Civic Engagement in the Online Classroom: Increasing Youth Political Engagement in an Online American Government Course

  • Post category:8.1 Article
  • Reading time:64 mins read

By Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan | This article discusses the development and implementation of a civics project in an online American government course and explores the challenges and opportunities around managing civic engagement projects in an online format. Data analyzed for this article included 11 semesters of 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.  Lessons learned are applicable to courses in fields seeking to incorporate service-learning, community-based research, or civic engagement in an online context.

Author Note

Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Department of History and Politics, University of South Florida St. Petersburg

An earlier draft of this paper was presented in February 2018 at the American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference in Baltimore, MD, and during a think tank session at the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Conference in Anaheim, CA, in June 2018.

The author would like to thank Wayne Nealy, Emily-May Thatcher, Royale Heart-Oakes, Elise Hummel, and Tom Gay for their research assistance with the data collection for this project. The author also wishes to thank the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Online Learning and Instructional Technology Services (OLITS) department ( under the leadership of David Brodosi for professional development training and for grant support to develop “American National Government” online. Thanks to Otis Wilder for leading the OLITS professional development workshops. And thanks especially to instructional designers Karla Morris and Steph Fuhr for their help moving my course to an online format.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Associate Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Davis 216, 140 7th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Phone: (727) 873-4956. E-mail:

A young woman at a laptop giving thumbs up to the camera

Democracy can survive only as strong democracy, secured not by great leaders but by competent, responsible citizens. Effective dictatorships require great leaders. Effective democracies need great citizens…. And citizens are certainly not born, but made as a consequence of civic education and political engagement in a free polity. (Barber, 1984, p. xvii)

The state of civic literacy and civic engagement has been on the decline in recent decades (National Task Force, 2012; Shaw, 2017). Speaking in terms of “civic illiteracy” (Shaw, 2017), scholars have declared that the United States is in a “civic recession” (National Task Force, 2012 p. xiii) and have lamented the current state of “civic malaise” (National Task Force, 2012 p. 6). The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) pointed to specific indicators of this “anemic U.S. civic health,” such as low voter turnout rates (the U.S. ranked 139th in voter participation out of 172 world democracies), low rates of interaction with elected officials (only 10% of U.S. citizens contacted a public official), and low levels of proficiency in civics (only 24% of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics). Indeed, a recent survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (2016) found that only one quarter of Americans could name the three branches of government, and a Newsweek poll found that less than one third of Americans knew that the U.S. Constitution was the supreme law of the land (Shaw, 2017).

The nation’s civic illiteracy crisis is especially grave in Florida, where I teach at a state university. A recent study of Florida’s civic health concluded that “Florida Millennials have the depressing distinction of being the most disengaged group in one of the most civically disengaged states in the nation” (Knuckey & Collie, 2011, p. 5). For example, in 2010, less than half of millennials in Florida were registered to vote, and of those who were registered, only one in five actually voted. Non-electoral political action was almost non-existent (e.g., only 3% contacted or visited a public official), and Florida’s millennials had one of the lowest rates (ranked 48th in the nation) of participation in any type of civic, community, school, sports, or religious group. In addition, Florida was ranked among the bottom 10 states for community engagement—such as volunteering, attending public meetings, and working with neighbors in the community—among millennials. (See Table 1.)

Table 1

Snapshot of Millennial Civic Engagement in Florida






for Millennials

Florida Millennials National Ranking

Most Engaged State for Millennials

Florida “Youth Engagement Gap”

Registered to vote in 2010




North Dakota, 62%


Voted in 2010




North Dakota, 35%


Contacted or visited public official




Oregon, 15%


Bought or boycotted product

based on values of company




Oregon, 26%


Group participation (any group)




Colorado, 36%


Volunteered for any group




Utah, 37%


Attended public meeting




Montana, 10%


Did favors for neighbors a few times per week or more frequently




Hawaii, 18%


Worked with neighbor to fix

problem in neighborhood




Montana, 9%


Note. Source: 2011 Florida Civic Health Index (Knuckey & Collie, 2011, p. 4).

While the activism of the Parkland shooting survivors, for instance, is inspiring (National Public Radio, 2018) and the dramatic increase in youth voter turnout (to 30% [CIRCLE, 2018]) in the 2018 midterm elections is encouraging, there is still much work to be done to improve civic literacy and civic participation among younger citizens.

The Florida Legislature has taken steps to strengthen civics education in the state. In passing the Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act in 2010, for instance, the legislature mandated civic education (via language arts programs) in K-12, including a mandatory civics course for seventh graders that includes an end-of-course assessment.[1] In 2017, the legislature extended the civic literacy requirement to Florida colleges and universities, mandating that, beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year, entering students must demonstrate competency in civic literacy (see Florida Statute 1007.25). One way that Florida higher education institutions are attempting to meet this requirement is through the “American National Government” course described in this article. However, while these new state legislative mandates are encouraging, it should be noted that the data analyzed in this article—from the online American National Government course (2012-2018)—precedes their implementation.

Bolstering this generation’s civic literacy is vital to maintaining and strengthening the foundation of democracy. At the same time the need to improve civics education, civic literacy, and civic health among today’s college students is becoming more urgent, higher education institutions are under rising pressure to increase the number and variety of online course offerings on campuses. Thus, there is a need to increase civic literacy and civic engagement in online, as well as face-to-face, courses.

After teaching American government for many years, I have found that students “lack basic political knowledge, most are not interested in politics, do not feel motivated to participate, and do not know how to participate should they want to do so” (Colby, Beaumont, Erlich, & Corngold, 2007, p. 3). How can educators best develop the civic capacity of their students? How can educators help students develop the skills necessary to be active and engaged citizens in an online format?

