Integrating Civic Engagement Pedagogy into Psychology Courses

04 Sep 2018 11:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Bethany Fleck, Ph.D., Metropolitan State University of Denver

You're a grad student not a miracle worker, right? And here I am, suggesting yet another thing to be added to your to-do list that's already a mile long and a few hours late. I know how this feels, but let me see if I can convince you of an overlooked but powerful influence that your soon-to-be faculty position has on the bigger picture… on our democracy.

Am I being dramatic? Yes and no. We are facing times unlike any we have seen before. The very thread of our democracy is being challenged by sentiments such as “fake news” and the complacency of youth in their lack of participation in the political processes and community issues that make our country what it is today, for better or worse. For example, participation in the 2016 election was down among millennials, a group that will soon take over the baby boomers in number of eligible voters (Khalid, 2016). But, the tide could be changing. We see a new wave of participation in, for example, the youth protesters that organized in Florida after the massive school shooting that took place in Parkland. These people are our students now, or will be tomorrow when you take your first teaching jobs. What should we do to serve them and to increase the civic engagement of our current college goers? 

In 2012, The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released a national call to action. The first essential action recommended was to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education (p. vi).” This action recognizes that higher education plays a critical role in fostering civic engagement (also known as civic learning). One entity working toward this goal is The American Democracy Project (ADP), an ever-growing network of state colleges and universities whose mission is to “produce college and university graduates who are equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and experiences they need to be informed, engaged members of their communities (ADP, n.d.).”

What does this have to do with psychology? Everything. These desired outcomes are in line with the American Psychological Association Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. Students should become “ethical and socially responsibility in a diverse world” (2013, p. 26). Objectives for students under this goal include applying ethical standards, fostering interpersonal relationships, and adopting values that build from community up to global levels (Fleck, Hussey, & Rutledge-Ellison, 2017). Furthermore, civic learning embraces psychology domain-specific academic knowledge alongside more global values such as justice, critical thinking, public problem solving, and ethics (Saltmarsh, 2005). Simply put, we can use psychology-specific education and training to help create ethical citizens who value and participate in democracy.

How should we do this? First, I beg you to consider integrating innovative civic engagement teaching techniques into your psychology courses. You can do this through service-learning, community-based research, internships, and other experiential learning opportunities. (For more information on experiential learning, see Schwartz, 2012).  These techniques are called high impact practices according to Kolb (1984), who describes how knowledge is created through the alteration of experience based on a person’s new involvement in different settings. Each of the pedagogies listed above warrant their own blog posts, and if you look back (thanks to the GSTA) some have already been written about–for example, see Shor’s (2018) blog post on Transformative Service Learning.

A second way you can integrate civic engagement into your courses is slightly simpler. In the content, assignments, and discussions of your classes you can highlight community issues and use psychology research to help find solutions. Connections to community issues can be made within all areas of psychology. For example, in developmental psychology, my area of expertise, you might consider adding content around current educational policy at either the local, state, or national level. A fantastic example is given by Ahmed (2017) in another GSTA blog post called “Being Betsy DeVos: Bringing Politics into the Study of Developmental Psychology.” Another community issue you might consider is mental health and the opioid epidemic. A ballot initiative in Denver in the 2018 election cycle proposes to increase taxes to fund mental health and substance abuse programs (Daley, 2018). Psychology students can study the pros and cons of this initiative, educate others on campus, and cast their own informed vote on the subject. In previous work I have found that focusing on local level issues is a strong motivator for college students’ voting behavior. I encourage you to consider what other connections you can make between the community and your course content, and to work to bring those issues into the classroom.

Last but not least, consider participating with ADP. To be an official ADP school your institution must be part of the AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, ADP, n.d.). A list of schools already participating can be found on the ADP webpage. If you are not already a member, or an AASCU school, you cannot officially join but you can still utilize all the great resources ADP offers. One example of a current initiative is called the Digital Polarization Initiative, or for short “DigiPro” led by Dr. Michael Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver. This project has “students participating in a broad, cross-institutional project to fact-check, annotate, and provide context to the different news stories that show up in our Twitter and Facebook feeds (Digital, n.d.).” It is being pilot tested at 11 universities across the country (MSU Denver being one of them) right now and will take off widely very soon.  ADP has ongoing projects, such as this one, and will prove to be a great resource for you.

In conclusion, I urge you to use the ivory tower to break it down. What I mean is that you have the potential to influence your students’ behavior in a way that can increase their participation in their community and in the political system. You can create a movement where universities contribute to the communities in which they are located. If you want to see change, cultivate it in your students. However, be cautious. You are not drawing conclusions on issues for your students, you are not telling them the positions they should take when they vote, and you are certainly not able to solve the nation’s problems single-handedly. But, you are communicating to your students that they need to vote and you are asking them to do so using psychology content to inform their decision-making. You are encouraging them to participate in tough conversations so that community problems can be addressed. Avoid pushing your own political agenda, yet send a clear message that motivates students to take ownership of their own power to vote and their power to participate in their communities. This might seem like a fine line to walk, but it is an important one. The time is now, and you can make a difference.


ADP, (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

Ahmed, T. (2017, October) Being Betsy DeVos: Bringing politics into the study of developmental psychology. (GSTA Blog). Retrieved from 

American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major (Version 2.0). Retrieved from

Daley, J. (2018, August). Denver voters to decide on a tax that will fund mental health, substance abuse care Colorado public radio. Retrieved from

Digital Polarization Initiative (n.d.). American Democracy Project. Retrieved from

Fleck, B., Hussey, H. D., & Rutledge-Ellison, L. (2017). Linking class and community: An investigation of service learning. Teaching of Psychology, 44(3), 232-239, DOI:

Khalid, A. (2016, May). Millennials now Rival Boomers as a political force, but will they actually vote? Retrieved from

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Saltmarsh, J. (2005). The civic promise of service learning. Liberal Education, 91(2), 50-55. Retrieved from

Schwartz, M. (2012). Best practices in experiential learning. Ryerson University. Retrieved from

Shor, R. (2018, June). Transformative service-learning. (GSTA Blog). Retrieved from

The 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. Retrieved from

Bethany Fleck, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is committed to an active, learner-centered approach to teaching. Her research centers on cognitive development in K-12 and university classroom contexts. Recently her work focuses on innovative teaching pedagogy that supports student civic engagement.

To learn more, consider attending The American Democracy Project Regional Institute hosted by MSU Denver on Friday, November 2, 2018:

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software