Diversity and Democracy

Practicing Democracy in the Classroom: Equalizing Opportunities to Engage with Public Policies and Issues

All students need opportunities to develop political skills and knowledge in order to become responsible and effective citizens. To create these opportunities for all students, higher education institutions must foster environments in which every individual can practice democracy (Barber 1984). Because most students have access to a classroom experience during college, the classroom has the potential to serve as an equalizer, distributing opportunities for students to engage in and practice democracy. Our research demonstrates that when political discourse and policy discussions are integral to the classroom experience, students across all disciplines can access political learning. Whether students are studying to become engineers, artists, or politicians, they can learn the public relevance of their disciplines and leave college with an understanding of how their fields integrate with, problematize, and strengthen civil society.

Equity and Access to Political Learning

At present, colleges and universities do not provide equitable opportunities for all students to learn about and actively engage in democracy both across and within institutions. Students who have an interest in political engagement typically must have the resources to participate in political activities on their own (Kim and Sax 2009). Students who lack this privilege cannot access these same opportunities due to barriers such as lack of information, conflicting work schedules, and transportation challenges. These barriers only increase for students who commute to school, attend part time, or lack financial resources (Jarvis, Montoya, and Mulvoy 2005). Colleges and universities further expand participation gaps by implementing institutional policies that support this stratification, limiting opportunities for some students while increasing them for others (Bastedo and Gumport 2003). As a result, many institutions fail to promote democratic educational experiences or political learning outcomes for all students. Yet most institutions, regardless of their resources or priorities, engage students in classroom learning experiences. The classroom can thus serve as a venue to increase opportunities for political learning.

Faculty can craft experiences in the classroom to ensure that all students have opportunities to succeed and thrive. For example, collaborative learning has surfaced as a promising pedagogy, in part because it aligns with learning styles that differ from those privileged by traditional pedagogies and is therefore more inclusive of traditionally marginalized students who may learn best according to those different styles, including some women and racial minority students (Lundeberg and Moch 1995). Faculty can use practices like these to develop political learning opportunities in the classroom that are accessible to students across different economic, social, and racial backgrounds.

Students must be prepared to actively participate in democracy. The classroom can facilitate this preparation by providing opportunities to engage in political learning, which we define as the act of developing knowledge and skills related to government, systems, decision making, and public problem solving. When faculty members organize classroom experiences that incorporate political learning, students develop “political skills of influence and action, analysis and judgment, communication and leadership, while developing teamwork and collaboration skills” (Colby et al. 2010, 95). Students who participate in these experiences also develop a greater sense of political efficacy (Beaumont 2011) and cultural awareness (Misa, Anderson, and Yamamura 2005), two qualities that improve their ability to solve public problems. These pedagogies are thus important components of the college learning experience because they equip students to connect their learning to the problems and issues they will inevitably find within their communities, government, and democracy.

Learning to Practice Democracy

To better understand how political learning and engagement in democracy relate to campus climate, our research team at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, located within Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, conducted four campus-based case studies. Using data collected through the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (described below), we selected four campuses with student voting rates that were significantly higher than predicted (comparing actual voting rates to predicted voting rates based on predictors of voting such as student age and gender, institutional size, and geographic region). These four campuses included an urban public community college, an urban minority-serving comprehensive university, a suburban private liberal arts college, and a suburban public college. At each campus, we conducted between twelve and sixteen focus groups and interviews with students, faculty, and staff, meeting with a total of 237 participants.

We were particularly interested in understanding how the classroom serves as a venue for engagement in discussions concerning political, policy, and public issues. Our case study findings suggested that faculty, students, and staff at these four campuses frame and structure classroom learning to align with public issues and policies relevant to their disciplines. Thomas (2001) describes this approach as teaching the public relevance of one’s discipline. In this approach, faculty and students work together to create a positive climate for student political learning and engagement by providing individual, local, and global policy contexts for issue discussions and by constructively managing controversial topics. Yet even at campuses where the classroom functions as a space where students practice democracy, barriers to political learning and engagement in the classroom remain.

Establishing the Classroom’s Public Relevance

On our case study campuses, we found that faculty infuse pedagogies centered on politics and policy into academic courses across disciplines and departments. Indeed, faculty members across departments are teaching the public relevance of their disciplines. For instance, students in our focus groups mentioned discussing fracking in a geology course, immigration and citizenship issues in a Spanish course, abortion in an ethics course, and policy affecting forests in a restoration ecology course.

Faculty on our case study campuses carefully and intentionally generate, foster, and manage learning opportunities focused on politically oriented and policy-related topics. They use different tools to manage controversial issue discussions: for example, they might play devil’s advocate in the classroom, require students to write about and defend opposing sides of an issue, and ask students to pair up and take opposing perspectives. One faculty member explained why he uses these tools: “I think it’s more to get … knowledge [to students] about what’s going on, as opposed to, of course, trying to get them to pick a side or maybe think about what side they’re on. It’s more [about] knowing how to handle it, how to deal with people in a political environment.” These approaches to learning reduce group-think tendencies and bolster opportunities for a diversity of perspectives and solutions to emerge (Wanous and Youtz 1986).