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 article discusses the development and implementation of a civics project in an online American government course, and explores the challenges and opportunities of managing civic engagement projects in an online format. During each of the 11 semesters that I have taught American National Government online (from 2012 to 2018), I have administered anonymous pre- and post-test surveys and collected reflection papers and discussion board posts about each of the civics projects in the course. In addition, USFSP has administered anonymous end-of-course evaluations, and the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) has administered anonymous student surveys of this Citizen Scholar course.  The survey data, along with the content of the student reflection papers and discussion board posts, have been analyzed in order to determine the impact of the civics projects on students’ civic learning and engagement in the online course delivery format.

The lessons learned from the data presented and the experiences discussed in this article, while related specifically to American government and politics, would be applicable to courses in any field that seek to include service-learning, community-based research, or civic engagement within an online context.

The Course: POS 2041: American National Government

POS 2041: American National Government is now a state-mandated general education course in the Florida higher education curriculum. Prior to the general education mandate, the course was required of many majors at USFSP in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business, and the College of Education. The course is intended to introduce students to the theories institutions, and processes of American government and politics. In addition to teaching fundamental information about the American political system, the course is designed to help students think critically about American government and politics. Topics include an introduction to American government, the Founding and the U.S. Constitution, Federalism, civil liberties, civil rights, interest groups, political parties, campaigns and elections, Congress, the presidency, bureaucracies, the Supreme Court, and the American judiciary.

I have taught this course for more than 25 years. I enjoy teaching the class because it is a veritable smorgasbord of American politics. I warn my students on the first day that the university’s History and Politics Department offers at least one full-semester course offering for each of the weekly topics, so the students will succeed only in scratching the proverbial surface of each topic. Still, we cover a lot of ground. I treasure working with my students in the face-to-face classroom, and I was skeptical at first about using online pedagogy. How would I ensure that my course was rigorous? How could I know that my students were becoming well-versed in American government and politics? How could my course be as engaging online as it is in person? How could I best incorporate a civic engagement component in the online format?

After attending professional development workshops offered by my university’s distance learning team, I decided to develop American National Government online. The team and I were able to use technology creatively so active learning components in the course could be retained (such as using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for the synchronous simulations and substituting an interactive crossword puzzle for the “U.S. Citizenship Bingo” icebreaker I had created for the first day of class). In addition to the active learning components, I wanted to include a civic engagement component that would get students out from behind their computer screens and into the community, learning about American government first-hand.

Online Course Design and the Quality Matters National Certification

I would never have considered moving my course online were it not for the professional development workshops and trainings organized by the Online Learning and Instructional Technology Services department at my university. As part of the professional development programming, I participated in workshops related to the national Quality Matters (QM) certification.[2] After learning more about the QM rubric, I designed my online course with its rigorous standards in mind.[3] I was delighted when American National Government online received the Quality Matters certification in July 2016.

Quality Matters bills itself as a “non-profit quality assurance organization” that has developed a method for certifying the quality of online courses ( As the USFSP distance learning department explains, “Quality Matters is a nationally recognized program that examines course design to assess the quality and alignment of an online course through a peer-review process using a rubric of evidence-based practices.”[4] This process is designed to recognize online courses that meet the highest standards of quality course design. A team of three certified peer reviewers conduct a formal review of the course based on QM’s rigorous and research-based rubric for online course design.

The rubric includes eight standards: course overview and introduction, learning objectives, instructional materials, learner support, course technology, accessibility and usability, course activities and learner interaction, and assessment and measurement. For each of these standards, there is a rubric for evaluating whether the standard is being met. For example, QM reviewers will evaluate the instructions for getting started in the course, whether the learning objectives describe measurable outcomes, whether there are a variety of instructional materials used in the course, and whether the assessments measure the stated learning objectives or competencies.[5]

At USFSP, the distance learning team works with the individual faculty member on an internal review.[6] Once the internal review process is complete, the faculty member’s application is referred to the external review process. The external QM review team consists of a master reviewer, who chairs the team, a subject-matter expert, and another experienced peer reviewer. Once the review is complete, the applicant receives a detailed report with extensive feedback, along with the scores in each category. If successful, the applicant also receives a certificate.

Designing the American National Government course with the QM rubric in mind, I developed a module for each unit that includes a description of the learning outcomes, the assigned readings, lecture outline, PowerPoint presentation to accompany the lecture, a video of the recorded lecture, and additional resources for further study. After completing the readings and watching the lecture, students take a quiz to complete each module. The textbooks assigned also include study guides for the students to practice before taking the quiz for credit. It is helpful to track students’ progress on a module-by-module basis, rather than wait for the midterm and final exams for assessment (as when I taught the course face-to-face). Tracking the students’ progress module-to-module also made me more comfortable with the online format. Between the quizzes and the discussion board posts, I found that, in many ways, I gave more feedback to and had more interactions with the students in my online class than I did with students in my face-to-face classes.

The Civics Project

In the face-to-face American National Government class, my civics project assignment required campaign internships. I would host a campaign internship job fair (open to all faculty, staff, and students on campus) during our class period, inviting all of the candidates and campaigns in order to assist students in securing campaign internships.[7] However, when deciding how to adapt the civics project to the online classroom format—so that students could complete it wherever and whenever they were taking the course—I realized that I would need to take a different approach. Specifically, I developed the civics project assignment as a series of hands-on activities.

As part of their final course grade, 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 (four pages each). In these papers, students describe what they did for their project, and then they relate what they learned from the experience with the material covered in lectures and in the assigned readings.[8] The assignment also requires that students participate in discussion boards using the USFSP learning management system (Canvas) to post about their civics projects and to respond to others. Students must complete three different assignments (i.e., no two assignments can be of the same type; e.g., only one city council meeting). Only one of those civics projects can be “online” (e.g., watching a Florida Supreme Court oral argument online or watching a Sunday morning political TV show).

