Civic Education Roundup, Week of July 22, 2020

This week, an examination of the relationship between faculty teaching practices and interactions with students and the civic engagement attitudes of students; an analysis of the extent to which integration of service learning into liberal arts curricula increases civic engagement of students; a look at the struggles of rural parents in supporting their children when they navigate the college admissions process of selective liberal arts colleges; a reiteration of the importance of civic literacy to prepare students to navigate the free flow of information on the internet; and an investigation on how civics education often neglects to prepare students for civil society, instead focusing on teaching students how to influence politics and government policy. 

Civic Development Through Student-Teacher Relationships 

Shaping College Student’s Civic Attitudes Through Faculty Teaching Practices and Student-Faculty Interactions: Teniell L. Trollian and Eugene T. Parker

College education is a significant predictor of an individual’s likelihood of being civically engaged; indeed, previous studies have shown that college graduates are up to 15 to 20% more likely to be engaged, as measured by rates of voter turnout, than those with no college education. College attendance has also been positively associated with rates of civic engagement, and students’ extracurricular experiences engaging with their community in particular is found to enhance the development of civic responsibility. While much of the literature on student-faculty interactions, both inside and outside the classroom, have found that such interactions have a positive impact on students’ success in college, not much is known about how these encounters impact students’ attitudes towards civic engagement. Trollian and Parker’s study acknowledges limitations of prior research which used single-item measurements of student-faculty interactions or cross-sectional datasets, instead using longitudinal data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education and several measures of faculty interactions to gain a comprehensive understanding of faculty impact on student civic engagement. 

The study used two theoretical perspectives to frame its investigation. First, the civic learning spiral model— a framework for civic education focusing on the six elements of self, communities and culture, knowledge, skills, values, and action— is used as a guiding framework. Second, the phases and faces of citizenship model, which outlines the six stages of student progression through civic learning, is used as a supplemental framework. Ten measures of students’ experiences with faculty were used to determine the nature of student-faculty interactions: frequency of faculty contact, quality of student-faculty contact, research collaboration, the extent to which faculty were willing to discuss issues of interest to students after class, frequency of discussions with faculty of different political, social, and religious backgrounds, faculty interest in teaching and student development, use of cooperative learning classroom activities, and use of course content that allows students to see how potential careers impact society. 

In the final analysis, four practices stood out as having beneficial outcomes on students’ civic attitudes as college seniors. Cooperative learning activities, which describe classroom practices such as group work and group projects; use of course content that connects potential careers with their impact on society; frequency of faculty-student contact; and course content which helps students understand the historical, political, and social ramifications of past events had the most prominent impacts on students’ civic engagement. The final item had the most statistically significant impact. These results demonstrate that college faculty have an influential role in the civic development of their students, and that their frequency of interaction with students, development of course content, and pedagogical techniques have the most prominent impact. Troillian and Parker acknowledge that the institutional sample from which they derived their data do present a limitation in these results. The WNS sample was majority female (60%), Caucasian (84%), and consisting of continuing generation students (76%). However, the results are still promising and pave the way for future research on this topic consisting of a more diverse, representative sample of college students. 

From Classroom to Community

Community Engagement in the Liberal Arts: How Service Hours and Reflections Affect Course Value: David Lynn Painter and Courtney Howell 

Service learning was integrated into liberal arts curricula in response to criticisms of liberal arts education that claimed that it failed to prepare students for life outside the classroom. The trend of including community engagement courses that include service learning activities is supported by research suggesting that service learning is a high-impact pedagogical practice which also enhances students’ civic engagement. Painter and Howell recognize that previous research on service learning emphasized abstract educational philosophy, such as the fact that service learning should be aligned with community needs instead of course outcomes, instead of recommendations for specific course design elements, such as the types of reflection activities which maximize course impact. To fill this gap in knowledge, they surveyed students enrolled in a diverse set of service learning courses at a liberal arts college, pinpointing the relationship between certain reflection activities and the amount of service hours and student ratings of course effectiveness in terms of civic engagement, effectiveness of teaching, and professional development. The specific research questions they focused on in their investigation were (1) the relationship of service hours on these three outcomes and (2) the influence of reflection activities on the same. 

Data was collected through a survey of 740 students in community engagement courses with service learning components at a single liberal arts college in the Southeast. Five total variables were tracked: service hours, number of reflection activities, and their effect on perceived teaching effectiveness, civic engagement, and professional development. Analysis of the results found that students who engaged in 10 or less service hours during their service learning course reported significantly less beneficial outcomes in all three areas than those who completed 15, 20, 25, 30 or more service hours. In terms of reflection activities, all types of reflection activities are correlated with pedagogical effectiveness; however, academic papers and art projects were not effective at increasing civic engagement. These results corroborated past research on the importance of reflections, and more reflections resulted in significant increases in perceived teaching effectiveness; for example, students who completed four reflection activities had 16% higher effectiveness scores than students who only completed one. Courses that integrated multiple types of reflections were also found to be more effective; relying on a single final project at the end of the course to allow the student to reflect on their experience is not as effective, and students learned the most through class discussions and individual conversations with their peers. It also indicates that there must be a significant number of service hours in order to make a service learning course effective: students who completed 25 service hours reported 9.7% higher perception of teaching effectiveness. These findings provide guidance for educators designing future service learning courses, and Painter and Howell suggest further research that moves beyond self reported data and examines the effect of service learning among a variety of demographics to combat the criticism of the practice as white and colonialist. 

