Stephen Buckles picked up an interest in economics as a freshman at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where the Introduction to Economics course was one of the institution’s most popular. It changed how he viewed the world.
While completing his Masters of Business Administration at New York University, Buckles joined the College and University Program at the Joint Council on Economic Education as an associate where he helped define standard economics curriculum objectives, and developed materials, activities and exams that supported those curriculum objectives. It was this experience that ignited his passion for teaching and inspired him to pursue a PhD in Economics at Vanderbilt University.
The Turn to Teaching
Buckles has spent his career thinking about and researching how students learn economics. Throughout 25 years as a Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University and 12 years as an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri – Columbia, he has written dozens of journal articles and publications advising professors and lecturers how to best teach economics to college students.
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He took five years away from teaching between 1989 and 1994 to serve as the President of the National Council on Economic Education. There he worked on committees to develop national economics standards primary, secondary, and higher educational levels, to help instructors engage their students in a comprehensive economics education. He also worked in the same capacities in developing standards for personal finance education.
Buckles finds teaching to be the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his professional career. His primary aim is for his students to take ownership of their education and implement it in their own daily lives. As a result, he sees his own role in the classroom as one of a mentor and guide. Buckles finds that economics as a discipline lends itself well to this approach because many students have likely spent little time reflecting on the influence of economics in their own lives. Buckles finds that students have an easier time grasping complex economics concepts this way because of the wide variety of everyday examples that illustrate economic principles in action. He uses many in-class active learning activities, where students have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to these well-known situations. “I’ll know I’ve done a good job if students are actively comparing benefits and costs to make decisions in their daily lives. And that means professionally, politically and personally, too, if I have basically altered how they approach the world,” says Buckles.
As a professor who has played a role in national curriculum development, Buckles knows that the majority of economics textbooks have similar content. It’s the way the content is conveyed that makes the most significant impact on what students learn. He also recognizes that the ideal medium to convey information is constantly changing, keeping pace with students’ needs and new technologies. Course materials and methodologies must be flexible and consistently updated to be impactful and relevant, which is why Buckles decided to author an interactive digital Top Hat textbook in 2017.
Teaming Up with Top Hat
Buckles is lead author for Top Hat’s Principles of Economics, Principles of Macroeconomics and Principles of Microeconomics, which use relatable examples and deep explanations to encourage students to think critically about course concepts rather than memorizing them strictly for assessment purposes. Buckles took advantage of the interactivity offered by Top Hat’s digital learning platform to dig deep into complex topics such as opportunity cost and production possibility frontiers. In his view, the most important difference between these textbooks and others covering the same ground, is that Top Hat functionality enables students to apply the concepts and then provide feedback continually throughout the texts. He interspersed real-world news clips, case studies and articles with theoretical concepts, encouraging students to make connections, retain information and develop problem-solving skills. He also worked with Top Hat to include math supplements that incorporate algebraic functions for microeconomic concepts — a handy tool that can save time for professors and reinforce concepts for students.
Buckles appreciates Top Hat’s end-to-end course solution that incorporates learning activities before, during and after class. He uses Top Hat’s in-class discussion question feature in lectures of 300 students in hopes of engaging them in course content. And it works. “I ask them to turn to their neighbor and convince them that they’re right, or learn from their neighbor, and answer that question again,” says Buckles. “I get between 80 and 90 percent of those 300 students talking about economics and engaging with one another.”
Buckles’ goal is to help his students become more informed and engaged global citizens. “Building a better way of thinking, so we can make better decisions, whether personal, or for family, or business, or government,” says Buckles “That’s the real goal of economics courses.”
Stephen Buckles is a Principal Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University, where he also received his PhD in Economics. Buckles has been the recipient of numerous awards, including 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). His course pack, which this text is based on, has been used by thousands of students and engages the concepts of active learning.