A civics project worksheet was developed as the first in a series of civics assignments (see Appendix A). While this civics project is well-suited for a course in which students are geographically dispersed (especially since the course is taught online during the summer, when students are spread across Florida, the United States, and abroad), students often need help identifying civics projects—and figuring out when and how they will complete them. In order to complete the civics project worksheet, students need to identify their state representatives and state senators, their members of Congress and U.S. 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 civics project worksheet, students develop their own customized civic engagement reference guide. Though students still do send me e-mail messages claiming that there is “nothing to do” near where they live, by using their completed worksheet, I can more easily help them identify projects that work with their schedule, wherever they reside.

The civics project worksheet has become a useful companion to the civics projects. The worksheet guides the students on a path to develop their own “database” of officials in their area so that they know how to become more actively engaged. 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 civics project worksheet and 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. The syllabus and the weekly materials include suggestions for civics projects related to each module. 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.

Additionally, there is a cover page for the assignment included in the civics project assignment handout. On this cover page, students indicate what they did for the assignment, what units the assignment relates to, and whether the assignment was in person or online. The same cover sheet is used for civic projects 1, 2, and 3, so that all of the civics projects completed by that student are listed in one place

When introducing students to this civics project assignment, I encourage them to think about issues that interest them and then to think about how they can tie what they are learning in class about how government works to designing a civics project (or series of projects) related to those issues. For example, one student was concerned about the speed of traffic on the street outside his home because his young children played in the front yard. This became the focus of his first civics project. He was shocked that after calling City Hall, someone came out to study the traffic patterns on his street to determine whether there should be a speed bump. (Students don’t tend to anticipate that they can “fight City Hall” and win.) For other students, issues might relate to the environment, gun safety, or reproductive health. Whatever issues students are concerned about or whatever their career goals or major field of study, a civics project plan can be developed to cater to those interests.

As Table 2 illustrates, the two most popular civics projects are those that can be completed online: watching a Florida Supreme Court oral argument and watching a Sunday morning political talk show. Every semester, it seems that students procrastinate on the first civics project. In their anonymous surveys, they have expressed their reluctance about getting out into the community and their feeling that they do not know how to engage. In order to complete their assignment on time, many students end up doing one of those online assignments at the last minute. However, as the semester progresses, they are “forced” to do the face-to-face projects. Students report that once they get out there, they find that it is not as difficult to get involved as they had imagined.

Table 2

Student Civics Projects (2012-2017)

Civic Project

Fall 2012

Fall 2013

Spring 2015

Summer 2015

Summer 2017


Listen to/watch court proceedings online (U.S. Supreme Court, Florida Supreme Court)







Watch a Sunday morning political show (Face the Nation, Meet the Press, This Week)







Attend city council meeting, county commission meeting, school board meeting







Attend neighborhood association/ homeowners association meeting







Register to vote






Visit political party headquarters





Volunteer for a community agency







Attend candidate debate






Attend watch party (debate, election night, national convention)






Write a letter to the editor







Write a letter to elected official







Voted in an election





Visit courthouse







Visit state or federal legislative office







Propose/respond to administrative rule change







Volunteer for a political campaign







Visit supervisor of elections/voter registration







Attend campaign event/political rally






Conduct interview





Access government benefits





Write a petition





Visit advocacy group





In addition to completing the civics project and writing a reflection paper—integrating what they learned in the lectures and reading assignments with what they learned by doing their civics project—students participate in discussion boards associated with each of the assignments. For each civics project, students post about their own project and to also respond to at least one other student’s project. Surprisingly, the discussion generated through the online discussion board posts regarding the civics projects is more robust (and much more extensive) than what was achieved in my face-to-face classes. It was not until I actually started grading the discussion board posts that I realized the magnitude of the student engagement.[9] While I have long prided myself on delivering engaging lectures with active student participation, there is simply not enough class time available for each student to participate and for each student to respond to every other student. The format of the online discussion board made me appreciate the ways in which online courses can be even more vigorous and engaging than traditional face-to-face delivery formats.



The participants in this study were the students enrolled in American National Government online at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) during the following 11 semesters from 2012 through 2018: summer 2012, fall 2012, summer 2013, fall 2013, fall 2014, spring 2015, summer 2015, summer 2016, summer 2017, fall 2017, summer 2018. From 2003 through 2012, I taught this class face-to-face at USFSP. (Previously I taught American government face-to-face at Rutgers University.)

USFSP is a separately accredited campus of the University of South Florida system, enrolling approximately 5,000 students (approximately 700 of whom are residential). The demographics of the student population have changed during the 16 years I have taught at the university—from a 100% commuter campus with primarily nontraditional students to a campus with residence halls and first-time-in-college students of traditional college age. The first residence hall opened in 2006, the second opened in 2012, and a third is now under construction. The gradual increase in the number of first-time-in-college, traditional-age, residential students was taking place during the study period.

Materials and Procedure

During each of the 11 semesters, three different types of surveys were administered to obtain feedback about the course in general and about the civics project in particular: the pre- and post-civics project surveys, the Center for Civic Engagement Citizen Scholar student surveys, and the university end-of-course student evaluations.

Pre- and post-civics project surveys. During the semester, I administer pre- and post-civics project surveys to the students. These are administered within Canvas (the university’s learning management system) as a quiz. Students are asked how much American government or civics coursework they have completed prior to taking the class, how much they like studying American government or civics, and how much they believe that having elections makes the government pay attention to what people think before it decides what to do. Another series of questions asks students whether they have participated in activities similar to the civics projects before taking the course (e.g., whether the student ever contacted an elected official or ever attended a city council meeting). The survey also asks the students whether they are registered to vote and how often they have voted in the past. There questions pertain to the student’s level of community engagement, such as whether the student has ever volunteered for a community service organization or for a political campaign. The survey also asks whether the students (prior to taking the class) have followed current events and activities related to local government. There are also open-ended questions, such as “What does it mean to be a ‘citizen’?”; “What are your expectations going in to the civics project assignment?”; “What do you hope to learn from your civic engagement experience?”

