Developmental Models of Civic Learning

Student Developmental Models of Civic Learning

A number of institutions of higher education have institutionalized a developmental approach to student civic learning. It seems logical that, in order to graduate critical thinking citizens with applicable skills, there must be a clear, interconnected, sequential approach adopted. Descriptions of some proven developmental models are outlined below. The job of developing positive contributors to society should not only fall on higher education. There is also evidence outlined below on K-12 research and the need to reprioritize civic learning and engagement. Finally, for the job seeker, evidence of improved career readiness for the civically engaged college graduate is provided below. Taken together, these points strongly suggest the role of civic engagement in forging clear cradle to career pathways and the fostering of a commitment to community.

Examples of Programs

Tufts University's Scholars Program

Tufts University’s Scholars Program 

The Tufts Scholars Program follows a sequential progression in that it is designed to develop professionalism, critical thinking, and leadership skills year on year. The scholars program design spans the undergraduate experience as follows:

  • Freshman Year: In the fall, students apply to join the program.  Selected students then register for the spring course Education for Active Citizenship, which lays the foundation for work in the community.
  • Sophomore Year: Sophomores are matched with a project developed by the community, working 6‐8 hours per week at the community site.
  • Junior Year: Juniors take on increased responsibility and independence through a new or continued project on or off campus.
  • Senior Year: Seniors develop their own projects which can range from leading a student group on campus, completing an honors thesis or capstone in an academic discipline, or managing a project off-campus.  With the skills they’ve developed through the program, seniors take on significant responsibility, managing and implementing self-designed projects.

Drew University's Civic Scholars Program

Drew University’s Civic Scholars Program

The Drew University Civic Scholars Program helps students build organizing skills, increase leadership responsibilities, and grow experientially through a process of planning, reflection, and collaboration. The program strives to achieve two primary learning objectives. Firstly, to achieve a deep understanding of an issue or problem from both a community and academic perspective, and, secondly, to graduate students with a strong practical skill-set that enables them to plan and execute effective action informed by a significant knowledge-base. In addition to completing 100 hours of community service each year, civic scholars complete the activities below each year.

  • Freshman Year. Primarily, students do the following:
    1.  Complete the fall College Seminar requirements, including the community-based learning component of this class, and a spring community placement (approximately 40 hours of community work).
    2.  Plan and implement the first-year Spring Civic Project (worth 25 hours towards 100 hour community work requirement), but must at minimum engage a wider student audience and demonstrate a deepening of issue-based knowledge.
  • Sophmore Year. Primarily, students do the following:
    1.  Attend each of three skill-building workshops and submit a reflection on each
    2.  Complete and pass a two-credit Civic Engagement Internship in either the fall or spring semester.
  • Junior Year. Primarily, students do the following:
    1.  Not only must 50 hours be completed to benefit Drew’s local communities, but in addition, 50 hours must be completed with a single organization or with organizations focused on a single issue, problem, or population.
    2.  Write a Senior Civic Project proposal
  • Senior Year. Primarily, students do the following:
    1.  Complete a Civic Engagement or Community-Based Research Project.
    2.  Submit a final report and project documentation in an ePortfolio.
    3.  Present project at the Civic Engagement Awards Ceremony and Showcase.
    4.  Complete CE 310 Senior Civic Workshop, a 1-credit pass/fail class in the fall semester.
    5.  Complete 100 community service.

Satisfactory completion of all requirements enables students to graduate as a Civic Scholar with Civic Honors.

Wagner College

Wagner College

Recently, the college adopted the Wagner Plan and central to this plan is a developmental approach for student civic learning which highlights the following:

The FYP Learning Communities create conversations and links between subjects and courses. By linking those courses to genuine fieldwork in communities and organizations, students discover the connections (and sometimes the disconnections) between ideas and real-world problems. Beginning with the very first semester at Wagner, students are involved in real-world problems and field work directly linked to their coursework… (The) experiential learning component includes service learning, field trips, participatory learning and/or community research. Students typically spend three hours per week at the designated site observing the organization, its practices and its dynamics.
This learning community addresses interdisciplinary topics, allowing students to see the social and intellectual links between diverse perspectives. The intellectual and cultural environment created by learning together for a semester encourages   active participation in the learning process. The goals are to expose students to, and involve them in, an interdisciplinary experience of “learning by doing” through sophisticated writing, challenging research and an integrated final project that facilitates critical thinking. The ILC concludes with a written or an oral presentation.
The Senior LC is a summative experience that contains the following elements: a summative major course and an RFT that includes a 100- hour experiential component, a substantial and sophisticated written project, and a presentation. As the ultimate goal of The Senior Learning Community, all senior students bring together the breadth of a liberal education and the depth of specialized knowledge into a real world applied practice. The critical question for each student becomes:  “What does it mean to practice this discipline in a reflective and responsible manner within a pluralistic society?”