Creating Safe Spaces for Political and Policy-Related Discussions

On our case study campuses, we found that discussions and debates about politically charged subjects occur when faculty establish the classroom as a space where all students can participate, regardless of their social, political, and economic identities. Faculty and students described feeling a shared sense of responsibility for creating this space, transforming the learning environment so that it supports student perspective taking and collaborative learning.

Faculty on our case study campuses create collaborative and safe learning spaces by gauging students’ comfort with heated discussions, asking students to pause and check their temperatures, and mediating exchanges about controversial topics to ensure that the classroom is inclusive. They also encourage students to draw from assignments when expressing disagreement in class, teaching students to ground their arguments in facts or in the literature. At one campus, a faculty member shared that after debating contentious policy topics such as abortion and gun control, his students, who were racially and politically diverse, hugged one another. A student in this class mentioned that these interactions and understandings were possible because she felt safe and respected in the classroom space. Across diverse departments and disciplines, many students and faculty mentioned that their classroom dynamics influenced their comfort with engaging in political and policy-related discussions. Establishing spaces where students feel respected and encouraged to speak up is foundational for discussing policy and political issues in the classroom.

Contextualizing Policies and Public Concerns

Faculty at the campuses we studied use the classroom as a space to contextualize public issues that are relevant to and directly affect students. For instance, faculty raise for discussion issues such as financial aid in higher education, a topic that is relevant to today’s students. Faculty also incorporate topics that will be relevant to students’ futures, such as minimum wage and health care policies. One faculty member explained, “I often … try to bring the political aspects of current events into the classroom, [for example,] raising minimum wage to $15 and what the class thinks about that. And then we talk about the ramifications from an economic standpoint.”

Faculty and students discuss course material not only in relation to individual concerns, but also in the context of local issues. For instance, faculty and students at one campus discuss the implications of a local tax levy on the college and community. Faculty also use global comparisons to expand students’ understandings of public issues such as environmental sustainability and race relations. One faculty member explained how she established these global connections with students: “We’re reading something about [human] trafficking in Asia and then there’s a [media] clip that comes up [in discussion] on something local [and] we can make those connections…. They can think about laws and policies and how that matters in understanding the picture not just in one area of the world but across place.”

Content related to individual, local, and global concerns emerges from different activities such as film viewings, readings, articles, theatrical performances, faculty feedback on presentations, interviews conducted with local community members, and student-led discussions about research articles. During these activities, faculty from our case study campuses communicate to students how the assignment relates to public issues. Throughout these interactions, faculty and students discuss the structural components overlaying shared problems and related policy decisions.

Identifying Barriers to Political Learning

Although our case study campuses are paragons for embedding policy and political discussions into classroom activities, these campuses still face inevitable challenges to integrating political content into all classrooms across all disciplines. For instance, students mentioned that politics might arise in a sociology class more often than in a large math class; students also said that some faculty members are more comfortable raising political issues than others. Students mentioned instances when, in classes composed of particularly like-minded students, those who deviate from the class’s normative identity are not comfortable participating equally in class discussions. We found that students’ ability to actively participate in the classroom depends on a variety of factors, including class size, whether individual students dominate class discussions, or whether students are given equal opportunities to speak. Therefore, it is important to figure out “what works” to create equal opportunities for all students to engage in political learning.

Moreover, faculty must design curricular experiences so that they are appropriate to where students are developmentally. We found that students, particularly younger students, come to class without fully formed ideas but knowing nonetheless that they want to shape the conversation. Students mentioned that they may not always have the language, efficacy, tools, and skills to discuss political issues in the classroom. For instance, we found that more academically advanced students (such as seniors) are often more comfortable engaging in issue debates, building arguments, and “listening to understand” than less experienced students. This reflects a developmental gap in political knowledge and skills (Beaumont 2011), suggesting that faculty should account for variations in student confidence and agency when designing equitable opportunities for students to participate in political learning in the classroom.

Call to Action and Future Research

Every academic discipline encompasses public problems that are relevant to democracy. Yet most college students successfully complete their degrees without actively engaging with the public features of their fields. Our research suggests that the classroom is an optimal space for fostering these connections and providing opportunities for students to practice democracy. We also found that across all departments and disciplines, faculty can embed opportunities for political learning into their pedagogies and curricula. However, this cross-disciplinary attention to public issues in the classroom will not occur organically. Indeed, faculty need opportunities to learn how to manage controversial issue discussions, to develop strategies to mediate heated conversations, and to practice taking on the role of devil’s advocate in the classroom. Likewise, students need opportunities to develop critical skills to engage in this learning effectively.