Center for Civic Engagement, Citizen Scholar course student surveys. At the end of the semester, the CCE sends a representative to administer a survey of students enrolled in courses coded as “Citizen Scholar.” Citizen Scholar courses are those in which students get out of the classroom and into the community, working on projects with community partners that are tied to the learning outcomes in the course. These courses include those with service-learning, civic engagement, and experiential learning opportunities for students. For online Citizen Scholar courses, the CCE uses a survey created in Google Forms and asks the instructors of Citizen Scholar courses to share the survey link with their students. A link to the survey is posted for students in Canvas.

In the Citizen Scholar course survey, students are asked how many hours they worked on the service-learning project (including direct service hours and reflection hours). The survey includes binary questions that address the following issues: whether the service activities enhanced understanding of the course content, whether the student was able to make a meaningful contribution to the community through the service-learning experience, whether the student believes that he or she could have learned more from the course if more time had been spent in the classroom rather than in the community, whether the student feels more comfortable participating in the community after taking the course, whether the student developed skills in the course that can be used in a future career, whether the student plans to continue serving with the community program after completing the course, and whether the student would recommend a course with this civic engagement component to future students. There are also a number of learning outcomes that are assessed using a 5-point scale (1 = “no change”; 5 = “increased significantly”): communication skills, critical thinking, understanding community needs, ability to apply concepts of one’s academic discipline to the local community, understanding and appreciating diversity, ability to lead a group effectively, and the likelihood of participating with community organizations/issues.

University end-of-course student evaluations. At the end of the semester, the university administers end-of-course student evaluations of their instructors. These are administered online (i.e., students receive a link via their university email) using the eXplorance Blue assessment system, and faculty can access the results in Faculty Academic Information Reporting (FAIR), the annual review tracking system for faculty. Faculty can access their overall instructor rating as well as view all student comments to the open-ended questions about the course and the instructor.


Pre- and Post-Civics Project Surveys

Eight semesters of survey responses were compiled (fall 2012, summer 2013, fall 2013, fall 2014, spring 2015, summer 2015, summer 2016, and summer 2018): 225 students responded to the pre-civics project survey and 214 responded to the post-civics project survey. Eighty-five percent of the students who responded had taken at least one semester of American government or civics courses prior to taking the American National Governmentcourse. An overwhelming majority of students had not participated in civics projects before taking the class: 16% (36 students) had contacted a federal or state legislator about an issue; 10% (22 students) had attended a city council meeting; 8% (19 students) had attended a school board meeting, 3% (six students) had attended a county commission meeting, 5% (12 students) had written a letter to the editor; 20% (45 students) had watched a Sunday morning political talk show; 16% (35 students) had volunteered for a political campaign; and 26% (59 students) had volunteered for a community service organization in their neighborhood.[10] After completing the course and the required three civics projects, 100% of the students had become civically engaged.

After participating in the civics project assignment, completing three projects from the earlier examples, students reported feeling better informed about how American government works. Sixty-two percent (133 students) reported that they paid more attention to activities related to local government in their town since taking the course, and 50% (100 students) reported that they paid more attention to current events since taking the course (see Figure 1)








Figure 1. Student interest in current events and local government post-civics projects.

In their responses to the open-ended questions, students admitted that they had not initially looked forward to the civics assignments; however, in the post-civics project surveys, students reported that they found the projects to be a valuable addition to the curriculum. Typical responses include the following: “I learned to go outside my comfort zone, and to dive deeper into the subject to make sure I really understood what I was learning” and “I always find it difficult to get involved even though I always want to. These projects forced me and helped me see I could find the time.” Particularly when I taught the course in non-presidential election years, students expressed an interest in local government and in local elections: “I learned that politics is much more than who is running for president and that government is more than just what is happening in DC.” Moreover, students reported that they left the course feeling like they could make a difference after having participated in the civics project: “I learned that we could all be a part of our community and have a say in what government does,” “I actually learned how easy it was to get involved,” and “I learned MY part in government and how crucial it is that I participate.”

Regardless of the type of civics project selected from the menu of options (or designed by the student), students reported that getting out into the community and getting involved in the process helped them to understand the course content and to feel more connected with their community. Table 3 includes sample student reflections about lessons learned though the various types of civics projects.

Table 3

Student Reflections

Civics Project

Sample Student Feedback

Attend city council meeting

“This amount of access and openness to discussion gives me the sense that maybe the average citizen like me really can have some influence and have their voice heard. For that reason alone it was worth going to the meeting.”


“I was able to view ‘government in action’ in a way I had never done before.”

Attend homeowners association meeting

“At the beginning of this class I know I filled out the Pre-Civic Project Survey with a pretty ‘what could I do as one person to make a difference attitude’ in my answers. But listening to the lectures . . . I can see how people can make a difference. It has changed my mind about a lot of things.”

Volunteer for political group

“After working with the College Republicans, I feel that I would like to work a campaign effort again in four years. I had a very nice time meeting members of the community, interested voters, and other supporters of the Romney-Ryan ticket.”


“I realized that I helped citizens begin the process of exercising their right to vote. By participating in these activities, I also gained a sense of respect for the people who work hard to get others registered to vote. I understand more about how our government is run.”

Attend forum/town hall meeting

“The different panelists discussed the amendments. When they mentioned the different outcomes for each amendment, I realized how important is to fully understand what we vote on. I also realized how important and great it is that I have the ability to vote and have a voice.”