Navigating through Uncharted Waters

“We Don’t Know How to Do This”: Rural Parents’ Perspectives on and Roles In Enrollment at a Selective, Private Liberal Arts College: Mary Casey Tieken

There is a huge disparity between college enrollment and attainment rates in rural communities and suburban and urban communities. While 59% of rural students enroll in a 2 or 4 year college directly after graduation, 67% of suburban students and 62% of urban students do. This difference is even more pronounced at selective, private liberal arts colleges— rural students tend to be overrepresented at 2 year technical programs which are more financially and geographically accessible. As rural communities experience large scale restructuring where many traditional rural industries and employment opportunities are disappearing, these differences in higher education outcomes can exacerbate macro-level spatial inequalities in wealth, economic development, and community well being in rural and urban regions. However, the opposition to college enrollment in rural communities involves cultural, as well as financial and geographical, barriers. College-going can contribute to the hollowing out of rural communities caused by youth out-migration, and previous research has demonstrated that college causes a dilemma for rural families in which students have to choose between community ties and social mobility that can vastly improve conditions for both students and families. Despite these costs, many rural students leave their homes to pursue higher education. Tieken’s study focuses on the parents of these students, their role in the college process, and their views on selective liberal arts colleges. 

Data was taken from the college admissions office of a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts given the pseudonym Hilltop College. Students participating in the study were zoned to a school in a remote, rural location, and both parents did not have bachelors degrees. Qualitative data was collected from interviews with their families. Results of the study showed that contrary to previous assumptions, the rural parents were supportive of a liberal arts college education, encouraged children from an early age to obtain a college degree, and were instrumental in their successful enrollment. Parents were advocates, participating in many of the behaviors shown to result in college enrollment including reminding children about education deadlines, talking to children about their options, and paying what they could. Contrary to the pre-professional focus held by many high school staff and community based aspirations organizations, there is also strong support for liberal arts education among these parents. They understand that the liberal arts gives students diverse options and a flexible curriculum so they have the flexibility necessary to find a career they love, while at the same time finding a well paid job. Their own experiences with job dissatisfaction and financial hardship is what led them to this support. Parents also were willing to step outside their cultural boundaries to support their children’s decision to attend a liberal arts school. Parents often felt a moral, as well as class,  boundary between their communities and the college their children attended. They drew a line between their own values and the perceived elitist attitude of selective schools. However, Hilltop was able to mitigate this because parents felt it was less foreign and more accessible to them, both due to the generous financial aid packages it offered and the willingness of college staff and students to lend a hand to parents during visits. They viewed Hilltop as a good school not because of its prestige, but because it shared their values and left the moral boundary in place even when social and cultural boundaries were being crossed. These results have significant implications for how colleges can be more welcoming to rural students, and complicates the current understanding of rural, non-college educated parents’ views towards higher education. Providing more financial assistance to rural students, greater contact between admissions officials and rural parents, and cultural change on college campuses to be more welcoming of rural students and their families are all ways colleges can close the gap between rural and urban obtainment of college degrees. Tieken points to a greater understanding of the parents of students who are undecided or attending other post-secondary institutions and students’ experiences at selective colleges as avenues for future research. 

Teaching Students to Swim Before they Surf the Web

Civic Literacy Reinforcement to Cope With the Age of Free Flow of Information: Lesson Learned from Students in Boarding School Environment: Ikirmah Saputra, Moh. Muchtarom, Triyanto 

Saputra, Muchtarom and Triyanto are three Indonesian researchers studying the relationship between civic education and the digital literacy skills necessary for students to navigate the free flow of information on the internet. Indonesia is a good case study for this phenomenon because of the lack of digital literacy in its population combined with the high rate of internet use in the country. Sixty-four percent of Indonesia’s population is connected to the internet, with the highest rate of use among citizens aged fifteen to nineteen. However, Indonesia has one of the lowest digital literacy rates in the world. In a 2016 study from Central Connecticut State University, Indonesia’s literacy rate was ranked 60th out of 61 total countries studied. Saputra and colleagues recognize that the solution to low rates of digital literacy and the negative effects it has on the spread of misinformation in society is robust integration of those skills into the civics education curriculum. Focusing specifically on the formal and informal civics education students receive in an Indonesian boarding school, they use a descriptive qualitative research approach to discuss the strategies used to provide students with the skills necessary to navigate the free flow of information on the internet. 

