Case study: How Cal State LA promotes civic learning

At a recent civic learning workshop for Cal State LA faculty, my colleagues and I received some timely words of wisdom.

Over the last two years, faculty at Cal State LA have developed a new general education curriculum as part of the university’s commitment to civic learning. The new curriculum, rolling out this fall, is focused on helping students develop the skills and knowledge needed to solve real-world problems that prepare them not only for a career but also to serve the public good.

This hard work entailed redesigning courses and converting schedules from 10-week quarters into 15-week semesters. Now we face the equally challenging task of teaching students in a way that will help empower them to become civically engaged citizens.

At the workshop, our facilitator pointed out that faculty have a head start in helping students address complex world problems because of their specific subject matter expertise. All disciplines generate different kinds of knowledge, such that each faculty member is uniquely qualified to teach civic learning.

As faculty director for service learning in Cal State LA’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, this affirmation serves as a useful reminder to me as we continue to prepare for the upcoming term.

Preparing faculty to scale civic learning

In the fall, new Cal State LA students at the lower-division level will take a newly revised general education course: Introduction to Higher Education. The course, which will include assignments to meet civic learning outcomes, is designed to acclimate students to the academic rigors of college. It will introduce students to university resources and help them develop effective study skills, such as information literacy.

With approximately 4,000 students entering the university in August, we believe it is important to provide a strong foundation for faculty. To provide a common starting point, I worked with Catherine Haras, director of Cal State LA’s Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, to develop guidelines that would enable faculty to adapt new civic learning assignments to discipline-specific research methods.

The framework that we developed is based on solving problems related to local, real-world issues. This general approach means that faculty will have additional flexibility to create assignments that are based on and relevant to students’ interests and their personal experiences.

ACUE’s Civic Learning module

To support faculty, we integrated face-to-face workshops with an online Civic Learning module developed in collaboration with ACUE. For the last month a cohort of instructors all have gone through the module, which features videos of classroom demonstrations from exemplary instructors at Cal State LA. The module also includes video tutorials that focus on specialized areas within the civic learning topic: civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic values.

Instructors in the cohort are also developing assignments for students, in which they collaboratively define a relevant real-world problem that can be addressed using discipline-specific research methods. Examples include issues such as students’ mental health and wellness and voter turnout among young adults.

After identifying the problem, students must then generate their own evidence that calls attention to the scope of the problem in some specific way. After students complete that requirement, faculty work with them to disseminate the results of their research to a public audience: through campus town halls, online media campaigns, public service announcements, or presentations to such public audiences as local governing boards or committees.

This summer, more faculty will participate in the workshops and take ACUE’s online course. We plan to eventually offer the program to all faculty who teach a course tied to the new civic learning curriculum.

Civic learning at the center

The civic lesson in all of this is that faculty help students to reflect on how the disciplinary expertise they will gain in pursuing any major at the university can serve as preparation for a career or profession—and that the same expertise can be used to generate knowledge which serves the public good. As a result, students will view problem solving as a lifelong skill that is as transferable to one’s personal life as it is to the workplace or civil society.

The scope of the challenges we all face is daunting. Finding solutions demands collaboration based on coordinating expertise from many disciplines in a targeted way. To do that we first need to focus on the public purpose and utility of the knowledge that disciplines create.

This became evident in faculty discussions sparked by ACUE’s Course. In one conversation, professors exchanged ideas for how they could integrate problem-solving assignments about students’ mental wellness for several disciplines. For example, it was suggested that students could focus their research for history on tracking the change over time of self-disclosure about specific mental health issues, from when the issue was highly stigmatized to when it had become more socially accepted.

Disseminating our knowledge

Coordination is happening beyond individual campuses, too. This week, a national coalition of civic learning groups will convene in Indianapolis for the 16th annual Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting. The partnership includes the American Democracy Project, a project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; the Democracy Commitment, a national initiative focused on community colleges; and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which represents student affairs professionals.

Kevin Kelly, ACUE’s Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, and I are excited to lead a mini-institute on problem solving and civic learning based on our work to create the ACUE Civic Learning module. The mini-institute will be held from 10:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 4, 2016. See the official program online for more details. We hope to see you there!

Michael Willard is an Associate Professor in the Department of Liberal Studies and Faculty Director of Service Learning in the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at California State University, Los Angeles. 

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