Center for Civic Engagement, Citizen Scholar Course Student Surveys

Four semesters of data were compiled (spring 2015, summer 2015, summer 2016, and summer 2017), comprising 68 student survey responses. Students spent an average of 6.8 hours of direct service (65 students reported 441 hours) and 4.3 hours of reflection (65 students reported 277 hours)—an average of 11 hours spent on the civics project assignments during the course of the semester. Overwhelmingly, students agreed that the civics projects enhanced their understanding of course content (63 out of 64, or 98.4%). Only 17% of the students (9 out of 52) believed that they would have learned more from this course if more time had been spent in the classroom instead of doing service in the community. Moreover, students reported that they felt more comfortable participating in the community (58 out of 60, or 96.7%) and that they believed they could make a meaningful contribution by doing so (53 out of 58, or 91%). More than 80% of the students (49 out of 61) reported that they would continue their work on the civic engagement projects after completing the course. Additionally, 92% of the students (61 out of 66) enrolled in the course indicated that they would recommend the civic engagement component to future students. (See Table 4.)

Table 4

Center for Civic Engagement Student Surveys of Citizen Scholar Courses (2015-2017), Binary Question Responses

Survey Question

Spring 2015

Yes Responses

Summer 2015

Yes Responses

Summer 2016



Summer 2017

Yes Responses


Yes Responses

Did your service activities enhance your understanding of course content?

14/14 100%

15/15 100%

13/14 92.9%

21/21 100%

63/64 98.4%

I feel that I was able to make a meaningful contribution to the community through this service-learning experience.

11/12 91.7%

10/12 83.3%

13/15 86.7%

19/19 100%

53/58 91.4%

I feel I would have learned more from this class if more time was spent in the classroom instead of doing service in the community.

1/10 10%

4/14 28.6%

4/12 33.3%

0/16 0%

9/52 17.3%

I feel more comfortable participating in the community after this class.

12/12 100%

15/15 100%

13/14 92.9%

18/19 94.7%

58/60 96.7%

Do you plan to continue serving with this community program after completing this service learning course?

9/11 81.8%

9/14 64.3%

14/16 87.5%

17/20 85%

49/61 80.3%

Would you recommend a course with this civic engagement component to future students?

12/14 85.7%

14/15 93.3%

15/16 93.8%

20/21 95.2%

61/66 92.4%


Students were also asked to rate the impact of the civic engagement component of their Citizen Scholar course using a 5-point scale, with 1 indicating “no change” and 5 indicating “increased significantly.” The learning outcome which saw the most significant change was “Likelihood of Future Participation/Engagement with Community Issues and Organizations.” Thirty-two percent of students rated this outcome with a 5 (“increased significantly”). Other learning outcomes that saw a significant change were “Understanding Community Needs” and “Understanding of/Appreciation for Diversity” (see Table 5). Not surprisingly, the learning outcome that saw the least amount of change was “Ability to Lead a Group” since there were no group projects that were part of the civics assignment. (The highest percentage of students—33%—reporting 1 (“no change”) was in response to this question about working in groups.)

Table 5

Center for Civic Engagement Student Surveys of Citizen Scholar Courses (2015-2017), Impact of Civic Engagement on Learning Outcomes, 5-Point Scale

Learning Outcome


(No Change)

Number of Students (%)





(Increased Significantly)

Number of Students (%)

Understanding Community Needs

5 (8%)

5 (8%)

11 (17%)

27 (41%)

18 (27%)

Apply Concepts to Local Community

5 (8%)

7 (11%)

21 (32%)

17 (26%)

16 (24%)

Appreciation of Diversity

6 (9%)

7 (11%)

22 (33%)

15 (23%)

16 (24%)

Ability to Lead a Group

22 (33%)

13 (20%)

14 (21%)

12 (18%)

5 (8%)

Likelihood of Future Engagement with Community Issue/Organization

5 (8%)

8 (12%)

16 (24%)

16 (24%)

21 (32%)


University End-of-Course Student Evaluations

As a result of the university moving from administering paper copies of end-of-course student evaluations in class to an online system whereby students access the evaluations at home, student response rates have decreased significantly. (I do not have an exact figure, but this development is widely discussed in faculty meetings and is an issue that I tried to address while serving as chair of the College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Council.) Table 6 illustrates the rates of response to the end-of-course student evaluations in American National Government from 2014 through 2018. The response rates were higher than anticipated, given the widespread concern about low responses to student course evaluations on my campus since the evaluation system moved online. Another pleasant surprise represented in Table 6 was the overall rating of the instructor. I had heard that, generally, student evaluations of instructors for online courses tend to be lower than for face-to-face courses. The overall instructor rating, between 4 and 5, was still above average. Given the student responses to the open-ended questions about the course and the instructor, it seems that the civics project contributed to overall student satisfaction with the course.

Table 6

Rates of Student Response to the University End-of-Course Evaluations (2014-2018)


Overall Student Responses

(Student Survey Responses/Total Number of Students)

Overall Instructor Rating (5-point scale)

Open-Ended Comments: Instructor (Comments that Mention Civics Project/Total Number of Comments)

Open-Ended Comments: Course (Comments that Mention Civics Project/Total Number of Comments)

Summer 2018

19/33 (56%)


1/8 (13%)

2/5 (40%)

Summer 2017

17/44 (39%)


3/12 (25%)

3/9 (33%)

Summer 2015

14/21 (67%)


2/10 (20%)

4/6 (67%)

Fall 2014

23/43 (68%)


2/8 (25%)

3/7 (43%)

Table 6 also illustrates the number and percentage of students who referenced the open-ended questions about the course and about the instructor in the evaluations. Between 13% and 24% of students referenced the civics project when commenting on the instructor, and between 33% and 67% of students referenced the civics project when commenting on the course. The student comments on the civics project were positive, praising the value of the civic engagement opportunity. There were no complaints about the difficulty of completing the projects. The civics project worksheet helps students think through what they can do for their projects, and it helps me assist those who may be struggling. Even students who were at first reluctant to complete this assignment reported that, once they were out in the community, they were pleasantly surprised by their experiences. Tables 7 and 8 list sample comments from the evaluations.

