With the current volatile state of political affairs in the United States, including frequent protests around the country, levels of civic engagement are notably high. A key demographic spurring this activity is college students, about 50,000 of whom participated in the Women’s March on Washington in January, according to Inside Higher Ed. Many others have joined demonstrations since then.
More and more institutions of higher education are including courses on such civic engagement — defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community” — in their curricula. Equipping students with knowledge about civic affairs, as well as the skills to use it — known collectively as civic competency — is central to creating engaged, active citizens.
A Campus Compact paper published in 2010 explained that “college students who participate in civic engagement learning activities not only earn higher grade-point averages but also have higher retention rates … are more likely to complete their college degree … demonstrate improved academic content knowledge, critical thinking skills, written and verbal communication and leadership skills … [and] show increased interest in becoming personally and professionally involved in future community enhancement projects.”
So what are universities doing to get students engaged so they’ll participate even when the political situation isn’t as volatile?
Getting students involved
For Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa., the goal is bold: the school aspires to be the most civically engaged university in the U.S. Since 2012, Drexel has required first-year students to enroll in a civic engagement course, which involves completing 10 hours of community service. That requirement could increase soon, based on four years of feedback from tracking students’ civic learning, says Stephen DiPietro, vice provost of University Assessment, Accreditation and Effectiveness at Drexel.
Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement also orchestrates hundreds of community service opportunities for students as well as faculty, and students can pursue a Certificate of Civic Engagement to formalize their experience.
Also offering a formal credential, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) offers a minor in Civic Engagement. Recently, students have been applying for the minor from a much wider variety of backgrounds.
“A majority of students are coming out of social sciences, then humanities, but also the STEM field,” says Douglas Barrera, associate director for engaged research at UCLA’s Center for Community Learning. “We are starting to get a few more students trickling in from pre-med or other science majors who want a complementary experience to those majors, to think about things like health and science from a broader perspective.”
The development of a critical consciousness that often emerges from their studies in civic engagement causes them to look at the world through different lenses, to question that which they had before taken as a given, and to not simply accept the status quo. Often, this kind of interrogation is directed at themselves as much as it is directed at the world around them.
The biggest challenge to getting students involved in the minor, however, is improving awareness of the program’s existence. While the minor has been around for 10 years, “the idea of studying civic engagement is a bit foreign within the higher ed experience. You know what you’ll be studying in biology, for example, but not with civic engagement,” Barrera says. “The other problem is that we operate against the traditional experience of higher ed … we believe that the students have just as much to learn from an off-campus experience as in the classroom.”
Barrera points out that for those students who do participate in the minor, “it’s pretty transformative and is definitely having an impact.”
For some, their academic focus in this area has led to new career goals and broadened their understanding of the world.
“The development of a critical consciousness that often emerges from their studies in civic engagement causes them to look at the world through different lenses, to question that which they had before taken as a given, and to not simply accept the status quo,” he adds. “Often, this kind of interrogation is directed at themselves as much as it is directed at the world around them.”
At Washington State University, students themselves are in charge of the civic engagement process. Director of the school’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) Melanie Brown says that one of their most effective strategies has been to develop a well-trained and knowledgeable student staff as an integral part of program delivery.
“The CCE hires students into roles such as peer mentors, project leaders, literacy mentors and community partner assistants,” Brown explains. “We invest in the ongoing training and development of these students as they work with other students through the civic engagement process.”
For example, the CCE runs daily service projects in the local community, which involves trained student project leaders taking groups of students in a CCE vehicle to the project site, introducing the project and the community partner, and facilitating the project and the reflection.
A broader approach to assessment
While universities across the country use various approaches to boost civic engagement, a challenge is how to best assess the results of those efforts.
Current assessment approaches at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in Indianapolis are designed to evaluate students as “Civic-Minded Graduates.” Julie Hatcher, director of the Center for Service and Learning, explains that this concept of “civic-mindedness” refers to someone who values their college degree as having both a personal and public purpose. Such students are prepared to work with others, particularly across differences, for the greater good.
