Promoting Civic Literacy and Engagement during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Developing this generation’s civic literacy is vital to maintaining and strengthening the foundation of democracy. There is an urgent need to improve civic education and promote civic literacy, knowledge, and engagement among today’s college students. At the same time, higher education institutions are under rising pressure to increase the number and variety of online courses. In the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this pressure has become a mandate at institutions across the United States and worldwide. What does this mean for civic literacy and skill development? Can civic literacy, skills, and engagement be promoted in 100% online courses, even in the midst of a social distancing campaign that requires students to stay largely confined to their homes?

We argue that these goals can, indeed, be advanced, even under these dire circumstances. We explain how a menu-based approach to civic literacy that we have used to get students in online courses out into their communities can be adapted quickly and easily to promote civic literacy and engagement from behind a keyboard, computer screen, tablet, or smartphone.

Skeptics may assume that there are too many challenges and roadblocks to developing the civic skills of students in an online format; however, some scholars have found that online learning can facilitate, rather than inhibit, community-engaged pedagogies (Guthrie & McCracken, 2012; Purcell, 2017; Waldner, McGorry, & Widener, 2012). Indeed, one study concluded that “e-service-learning—the marriage of online learning and service-learning—holds the potential to transform both endeavors by freeing service-learning from geographical constraints and by equipping online learning with a tool to promote engagement” (Waldner et al., 2012, p. 145). This essay explains how we offer such an approach to students statewide in Florida and Indiana – and to students across the nation.

Both of us include civics projects in our online American government courses. Dr. McLauchlan analyzed data for 11 semesters (including responses to anonymous pre- and post-project surveys, university end-of-course evaluations, Center for Civic Engagement surveys of Citizen Scholar courses, student reflection papers, and discussion board posts). Findings revealed that participation in the civics project increased students’ civic knowledge and helped them develop the skills needed to become active citizens. Students indicated that they intended to continue following current events and that they would stay involved in the political process. To learn more, see Dr. McLauchlan’s article in the e-Journal of Public Affairs. This approach to civic literacy and engagement can work across subfields and academic disciplines.

Both of us developed our online American politics courses after being trained in the Quality Matters rubricIn addition to assignments, lectures, quizzes, and discussion forums, we require a series of hands-on civic engagement activities. Students have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of American government, politics, and political culture by completing a series of civics assignments and writing short reflection papers. In these papers, students describe what they did for their project, and what they learned about politics, the community, and themselves, as well as how the project may influence their future behavior. The reports can be very brief (1-2 pages for Bennion) or longer (4 pages for McLauchlan) and can require students to relate what they learned from the experience to the material covered in lectures and in the assigned readings. An instructor may also require that students participate in discussion boards using the campus learning management system (e.g., Canvas) to post about their civics projects and respond to others. Students can be asked to complete several assignments (e.g. two for Bennion and three for McLauchlan).

First, a Civics Project Worksheet is completed to help students map out their political landscape (see Appendix A in Dr. McLauchlan’s eJournal article for details. All of this work can be done via Internet and telephone. The Worksheet requires students to identify their state representatives and state senators, their members of Congress and US Senators, their county commissioners (and when/where the commission meets), their school board members (and when/where the school board meets), how and where to register to vote, the contact information for their Democratic and Republican party offices, etc. By completing the worksheet, students develop their own customized civic engagement reference guide. This teaches students a great deal about their community and their elected officials and allows the instructor to help them identify projects that work with their schedule, wherever they reside. In conjunction with the content covered in the lectures and readings, students learn more about what level of government and what government agency (or agencies) might be responsible for the issues with which they are concerned, and they learn how to reach out to those officials. The Worksheet combined with the civics projects themselves play an important role in skill building and increasing students’ sense of political efficacy.

The “menu” of potential civics projects includes activities such as attending a city council/school board/county commission meeting, attending a homeowner’s association meeting, volunteering for a community agency, visiting a federal or state courthouse and watching a proceeding, volunteering for a political campaign, and contacting an elected official about an issue of interest. Students verify their completion of the civics projects by including an appendix with photos of them at the events and/or scans of business cards, meeting agendas, or other artifacts of the civic engagement activity. Online activities can be verified through screenshots, abbreviated transcripts, timestamps, and email messages from (or contact information for) interview subjects and volunteer coordinators. Specific assignment requirements also help to assure students that all members of the class are, indeed, doing the work (see Elizabeth Bennion’s Citizen Action Project COVID-19 Adaptation for sample assignments).

During ordinary semesters, our goal is to get people out from behind their keyboards and computer screens and out into their communities. For this reason, no two assignments can be of the same type (e.g., only one city council meeting), and, prior to the Spring 2020 semester, only one of the civics projects can be “online” (e.g., watching a Florida Supreme Court oral argument online or watching a Sunday morning political TV show). However, the requirements are easy to adapt to current CDC guidelines for social distancing.

To date, the most popular civics projects are those that can be completed online. Students are often reluctant about getting out into the community and worry that they do not know how to engage. For this reason, we normally prefer to “force” students to do the face-to-face projects. And, indeed, students in our classes almost unanimously report that once they get out there, they find that it is not as difficult to get involved as they had imagined. Despite this, we are confident that students will benefit from completing the civics project worksheet and completing 2-3 online assignments. Innovative ideas for civic engagement has emerged in response to COVID-19 (e.g., calling representatives to advocate for paid sick leave, a letter to the editor promoting vote-by-mail legislation, and an analysis of several gubernatorial press conferences on state responses to the pandemic).

Even when a public health crisis has confined students to their homes, students can analyze a political talk show, comment on a federal rule change, write a letter to the editor, or conduct a Zoom interview with an elected official. They can make phone calls for a political campaign, watch a local government meeting online, or watch an oral argument in front of their state’s Supreme Court. These are just a few of the ways that students can observe, analyze, and engage in politics in action. See Dr. Bennion’s Citizen Action Project COVID-19 Adaptation  for a more comprehensive listing of examples.

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, students can learn by doing: expanding their understanding of the political world around them and their vision of how they participate now and in the future.

Elizabeth Bennion, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University South Bend, where she teaches courses in American politics. She is the founding director of IUSB’s American Democracy Project, President of the Indiana Debate Commission, and host of Politically Speaking, a weekly TV program on WNIT – PBS for Michiana. In these capacities she moderates political discussions, public issue forums, and candidate debates for local, state, and national candidates. A nationally recognized expert on civic education and political engagement, Professor Bennion has won numerous local, state, and national awards for her teaching and service, and has published widely in academic books, journals, and professional newsletters. Professor Bennion is co-editor of two APSA-published books on teaching civic engagement: Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen (2013) and Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines (2017).

 Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where she teaches courses in American Government and Public Law.  McLauchlan is also the Lead Instructor for the USFSP YMCA Civic Fellows Program, a statewide civics education initiative that is a partnership between USFSP and the YMCA Youth in Government Program.  McLauchlan is an active contributor to the scholarship of teaching and learning; she has published numerous articles and book chapters about the effects of integrating civic engagement into the curriculum and has presented those findings at regional, national, and international conferences.


Bennett Grubbs

Political Science Today

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