Table 7

Student Responses to Open-Ended Questions on University End-of-Course Evaluations (2014-2018), Instructor Comment


Sample Student Feedback

Summer 2018

“Professor McLauchlan really went above and beyond in providing us resources in the modules.…The civics projects were really unique assignments and I found them to be really helpful in applying what we learned in class in my local community. There was enough time between projects to complete them even if you work outside of class and have other classes going on. It was a very manageable class, but we were still able to cover a lot of information and gain real world experience.”

Summer 2018

“This is one of the more active and ‘go out and do it’ courses I’ve had, which is excellent.”

Summer 2017

“Dr. Scourfield McLauchlan does an amazing job at getting you involved despite this being a summer class. She includes civics projects which demonstrate class concepts in the real world, and makes the material seem more relevant and interesting. She shows enthusiasm for the subject and is incredibly experienced in her field which really made me respect her work even more.”

Fall 2014

“Professor McLauchlan had a lot of knowledge when it comes to this course. She is very informative and unlike previous government classes I was able to learn a lot more than anticipated. For being an online class, this was very active class and she allows us to engage within the community by doing civic project assignments. I would recommend any student to take this course with her next semester.”

Fall 2014

“Enjoyed this class; the civics projects were fun.”

Table 8

Student Responses to Open-Ended Questions on University End-of-Course Evaluations (2014-2018), Course Comment


Sample Student Feedback

Summer 2018

“Excellent course! Definitely keep the civics project for future courses.”

Summer 2017

“Very interesting course, enjoyed writing papers for the Civics Project the most.”

Summer 2017

“The civics projects proved to be a very fun way of applying the material.”

Summer 2017

“This was one of the best classes I ever took. It was extremely helpful and gave me the confidence to meet with Congressmen.”

Summer 2015

“Civics assignments were a valuable component.”

Summer 2015

“Was not an ordinary online course. I was apprehensive about the civics project but they helped me learn more about the community and the class.”

Summer 2015

“This course helped me engage my community and it has helped me learn more about the American Government.”

Summer 2015

“Class was great, civics project made the online class very engaging.”

Fall 2014

“Excellent class that gets students out of the classroom and into the community. The amount of work is just right and the civic engagement assignments are great ways to get involved locally and explore interests you might not know you had!”

Fall 2014

“This was a great course overall. I learned a lot about the American Government and learned a lot from the Civics Projects. The course is very organized and planned out, which I really liked.”


Implementation of the Civics Project in the Online Setting: Observations

Throughout this article, I have discussed the lessons learned from adapting the civics project to the online format; however, I would like to share more about the unintended consequences of incorporating the civics project in the online classroom. One side benefit of the civics projects was that they often gave me the opportunity to meet students in my online class in person (e.g., at campus events like mayoral/gubernatorial/presidential debate watch parties or at candidate forums that I was moderating). I would send a message to students through Canvas with ideas for events and activities that would “count” as civics projects (and where I would be in attendance). Students who were interested in meeting me in person had ample opportunities, and I welcomed those opportunities.

Another unanticipated outcome of the civics projects was the “ripple effect.” Students tended to bring a spouse, friend, or parent with them to their civics projects. In the reflection papers and discussion board posts, students revealed that those additional participants not enrolled in the class also became engaged as a result of the civics assignments. For example, one student who brought a parent to a homeowner’s association meeting for the first time reported that her mother ultimately became an officer of the organization. Perhaps since the students were not sitting next to each other in a physical classroom, they relied instead on friends and family to accompany them on civics projects. Of course, my primary intended “audience” is the students enrolled in my classes, but it was heartening to learn that so many others—friends, family, and roommates—had become civically engaged as well.

An additional unintended benefit was the impact that designing the online course had on my face-to-face courses. As it turned out, the lessons learned during the professional development trainings and the online course development process were helpful to me in improving my face-to-face courses. Indeed, I made changes to my course syllabi and other course materials using the standards, rubrics, pedagogies for the online course. For example, I revised several of the student learning outcomes included in my “U.S. Constitutional Law” and my “Introduction to Law and Politics” course syllabi after participating in a workshop devoted to Bloom’s taxonomy (a workshop I attended only because it was a part of the online course development training).[11]

Implementation of the Civics Project in the Online Setting: Recommendations

The lessons learned from incorporating the civics project into my online American National Government course over the last several years could be applied to courses in any discipline. For example, students will need very specific guidance. This is always the case with a service-learning assignment, but it is especially important when students are not physically present to ask questions before or after class—and when they are geographically dispersed (and working on projects in areas where the instructor may not have as many connections). It is also necessary to develop tools for managing and tracking students completing the assignments (partly because students are likely to be geographically dispersed and partly due to the larger enrollments in online courses). Also, ultimately, one must be more flexible due to the constraints and challenges inherent in managing an experiential learning project like this in an online course.

Conclusions: Online Learning and Political Engagement

While I was initially skeptical of the online format, I found that, after developing and evaluating the course, students left with a better understanding of American government and, as a result of the hands-on civics projects, with greater confidence that they could make a difference in the community. During the course of the semester, my students reported that they became better informed about political issues and that this increased knowledge (and the self-confidence that followed) made them feel more comfortable voting. Students also reported that they were encouraged “to get off the sidelines and to get involved.”