“It’s about challenging and supporting students to know and explore, ‘What voice do I have in the world? How can I best work with others to improve things in the community and in society at large?'” Hatcher says.
To help universities in this process, a team at ETS is designing a new assessment that aims to measure both sides of civic learning — civic competency and civic engagement — whereas many institutions focus on only one or the other. By looking at both components of civic learning, the test aims to give institutions a better picture of students’ civic knowledge, attitudes and participation levels. The research-driven assessment was recently piloted at 40 schools, including Drexel and IUPUI. The ETS team will use the results from this pilot to provide preliminary evidence to support the intended uses of this assessment.
It’s about challenging and supporting students to know and explore, ‘What voice do I have in the world? How can I best work with others to improve things in the community and in society at large?’
Of course, measuring something as broad as civic learning is not so simple. The first step is to define the associated concepts and terms to make sure everyone is on the same page. While some institutions know what they want students to learn about civic competency, for other institutions, that idea isn’t always clearly defined. A core part of the research behind ETS’s assessment design focused on first defining what was meant by civic learning.
“We wanted to develop a clear framework that institutions could use to support their curriculum, instruction and assessment-related goals,” says Katrina Crotts Roohr, a managing research scientist.
Questioning the questions
Another key piece of research behind ETS’s assessment focused on understanding the most effective question formats to use. After reviewing existing civic learning assessments in the United States and abroad, and conducting interviews with students who took a prototype assessment, the researchers incorporated various question types to measure civic competency and engagement as defined in the assessment framework. A challenge was that some students may not respond truthfully to these questions. As a result, researchers purposefully included question types such as situational judgment questions that present students with multiple, equally socially desirable, answer options. These question types can reduce the likelihood of students giving inauthentic responses — a common challenge in some assessments.
“Students may respond to questions in a way that makes them appear more socially desirable in relation to a particular characteristic, such as making themselves appear more civically involved than they actually are,” says senior research director Ou Lydia Liu.
In our research, we didn’t see too many tests that capture information on civic engagement that goes beyond ‘yes or no’ and ‘Have you voted?’ Furthermore, few assessments capture students’ civic knowledge and skills in addition to information about their levels of engagement.
For instance, if a question were to ask about a student’s first reaction to a natural disaster that occurred in her hometown, she might answer that she took immediate action to help — because that is the socially desirable answer — even if she did not.
Liu notes that the ETS assessment also goes beyond traditional survey questions by including scenario-based questions to measure civic attitudes. In these questions, students are asked to indicate their level of agreement with a statement based on a scenario.
“In our research, we didn’t see too many tests that capture information on civic engagement that goes beyond ‘yes or no’ and ‘Have you voted?’ Furthermore, few assessments capture students’ civic knowledge and skills in addition to information about their levels of engagement.”
Analyzing results accordingly
The ETS assessment aims to provide information back to institutions to help them better understand the effectiveness of their current civic learning methods and strategies. The ways in which institutions use the results to guide change in their curriculum, for example, will depend on the specific needs of each institution. Liu says that while some universities are more interested in civic competency, others are likely to use the test to understand civic engagement, like the effect of their service learning programs.
“The institutions can also use the test results to look at the relationship between students’ competency and engagement to see if they correlate, as high competency does not necessarily indicate active engagement,” she says. “Also, by offering the test to freshmen, institutions can get a baseline measure and can intervene, providing students with opportunities to learn and grow.”
As ETS analyzes the pilot test results, it will become clearer how ETS can provide actionable results back to schools so they can effectively fulfill the increasingly urgent need to educate socially responsible students for a more globalized future.
For more information about the HEIghten® Outcomes Assessment Suite, please visit www.ets.org/heighten.
Suchi Rudra is a writer specializing in education, sustainable design, travel and entrepreneurship. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, CreativeLive.com and BBC Travel, and she recently published an e-book, Travel More, Work Less.
Top image: Students and members of the community take a philosophy class together through Drexel University’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.