Bonner Scholars Program

Bonner Scholars Program

The national co-curricular Bonner Scholars Program, first outlined in 1996 by Wayne Meisel of the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, is based on a simple philosophy in which each of the four years is based on a strategy that progresses students through levels of expectation + exploration experience  example  expertise as follows:

  • Freshman year students:
    1. Participate in a variety of service sites and activities including short-term service trips.
    2. Volunteers work at an organization every week for between two and eight hours.
  • Sophmore year students:
    1. Choose a long-term service site in an effort to focus on specific issues relevant to the mission of their service site and the dynamics of the communities it serves.
    2. Volunteers work at an organization every week for between two and eight hours.
    3. Experienced volunteers take on project coordination roles.
  • Junior year students:
    1. Take on expanded roles and responsibilities both on campus and in their communities through leadership positions, including project coordination roles.
    2. Experienced coordinators get involved in resource development, planning, research, and other management  roles
  • Senior year students:
    1. Create and complete a final project to better their community and integrate their academic service-related, and issues-based interests to maximize their community impact
    2. Experienced coordinators get involved in resource development, planning, research, and other management roles

Evidence for K-12 Civic Engagement

The college experience offers only one phase of development for students. Ideally, the development of the civic minded professional begins prior to college and continues through transitions in the workforce. For schools adopted a culture of engagement, the evidence is convincing. In 2010, Campus Compact released A Promising Connection which laid out the research-based connections and causal relationships between civic engagement, student learning and college readiness. K-12 civic engagement outcomes include the following:

  • Improved GPAs and academic engagement
  • Enhanced sense of self
  • Enhanced social consciousness
  • Facilitation of the transition to adulthood

Here are some practices for engaging K-12 students in community and political life that came out of a report from Connecticut Campus Compact in 2012 .

Six Practices for Promoting Civic Learning
 at the Primary and Secondary School LevelsTable 1.1 Six Practices for Primary and Secondary

Opportunities for Youth Community Involvements and Civic Engagementopportunites for youth involvement

Evidence of Improved Career Readiness

Below is a summary of research on the types of skills that are sought by employers and, importantly, the overlap of these skills with those developed through quality civic engagement initiatives in higher education. This report, referenced above, came from Connecticut Campus Compact in 2012.

Workforce and Civic Engagement Skills
Workforce and Civic Engagement Skills

It is important to recognize that most civic engagement activities connected to a college education take place is communities neighboring institutions of higher education. This fact builds students’ commitment to place through experience and deeper appreciation of local opportunity and challenge. As stated by the highly influential report by Battastoni and Longo:

Building a commitment and understanding of place, the local economy, the local culture, and local politics is essential for developing civic and corporate responsibility—and this can be learned through community engagement. (These experiences take) learning outside the classroom and into the community—giving students the opportunity to learn about the broader community through service and public problem-solving. Service-learning, in short, gives students a new sense of place.




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  • Battastoni, R. M., and Longo, N. V. Connecting workforce development and civic engagement. Retrieved April 2, 2014, from
  • Billig, S.H. (2007). Unpacking what works in service-learning: Promising research-based practices to improve student outcomes. In J. Kielsmeier, M. Neal, & N. Schultz (Eds.),
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  • Camino, Linda, and Shepherd Zeldin. From Periphery to Center: Pathways for Youth Civic Engagement in the Day-To-Day Life of Communities. Applied Developmental Science, 6 (4), 2002. Print.
  • Campaign for Civic Mission of Schools. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. Silver Spring, MD: Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011. Print.
  • Cress, Christine M. et al. A Promising Connection. Increasing College Access and Success Through Civic Engagement. Boston, MA: Campus Compact, 2010. Retrieved April 20, from
  • Furco, A. (2002). Is service-learning really better than community service? A study of high school service. In A. Furco & S.H. Billing (Eds.), Advances in service-learning research, vol. 1. Service-learning: The essence of the pedagogy (pp. 23–50). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  • Hart Research Associates  (2010). “Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning In the Wake of the Economic Downturn. 1-9.
  • Kraft, N., & Wheeler, J. (2003). Service-learning and resiliency in disaffected youth: A research study. In S.H. Billing & J. Eyler (Eds.), Advances in service-learning research, vol.3.  Deconstructing service-learning: Research exploring context, participation, and impacts (pp. 213–238). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  • Laird, M., & Black, S. (2002). Service-learning evaluation project: Program effects for at-risk students. Presentation at the Second International Service-Learning Research Conference, Nashville, TN.
  • Martin, S., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J., & Crossley, A. (2006). The impact of service-learning on transitions to adulthood. In J. Kielsmeier, M. Neal, and A. Crossley (Eds.), Growing to greatness 2006: The state of service-learning. Saint Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.
  • McGuire, J.K., & Gamble, W.C. (2006). Community service for youth: The value of psychological engagement over number of hours spent. Journal of Adolescence, 29, 289–298.
  • Ohlson, M. (2009). C.A.M.P. Gator: Collegiate achievement mentoring program. Journal for Civic Commitment, XIII(1), 1–8.
  • Ouimet, Judith A., and Gary R. Pike. “Rising to the Challenge: Developing a Survey of Workplace Skills, Civic Engagement, and Global Awareness.” Directions for Institutional Research (2007): 71-82. Print.
  • Tufts Scholars Program. Retrieved April 2, 2014, from
  • Wagner Plan. Retrieved April 2, 2014, from
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