Weber State University developed a rubric for assessing civic engagement within the dimensions of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic values, and civic motivation (Murray, 2013). Table 9 demonstrates how the civics project aligns with these four dimensions and helps students to become more effective citizens.

Table 9

Weber State University Civic Engagement Rubric Applied to the American National Government Civics Project

Rubric Dimension



Civic Knowledge

“involves the process of applying discipline specific knowledge to civic engagement”

  • Lectures and reading material increase students’ knowledge of American government and politics; assessed in quizzes and exams
  • Hands-on learning in civics projects helps students apply knowledge in their daily lives

Civic Skills

“involves the demonstration of engaging in a process to solve and increase the awareness of some civic problem”

  • Hands-on projects develop skills as students volunteer for campaigns and community organizations

Civic Values

“involves having a disposition to the world that understands the need for civic engagement”

  • Students report greater appreciation for diversity

Civic Motivation

“involves continued commitment to engaged citizenship”

  • Students report motivation to continue to be engaged citizens

The civics project, in conjunction with the content delivered in the American National Government course, increases students’ civic knowledge. The civics projects, beginning with the civics project worksheet, for which students create their own civic engagement reference guide, help the students to develop the skills they need to become effective citizens. The survey data demonstrated that the students leave the course with a greater sense of political efficacy, greater understanding of community needs, and a greater appreciation for diversity. An overwhelming number of students (more than 80%) indicated that they planned to stay involved after the semester was over—strong evidence of civic motivation.

The findings in this study are particularly exciting given the demographics of the course. My classes are filled with entry-level students, primarily non-political science majors who often take the course only because it is required, not because they have an interest in learning more about American government and certainly not because they are eager to complete a series of civics projects. Improving students’ civic literacy in a required general education course and developing a sense of political efficacy among freshmen, may be the best way to improve civic health. As the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) found, “only one third of college students strongly agreed that their college education resulted in increased civic capacity” (p. 6). Incorporating assignments such as this civics project into required general education courses should improve this disappointing statistic.

One avenue for future research would be to conduct a longitudinal study analyzing the impact of the civics project over time. My students professed that they would continue to be curious, to follow current events, to reach out and do something if they saw an issue that should be addressed. I hope that the students are more likely to stay informed, more likely to vote, and more likely to volunteer. Certainly, after completing the civics projects, the students will have the skills needed and the basic knowledge of how government works, and will know why and how to stay involved in the political process.


American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Political Engagement Project (PEP). Retreived from

Annenberg Public Policy Center. (2016). Americans’ knowledge of the branches of government is declining. Retrieved from

Barber, B. (1984). Strong democracy: Participatory politics for a new age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. (2018). Young people dramatically increase their turnout to 31%, shape midterm elections. Retrieved from

Clawson, R., Deen R., & Oxley, Z. (2002). Online discussions across three universities: Student participation and pedagogy. PSOnline, 35(4), 713-718.

Colby, A., Beaumont, E., Erlich, T., & Corngold, J. (2007). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Guthrie, K., & McCracken, H. (2014). Reflection: The importance of making meaning in e-service-learning courses. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 26(3), 238-252.

Hoover, K., Casile, M., & Hanke. R. (2008). How discussion boards drive course concept mastery in service e-learning. In A. Dailey-Hebert, S. Donnelli, & L. DiPadova (Eds.), Service-eLearning: Educating for citizenship (pp. 58-73). Charlotte, NC: IAP.

Knuckey, J., & Collie, T. (2011). 2011 Florida civic health index: The next generation. Retrieved from

McLauchlan, J. (2013). Learning citizenship by doing: Integrating campaign internships into political science coursework. In A. McCartney, E. Bennion, & D. Simpson (Eds.), Teaching civic engagement: From student to active citizen (pp. 279-296). Washington, DC: American Political Science Association. Retrieved from

Murray, L. (2013). Effectively using Facebook to foster civic engagement. Paper presented at the 2013 American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference.

National Public Radio. (2018, June 16). Parkland students launch tour to register young voters and get them out in November. Weekend Edition Saturday. Retrieved from

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. (2012) A crucible moment: College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Purcell, J. (2017). Community-engaged pedagogy in the virtual classroom: Integrating eservice-learning into online leadership education. Journal of Leadership Studies, 11(1), 65-70.

Shaw, M. (2017, May 25). Civic illiteracy in America. Harvard Political Review. Retrieved from

Waldner, L., McGorry, S., & Widener, M. (2012). E-service-learning: The evolution of service-learning to engage a growing online student population. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(2), 123-150.

Additional Resources

Becnel, K., & Moeller, R. (2017). Community-embedded learning experiences: Putting the pedagogy of service-learning to work in online courses. Open Learning, 32(1), 56-65.

Bennion, E., & Laughlin, X. (2018). Best practices in civic education: Lessons from the Journal of Political Science Education. Journal of Political Science Education, 14(3), 287-330.

Fleck, B., Hussey, H., & Rutledge-Ellison, L. (2017). Linking class and community: an investigation of service learning. Teaching of Psychology, 44(3), 1-8.

Forestiere, C. (2015). Promoting civic agency through civic-engagement activities: A guide for instructors new to civic-engagement pedagogy. Journal of Political Science Education, 11, 455-471.

Galston, W. (2007). Civic knowledge, civic education, and civic engagement: a summary of recent research. International Journal of Public Administration, 30, 623-642.

Glazier, R. (2016). Building rapport to improve retention and success in online classes. Journal of Political Science Education, 12(4), 437-456.

Graham, B., & Hand, C. (2017). America, the owner’s manual: You can fight city hall—and win (new edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.