Despite the promising findings from our case studies, we need to further explore barriers preventing access to political learning and engagement in the classroom. Although the classroom can equalize access to political learning experiences, some students and faculty do not benefit equally and equitably. Further research exploring these barriers will allow us to better understand how to create spaces that provide opportunities for equitable learning and engagement in democracy. In the meantime, colleges and universities must use students’ common experiences in the classroom to ensure that all students have opportunities to develop political skills, knowledge, and experiences. Only then will students graduate from college prepared to address the pressing issues we need them to solve in order to strengthen our democracy.

About the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education’s Research and College Student Voting

Much of this special issue of Diversity & Democracy is informed by research being conducted at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. In 2013, Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) launched the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which measures college student registration and voting rates at the institutional level.

Through NSLVE, campuses receive free tailored reports broken down by demographic information (e.g., age), class level and field of study, and voting method (absentee, local). Over seven hundred colleges and universities, representing institutions of all Carnegie classifications, have signed up for the study. With the NSLVE database, Tisch College researchers are able to conduct innovative research, from using predictive modeling to study campuses with significantly high voting rates to identifying correlations between political participation and institutional characteristics such as diversity of the student population and financial aid recipients.

To further scholarship on higher education, Tisch College created the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) as a higher education-focused corollary to CIRCLE. With NSLVE as a signature initiative, IDHE focuses on how colleges and universities can align institutional practices and culture with the goals of strengthening democracy and advancing social and political equity in public life. IDHE’s work and the work it seeks to advance in higher education is inherently, and delightfully, political. To learn more about IDHE and the NSLVE, visit http://go.tufts.edu/IDHE/.

—Institute for Democracy and Higher Education


Examining College Student Political Learning and Engagement

Are college students politically engaged? The answer depends in part on what counts as political participation.

If measured by voting, college students could do better. Data from Tisch College’s National Study of Voting, Learning, and Engagement (NSLVE) show that only 40 percent of traditionally aged undergraduates (ages eighteen to twenty-four) attending the institutions in the study voted in 2012, and only 17 percent in 2014. Measuring engagement with government, Harvard’s Institute of Politics 2014 Survey of Millennials found that only 7 percent said they engaged in a government, political organization, or issue over the course of the prior year (Institute of Politics 2015).

Student activism such as protesting has gained visibility. Over the past year, hundreds of campuses have faced student protests, particularly over income inequality, racial profiling in the criminal justice system, campus sexual assault, and rising student tuition and debt (Wong 2015). Online engagement, such as writing a blog post, circulating political commentary among a social network, or starting an online political group, is rapidly growing. In 2011, 50 percent of college students report participating in at least one political activity online, and 27 percent participated in three activities (Cohen and Kahne 2015, 28). Other, more difficult-to-measure forms of engagement include grassroots community organizing and deliberative dialogues.

College students can be a formidable political force. The college experience should be ideal for fostering in students a sense of political agency and efficacy, a belief that they can, indeed, change communities, systems, and policies.

—Institute for Democracy and Higher Education


Cohen, Cathy J., and Joseph Kahne. 2015. Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Oakland, CA: Mills College School of Education. http://ypp.dmlcentral.net/sites/default/files/publications/

Institute of Politics. 2015. Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service (24th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Wong, Alia. 2015. “The Renaissance of Student Activism.” The Atlantic, May 21. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/


Barber, Benjamin. 1984. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bastedo, Michael N, and Patricia J. Gumport. 2003. “Access to What? Mission Differentiation and Academic Stratification in US Public Higher Education.” Higher Education 46 (3): 341–59.

Beaumont, Elizabeth. 2011. “Promoting Political Agency, Addressing Political Inequality: A Multilevel Model of Internal Political Efficacy.” Journal of Politics 73 (1): 216–31.

Colby, Anne, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich, and Josh Corngold. 2010. Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Jarvis, Sharon E., Lisa Montoya, and Emily Mulvoy. 2005. The Political Participation of College Students, Working Students and Working Youth. CIRCLE Working Paper 37. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Kim, Young K., and Linda J. Sax. 2009. “Student–Faculty Interaction in Research Universities: Differences by Student Gender, Race, Social Class, and First-Generation Status.” Research in Higher Education 50 (5): 437–59.

Lundeberg, Mary Anna, and Susan Diemart Moch. 1995. “Influence of Social Interaction on Cognition: Connected Learning in Science.” Journal of Higher Education 66 (3): 312–35.

Misa, Kim, Jodi Anderson, and Eric Yamamura. 2005. “The Lasting Impact of College on Young Adults’ Civic and Political Engagement.” Presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

Thomas, Nancy L. 2001. “Cultivating Successors: Guidance from the Field.” Higher Education Exchange, edited by David W. Brown and Deborah Witte, 13–24. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Wanous, John P., and Margaret A. Youtz. 1986. “Solution Diversity and the Quality of Group Decisions.” Academy of Management Journal 29 (1): 149–59.

Margaret Brower is a researcher and administrator at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University, and Jodi Benenson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University.

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