A Report of the National Civic Literacy Board: The Coming Crisis in Citizenship
The Survey

Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. Schools where students took or were required to take more courses related to America’s history and institutions outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed. The absence of required courses in American history, political science, philosophy, and economics suggests a negative impact on students’ civic literacy. Furthermore, civic learning improves significantly at colleges that value excellent teaching in the classroom and maintain high homework standards. Additionally, civic learning is significantly greater at schools with comparatively traditional core curricula.

Learning and Teaching

Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. Students at colleges and universities that make courses related to America’s history, ideals, and the Constitution more available, attractive, and even required showed significant gains in civic learning. For example, students completing an additional history or political science course added more to their total learning in this area. Completing an additional economics or philosophy course also raised civic learning, although the size of these effects was not as large. Furthermore, the general relationship between relevant courses taken and learning proved statistically significant even after controlling for numerous other variables. The table below presents additional detail on the number of courses completed by seniors at the three highest-and lowest-ranked schools in civic learning.

Relationship between Civic Learning and Courses Completed by Seniors in History, Political Science, and Economics
SchoolIncreased LearningAverage Number of Courses Completed
Three Highest-Ranked Schools in Civic Learning
Rhodes College11.6% 6.72
Colorado State University10.9% 4.97
Calvin College 9.5% 4.41
Three Lowest-Ranked Schools in Civic Learning
Cornell University -3.3% 3.82
University of California, Berkeley -5.6% 3.95
Johns Hopkins University -7.3% 3.90
Table Five

Rhodes College, which ranked first in increasing knowledge of America’s heritage and institutions, ranked fifth in terms of the average total number of courses taken by students in history, political science, and economics. Most other colleges that ranked above average in civic learning, such as Colorado State University and Grove City College, also ranked in the upper half in terms of the average total number of courses taken in history, political science, and economics.

This relationship between relevant courses completed and learning explains in part why some schools score higher than others. For example:

  • Seniors at the two top-ranked colleges, Rhodes and Colorado State, took an average of 4.2 history and political science courses, while seniors at the two lowest-ranked colleges, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, took an average of 2.9 history and political science courses.
  • Third-ranked Calvin College achieved its high ranking partly because its students took an average of 1.5 philosophy courses compared to 0.8 philosophy courses taken by seniors at the lower-ranked colleges of Yale, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins.
  • Even when controlling for numerous variables that influence learning, seniors at schools with reasonably strong core curricula—for example, Rhodes, Calvin, and Wheaton—had double the gain in civic learning compared with those seniors at schools without a coherent core curriculum—for example, Brown, Cornell, and Stanford.

Course Quality

The results of this study confirm an obvious, but sadly ignored, correlation: Taking courses that cover America’s history and institutions increases civic learning. This is especially the case when those courses are well taught and coherently integrated with the rest of the school’s curriculum. Thus, each relevant course as typically taught at the 50 colleges examined in this study adds a modest 1 percent to student learning. However, taking an additional course at our top-ranked schools adds more than taking an additional course at the lower-ranked schools. This very likely demonstrates the impact of better course content and teaching at schools such as Rhodes, Calvin, and Grove City College.

Learning per course increased significantly when faculty maintained higher homework standards among their students. For example, seniors at Grove City College, which ranked fourth in civic learning, spent an average of 20 hours per week on homework, compared to 14 hours at Georgetown (which ranked 43rd in civic learning), and 15 hours at Berkeley (49th). When colleges expect their students to spend substantial time studying, learning improves significantly.

Furthermore, our data show that students learn more when they begin college with peers who have similar levels of knowledge. Similarity in students’ beginning civic knowledge allows professors to better match their instruction with students’ academic preparation. Otherwise, instruction is too easy and redundant for those more advanced students, who begin the course with civic knowledge well advanced from their college’s median student knowledge, while it is too hard for students beginning the course with knowledge well below the median. Colorado State, Calvin, and Grove City College secured part of their advantage over Berkeley and Johns Hopkins by enrolling students with similar civic knowledge.

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