that speak to students’ strengths or challenges with the material.

Students understandably want to know in advance what will be covered on my final exams. But here’s my response: I tell them if they’ve read the book and answered the questions throughout, they’ve already seen all of the exam questions. It’s the best way that I’ve been able to create a flexible, simplified and extremely effective study process for students—and its design is based on sound empirical evidence.

Your book will soon include a case study on the January 2021 GameStop stock craze. Why was that important to highlight?

It all boils down to student motivation. The more contemporary examples that students relate to and find interesting, the more likely they are to understand the relevance of their learnings in everyday life. It helps them understand bigger, underlying issues about financial markets that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Almost every single student knows about the GameStop stock phenomenon. They’ve seen a ton of references to it on social media.

With a customizable text, I’m able to tailor my content to meet students’ needs and interests. I don’t have to wait several years to revise or add a new case study: I’m able to do so from semester to semester. The GameStop case study won’t be in the book forever, but that’s the great thing. As soon as GameStop and other current examples disappear from students’ active interests, we will swap out these stories for something that future students know and actually want to learn about.

What are some of the benefits of keeping your book relevant and making sure students are tested on what they know?

When students relate to content in their coursework, they’re much more likely to become engaged and involved in class discussions. Since using my digital textbook as a way to prime students before they arrive to class, my teaching assistants have seen a noticeable increase in quality economics-driven discussions. By facilitating pre-class readings, around 75–80 percent of students discuss financial topics in peer discussions.

I’ve found that frequent assessments woven throughout chapters really help students prepare for their exams. Their scores show it. I’ve done a handful of casual correlations between the number of questions students answer in the textbook and their exam scores, and the students who answer more questions tend to perform better on their exams. 

→ Get pre-built slides, quizzes and assignments for your next economics course 

Stephen Buckles is a Principal Senior Lecturer and former Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University, where he also received his PhD. Buckles has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (Vanderbilt, 2008), Kenneth G. Elzinga Distinguished Teaching Award (Southern Economic Association, 2006), and the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (Vanderbilt, 2007). He is the lead author of three Top Hat textbooks: Principles of Economics, Principles of Macroeconomics and Principles of Microeconomics.

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