Guthrie, K., & McCracken, H. (2010). Teaching and learning social justice through online service-learning courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(3), 78-94.

Hamann, K., Pollock, P., Smith, G., & Wilson, B. (2016). Online teaching and assessment. PS: Political Science and Politics, 49(1), 107-110.

Jackman, J. (2012). When virtuality and reality meet: Online courses, experiential learning, and political engagement. Paper presented at the 2012 American Political Science Association Conference on Teaching and Learning.

Schweiger, D. (2015, September). Using a balance scorecard approach to evaluate the value of service learning projects in online courses. Information Systems Education Journal, 15(5), 4-11.

Strait, J. (2008). Constructing experiential learning for online courses: Two models of service e-learning. In A. Dailey-Hebert, S. Donnelli, & L. DiPadova (Eds.), Service-eLearning: Educating for citizenship (pp. 45-58). Charlotte, NC: IAP.

Appendix A: Civics Project Worksheet

Obverse Side of the Great Seal

American National Government

POS 2041

Professor Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan


Name: _________________________________________________________________

U-Number: _____________________________________________________________

I live in (town): _____________________________ (county): __________________________

(1) neighborhood/condo/homeowner’s association (if applicable): contact information?

And when does the neighborhood/condo/homeowner’s association hold regular meetings?

(2) I am registered to vote (Yes/No)

My Supervisor of Elections website is:

(3) My town/municipal government website:

The leadership of my town is (include Mayor, City Council names), if applicable:


City Council/City Commission:

Using the local government website, when/where does your town hold meetings (City Council/City Commission)? What is the process for public comment? What is the contact information for your municipal officials?

When are my municipal officials next up for election?

(4) My County Commission website:

Members of the County Commission:

Using the County Commission website, when/where does your County Commission hold meetings? What is the process for public comment?

In what Commission district do I reside? When are my Commissioners next up for election?

(5) My county School Board website:

Members of my School Board:

Using the School Board website, when/where does your School Board meet? What is the process for public comment?

In what School Board District do I reside? When do I next vote on School Board positions?

(6) My State Representative is

My State Representative’s website is

My State Representative’s contact information is (include Tallahassee and District Office)

My State Representative is holding a town meeting or office hours (day/time/location):

(7) My State Senator is

My State Senator’s website is

My State Senator’s contact information is (include Tallahassee and District Office)

My State Senator is holding town meetings or office hours (date/time/location):

When is my State Senator up for re-election?

(8) My Member of Congress is

My Member of Congress’ website

My Member of Congress’ contact information (include Washington, DC and District Office)

My Member of Congress is holding town meetings or office hours (Date/time/location):

(9) My U.S. Senators are

(1) Senator ________________________________ website is

And his/her contact information is (Washington, DC and nearest office)

(2) Senator _________________________________ website is

And his/her contact information is (Washington, DC and nearest office)

When are my US Senators up for re-election?

(10) The Governor is

The Governor’s website is

The Governor’s Contact information is

The Lieutenant Governor is

The Lieutenant Governor’s website is

The Lieutenant Governor’s contact information is

(11) For courtroom observations, in what Florida Judicial Circuit do you reside

My Judicial Circuit website is

When/where can I watch trial court proceedings?

In what Florida Judicial District Court of Appeal do you reside

My Judicial District Court of Appeal website is

When/where can I watch appellate court proceedings?

The Florida Supreme Court website is

This is how I can watch Florida Supreme Court Oral Arguments online:

The U.S. Supreme Court website is:

This is how I can listen to US Supreme Court Oral Arguments online:

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida website:

When/where can I watch federal civil and federal criminal trials in Tampa?

(12) The contact information (office hours, address, phone, website) for the local Democratic Party is

Local Democratic Party (Democratic Executive Committee, DEC) Meetings are held (when/where):

Contact information for the Young Democrats and/or other Democratic Clubs in my county:

The contact information (office hours, address, phone, website) for the local Republican Party is

Local Republican Party (Republican Executive Committee, REC) Meetings are held (when/where)

Contact information for the Young Republicans and/or other Republican clubs in my county:

(13) Upcoming elections for my town/county/district/state:

(14) Candidates and campaign websites (for candidates you may be interested in meeting, attending a campaign event, volunteering for the campaign):

(In 2018 these may include candidates for US Senate, Governor, Members of Congress, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senators, Florida Attorney General, Florida Chief Financial Officer, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, judicial races, County Commission, School Board)

(Note: You can learn more about how to reach the candidates when you visit the Democratic and Republican Party HQs. Also, your Supervisor of Elections website will have the listing of the candidates who will be on your ballot.)

(15) Is there a community agency for which you are interested in volunteering? For more about local community agencies, attend the USFSP Center for Civic Engagement’s Civic Engagement Fair and/or consult the USFSP CCE’s Community Partner and Service Learning Placement Directory.

(16) Issues that are of interest to me. Problems that I would like for my elected officials to address include the following:

(17) Some Ideas for what I would like to do for my Civics Projects. (And days/times that I am available to participate in a Civics Project activity – my plans for how to fit this assignment in my schedule):


C:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\#235 jsm_McLachlan.pngDr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Founding Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.




As a Fellow of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, I conducted teacher trainings for new teachers of civics when the Act was first implemented (see

See this QM at USFSP video:

For more information about the QM rubric, see

For more about resources, see

For more about the USFSP OLITS professional development and support through the development of online courses and QM, see this video

See McLauchlan (2013)

For more about “the importance of critical reflection to facilitate the construction of knowledge resulting from participation in e-service-learning courses,” see Guthrie and McCracken (2014, p. 238).

For more about the pedagogical benefits of online discussion groups, see Clawson, Deen, and Oxley (2002) and Hoover, Casile, and Hanke (2008).

Community service is a requirement of Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship program. See