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20th Mar 2023 9:00am Blogs

Making the most of active citizenship learning

ACT researcher, Yaqub Hilal, shares key findings from an academic literature review he conducted on active citizenship

Active citizenship learning

Active civic engagement has long been recognised as one of the key goals of citizenship education. An effective citizenship education, on this view, is one that provides students with the knowledge, skills and confidence for a lifetime of civic engagement. In what follows, I suggest how evidence-based research can help citizenship educators best achieve this goal.

Zaff et al. describe an “active and engaged citizen as someone who” demonstrates “a sense of civic duty, feeling of social connection to their community, confidence in their abilities to effect change,” and “who engages in civic behaviors” (Zeff et al., 2010: 737). These characteristics are positively correlated with active citizenship learning. Studies show that students who engage in active citizenship learning are more likely to see themselves as civic actors and to engage in “community and political processes” even after they have left school (Blevins et al., 2021: 147).

Active citizenship engagement, in other words, is not something that individuals are born with but a skill that is acquired. It is something that is learned and cultivated, and as numerous studies have demonstrated the best way to become an active citizen is by actively doing citizenship. Ballard et al. write: just “as athletes improve through practice, and performers through rehearsal, engaged citizens must hone their skills through active engagement in civic processes” (Ballard et al. 2016: 378).

The positive impact of active citizenship learning on civic outcomes, however, is only part of this pedagogical story. Evidence from studies also suggests that certain forms of active learning are more effective than others. According to such research, the best forms of active citizenship display the following features:

  1. They are student-centered
  2. They encourage students to engage in civic actions that have clear and achievable goals
  3. They present students with regular opportunities for civic engagement.

Allowing students to drive the learning process

The most successful forms of active citizenship provision, according to Blevins et al., incorporate the following “six-steps” in each ‘action cycle’ or classroom project (Blevins et al., 2021; 147):

  1. Deliberation – Pupils discuss the issues that impact them, their schools, their families and/or communities
  2. Selection – Pupils select an issue of shared importance
  3. Research – Pupils critically analyse the issue selected and previous or existing efforts to bring about change
  4. Planning – Pupils plan what action to take based on the research they conducted
  5. Action – Pupils engage in the action planned (e.g. petitions, fundraising, volunteering)
  6. Reflection – Pupils reflect on the project as a whole and what they achieved in the process.

The benefit of adopting this six-step cycle is twofold: 1) it engages students in each step of the cycle and ensures that they acquire a full range of civic skills and abilities 2) It empowers students as “stakeholders in their community and sources of knowledge,” encourages them to drive the action process and means that they are invested in the final product (Blevins et al., 2021: 149).

Projects that include only part of this action cycle, for example, researching and planning but not action, or action without full involvement in research and planning, are likely to see a reduction in civic outcomes and the level of student interest. Teachers, however, should not be put off by this finding. Where there are practical restrictions on time or teacher expertise and a full six-step project cannot be implemented, a reduced or partial project can still have a positive impact on student learning.

Encouraging students to engage in civic actions that have clear and achievable goals

Ballard et al. (2016) investigated the effect of Generation Citizen on middle and high-school students in the US. The study included 617 students and the project lasted one semester, with two sessions per week facilitated by college students. The authors describe the project as an ‘action civics process’ in which students choose a local issue to tackle collectively, learn strategies and skills for taking action, and develop and implement an action plan accordingly. The project bears some similarity to the active citizenship projects undertaken as part of the GCSE Citizenship Studies in England.

The authors of the study found that the projects with the most positive impact were those that generated a more immediate motivation for students and which focused on issues that could be plausibly addressed. They concluded that it was better to undertake projects where students had easy access to decision-makers (which also had a positive impact on knowledge and efficacy) rather than where access would be difficult. “Students who chose projects that required contact with hard-to-reach people” were more likely to feel frustrated and disempowered (Ballard et al. 2016).

This does not exclude other projects from being effective but, when dealing with broader social issues, students were easily put off by a lack of access to decision makers, so teachers might need to provide finely balanced advice and scaffolding to ensure all students work on engaging and achievable projects. The balance comes from providing guidance whilst allowing free choice.

Presenting students with regular opportunities for civic engagement

Blevins et al. (2021), investigated the effect of the out-of-school summer civics programme, iEngage, on middle-grade students in the US. iEngage was created to develop participants’ civic competency and engagement through “inquiry-based civics projects.” The programme was offered for six consecutive years and included data from 456 individuals.

The authors of the study reported that returning participants benefited from the programme as much as new participants. Students who came back to their civics summer camps for multiple years continued to demonstrate improved outcomes each year. More of the same experience had an additive impact. This would suggest that short-lived one-off projects may have more limited impact overall, especially when they are not typical of students’ experiences in school.

To summarise: when planning active citizenship provision teachers should pay attention to (i) the issues that students want to address, (ii) the mechanism by which they aim to address these, and (iii) the likely gatekeepers involved. Students will need help to come to a realistic judgement of how these factors balance out, otherwise projects may be counter productive. The evidence also suggests that schools should ensure that students are provided with regular opportunities to engage in civic activities to exploit this cumulative effect. Within that overall mix of experiences, there may be a role for shorter, partial projects, for example, just doing a needs analysis, planning a campaign, or joining an action. Whilst these projects are not ideal, they can lead to some positive outcomes, which taken together build students’ knowledge, skills and sense of agency.

Ballard PJ, Cohen AK, Littenberg-Tobias J. 2016. Action Civics for Promoting Civic Development: Main Effects of Program Participation and Differences by Project
Characteristics. American Journal of Community Psychology. Dec; 58 (3-4): 377-390.

Brooke Blevins, Karon N. LeCompte, Tiffani Riggers-Piehl, Nate Scholten & Kevin R. Magill. 2021. The Impact of an Action Civics Program on the Community; Political Engagement of Youth, The Social Studies, 112:3, 146-160.

Zaff, J., Boyd, M., Li, Y. et al. 2010. Active and Engaged Citizenship: Multi-group and Longitudinal Factorial Analysis of an Integrated Construct of Civic Engagement. Journal of Youth Adolescence 39, 736–750.

About the author

Yaqub is on our research team for the ACT active citizenship programme and he contributes to the collection, analysis and reporting of data from students and teachers, ensuring all research and evaluation activities adhere to ethical standards. His qualifications include an MA in Islamic and Middle East Studies from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Teaching from the Chicago Center for Teaching at the University of Chicago, where he also studied anthropology. Yaqub Previously worked as a lecturer and preceptor in the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

In his spare time he enjoys cycling.