Teaching American Politics: Civic & Political Engagement in Introductory Courses

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Teaching American Politics: Civic & Political Engagement in Introductory Courses

The Why & What to Think About Ahead of Time: A Brief Resource Guide

Terry Gilmour (Midland College), Lanethea Mathews-Schultz (Muhlenberg College), Shannon McQueen (West Chester University)

This brief resource guide is designed to assist instructors of American government courses in contemplating how to develop strategies for using active and engaged learning in the classroom.

Our symposium syllabi, APSA Educate, and other repositories offers abundant examples of civic and political engagement activities. APSA’s important volumes, Teaching Civic Engagement Globally (2021), Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines (2017), and Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen (2013), likewise include a wealth of sample syllabi, assignments, and assessments. We hope this resource guide will encourage increased use of these resources and lead more instructors to engage their classrooms in politics by offering a starting place for reflection about the why and the how.

The Why: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Engagement

Conventional approaches to teaching introductory undergraduate courses in American government emphasize civic education and political knowledge, for good reason: Civic education–developing knowledge about political processes, government institutions, and power– is empirically linked to healthy democracies and participatory citizens (Pew Research Center 2018); troubling numbers of Americans lack basic knowledge about government (Annenberg Public Policy Center 2021); and civic education is at best, according to a 2020 Brookings report, a marginal part of the educational experience in the US. Nonetheless, the scholarship of teaching and learning is increasingly attentive to the significance of applied knowledge and to the development of students’ capacities and skills as important compliments to conventional approaches emphasizing knowledge. Holbein and Hillygus’s Making Young Voters (2020) suggests, for example, that civic education, democratic values, and political knowledge on their own do not necessarily translate into political action, even in contexts defined by high levels of motivation and political interest. A well-functioning democracy requires not only citizens who are knowledgeable about politics, but who also participate in civic and political life. Undergraduate classrooms are important spaces in which students can develop civic and political skills that help translate political knowledge into engaged citizenship (e.g., Bardwell, 2011; Berstein, 2008).

The What to Think About Ahead of Time: Considerations of Pedagogical Design

The following is not meant to be exhaustive–indeed, there are many aspects of course design, such as grading, assessment, time allocation for different kinds of activities, etc. that we do not mention. Recognizing these limits, the following considerations stem from our personal experiences integrating civic and political engagement activities into the undergraduate classroom.  

Student Populations 

It is important to consider the student population when identifying civic and political learning activities. Not only do student populations vary significantly across institutional types–community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large universities–but institutions have different missions and campus-wide learning goals and, at times, legislatively mandated curricula. Equally important are potential cultural, economic, regional, and geographic differences among different student populations. For example, student needs may determine whether it is reasonable and equitable to expect students to engage in civic or political activities outside of regular class time (attending public meetings, working on Election Day, participating in campaigns, etc.)  

Classroom Environment 

We do not always have control over the configuration of our teaching spaces, yet it is an important consideration relating to the choice of civic and political activities that are possible in the classroom. Classrooms that are well-suited to active learning in the classroom include moveable furniture and, frequently, high-tech and low-tech methods for involving students in the learning process. Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs), which have unique physical space requirements, support co-learning, co-creation, and open discussion; at their best, ALCs increase student involvement in content sharing, building knowledge, engaging students, and generating ownership of learning. This stands in contrast to more traditional classrooms built on a more passive learning or lecture model, where instructors stand and deliver content to students who sit and listen. These typical lecture classrooms have limited mobility and inflexible layout can, absent some creativity, hamper interactions between students, instructors and content. Whatever your classroom environment, engaging students in civic and political activities in the classroom includes finding ways to create meaningful opportunities for students to generate information, develop knowledge, solve problems and apply textbook content to the real world. Space is an important consideration.

Navigating Student Expectations & Occasional Push Back 

Most students start college before they have formally engaged in the political system (e.g., voting) and with modest political knowledge (Owen and Riddle 2017). With K-12 teachers and families avoiding polarizing dialogue (Dunn et al. 2019), most college students have even less experience engaging in meaningful dialogue about politics and may have internalized politics as associated only with division and deep ideological polarization. Similarly, students may expect and be overly comfortable with being passive participants in the classroom. Requiring students to write or call an elected official, attend a town hall meeting, engage in voter registration drives–these are unfamiliar activities for the vast majority of undergraduate students in introductory American politics courses. Although there is good evidence that these kinds of high-impact practices facilitate student learning and the development of transferable civic skills, student push back (even in places such as standardized teaching evaluations) is not unheard of.

Student Learning Outcomes

Before selecting a specific civic or political activity, it is worth thinking about and developing the particular learning goals and objectives the activity will serve. Some, but not all, of the activities in APSA Educate contain specific learning goals and many of these goals are knowledge focused, rather than necessarily skills-focused.  Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the learning process and explaining the “why” is useful in developing student buy-in. Utilizing learning outcomes are a valuable consideration when teaching (Mitchell and Manzo 2018) and equally helpful when incorporating civic and political engagement activities. Learning objectives provide students a clear understanding of what they can take away from an activity, as well as prompt educators to consider the effectiveness of the activities in meeting learning goals (Pellegrino, Chudowsky, and Glaser 2001). 

Reflection 

The literature on active learning and service learning has broadly established the importance of reflection (Bringle and Hatcher 1999; Desta et al 2009; Hatcher et al 2004). In our experience, meaningful reflection is essential for any civic or political engagement activity or assignment.  Asking students to connect their experiences to class concepts, to think about their own skill development, and to reflect on their own learning process is essential to meeting both knowledge based and skill based learning outcomes.  Questions like; ‘What was challenging about the activity?’,  ‘What strategies or skills did you use in the activity?’ or ‘What can you apply from this activity to other situations?’ Short worksheets prompting students to reflect with metacognitive questions can be a useful tool for quick reflection post-activity (Pate et al 2019 ).

Works Cited

Baepler, Paul, et al.  2016.  “A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom:  History, Research, and Practice.  Stylus Publishing.

Bardwell, Karen. 2011. “Fact Checks, Voter Guides, and GOTV: Civic Learning Projects in American Politics Courses, Journal of Political Science Education.” 7:1, 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2011.539899.

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