Data was collected using document study, interviews and observation at the Majelis Tafsir Al-Qur’an high school in Gemolong, Indonesia; civic education teachers and classes, the head of the boarding school, and the general student population of the boarding school were included in the sample. The researchers’ definition of successful digital literacy education is framed around three key skills: data literacy, technology literacy, and human literacy. The results of the data analysis elucidated two key strategies for successful integration of digital literacy into the civics curriculum. The first is through integration of digital learning tools into the civics classroom environment. These digital teaching materials include educational Youtube videos, e-books, making instructional videos, and websites where students and teachers upload assignments. In the framework of the three skills mentioned earlier, data literacy is taught by using the internet to enhance class materials; technology literacy is enhanced by having students make educational videos and using blogs to track their learning; and human literacy is taught through group projects, group discussions, and interactions during a Q&A reflection session. The second main strategy is through extracurricular activities in the boarding school. This aspect of the study is interesting because digital literacy and civic learning is integrated into the Islamic religious teachings of the boarding school. In terms of the civic learning framework, data literacy is emphasized through the use of technology to supplement traditional Islamic activities such as the Tahfidz (memorizing the Qur’an) and having digital religious learning activities; technology literacy is emphasized through computer-based Al-Qur’an writing activities, making video recordings during the Tahsin (refinement of the reading of the Quran); and human literacy is emphasized through opportunities for students to engage with the civic life of the school through interactions with the head of the boarding school and with residents around the boarding school of different faiths who share the space. While the researchers’ study is limited because of the religious element of the school and the fact that their case study focused only on one boarding school, this study lays the groundwork for studying varying  pedagogical approaches to digital literacy in different cultures and their effectiveness. 

A Hole in the Civics Curriculum

Preparation for Civil Society: A necessary element of curriculum for social justice: Li-Ching Ho and Keith C. Barton 

The framework in which civic education is currently conducted focuses on a narrow interpretation of civic participation as engaged and thoughtful participation in the matters of the state; as a result, civic education curricula is almost entirely focused on the structure and function of government, with an emphasis on individual decision-making, informed voting, engaged participation, and other conventional  ways of participating in political life. However, Ho and Barton recognize that this approach neglects the other ways in which people organize for their collective futures outside of formal government institutions, in voluntary associations known collectively as civil society. 

Civil society is pervasive in the US and provides a direct and accessible way for citizens to work towards shared social goals; apart from voting, few people will be able to directly influence the work of government, so political involvement is much more likely to take place as part of civil society. For young people who cannot vote, participation in civil society through volunteering is widespread, and more pervasive than active participation in politics. However, civil society also includes organizations which advocate for political change and provide a vital space that exists outside the state where people can stand in opposition to government. These spaces allow individuals to avoid the dangers of social isolation and exploitation by political institutions, and are integral to marginalized communities, as seen by organizations such as Black Lives Matter. It also provides a space for marginalized communities to build alternative discourses, as seen by the prevalence of Black and feminist bookstores since the 1970s. Further, for those who lack the resources necessary to participate in governmental politics, such as undocumented youth, it is the only way in which they can advocate for their interests and community. Ho and Barton note, however, that not all aspects of civil society are beneficial, and that some civil society organizations are violent, racist, exclusionary, and authoritarian; it is not necessarily democratic or deliberative— the diverse array of ideologies and approaches is precisely why young people have to learn how such organizations operate and how to evaluate their actions. 

Two curricular features are key to this mission: analyzing and evaluating the work of civil society and learning to deliberate collaboratively. The first teaches students the specific actions that civil society organizations take instead of only providing simplistic portrayals; for example, instead of only saying that organizations that assist refugees exist, students are taught how they supply food and water during their migration, assist in obtaining credit and starting businesses, contact employers about jobs, etc. Knowledge of the relationship between government and civil society and what issues are better addressed by each allows students to evaluate when civil society becomes necessary, and is important in civic education. The second focuses on preparing students for collaborative deliberation instead of the adversarial contexts in which students are usually taught the skill (e.g. through debating the merits of opposing policy options). Teaching key elements of collaborative deliberation, defined as non-adversarial problem solving in a trusting, reciprocal partnership towards a shared goal, requires changes in the classroom. First, teachers have to increase students’ trust in each other by helping them relate to each other instead of finding ideological differences in order to promote debate. Next, teachers should utilize case studies of people who already have common interests and shared values instead of framing deliberation as a competition for resources. Teachers should also push students to analyze the deliberative frameworks that already exist within civil society and challenge them to come up with ways to make participation even more inclusive, collaborative, and democratic. Finally, students should learn how decision making processes can both increase and reduce existing inequalities in participation. Ho and Barton close by reemphasizing that not preparing students adequately for participation in civil society effectively deprives them of basic knowledge on how democracy is practiced in the world and real strategies to organize for change. 

Written by U4SC Summer Intern, Julia Pepper