Diversity and Democracy

Advancing and Assessing Civic Learning: New Results from the Diverse Learning Environments Survey

Earlier this year, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement issued a national call to action with the report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012). The report provides explicit recommendations to the US Department of Education and calls on the higher education community “to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority” (2). In writing the report, the National Task Force drew from a series of roundtables that gathered higher education and community leaders, scholars, faculty, and students to discuss the important role civic engagement plays in higher education’s mission and goals for student learning. These discussions made clear that many campuses have reinvented their commitment to public service by coordinating community partnerships, supporting service learning in the curriculum, and recognizing civic-minded practice in faculty work. Yet at present, not all campuses systematically assess the impact of these changes on students’ developing identity as citizens in a pluralistic democracy.

Prompted by activity surrounding the report, staff at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) reviewed the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) instruments that we administer on campuses across the country with attention to measures of civic learning outcomes. In an effort to assist campuses in evaluating the impact of campus practice on civic learning, we also began to assess longitudinal changes in civic learning outcomes using a combination of four CIRP surveys: The Freshman Survey (TFS), administered at orientation; the Your First Year of College (YFCY) survey, administered at the end of the first year of college; the Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) survey, administered as students transition into the major; and the College Senior Survey (CSS), administered in the senior year. We reported the results of these analyses (available at http://heri.ucla.edu/pub/AssessCivicLearning.pdf) at the 2012 Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum in New Orleans, Louisiana. Our findings identified specific educational practices and student experiences that are likely to demonstrate an impact on a variety of civic outcomes.

In this article, we share findings specifically from the Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) Survey (http://www.heri.ucla.edu/dleoverview.php). A research-based instrument launched nationally in 2011, the DLE focuses on capturing student experiences with campus climate and institutional practices, as well as a select set of student learning outcomes. The DLE is intended to be administered primarily to sophomores and juniors, but several institutions use it with all upper and lower division students. Most of the nearly forty-five campuses participating to date have used the DLE to obtain a snapshot of their campus climates for diverse students. But institutions can also use the instrument longitudinally along with TFS to assess individual student change related to civic learning. We highlight results related to civic learning here, drawing on findings from a sample of 8,366 sophomore, junior, and senior students from six public and eleven private four-year institutions who participated in the survey in 2011.

Mapping CIRP Measures on Dimensions of Civic Learning

Despite rising rates of student volunteerism reported in our national surveys (Hurtado and DeAngelo 2012), students may arrive at colleges lacking the deep sense of personal and social responsibility that they need to engage in advancing the nation in the face of current challenges such as increasing income disparities. Addressing complex social problems like these will require many students to bridge the distance between their own worldviews (which are often relatively privileged) and those of communities in need. This kind of perspective-taking is an aspect of civic learning that is not reflected in measures of student participation rates in volunteer or service-learning programs, and is one of multiple dimensions of civic learning that can be assessed.

The AAC&U Civic Learning Spiral (Musil 2009) depicts a fluid and continuous outcomes framework for civic learning that can be applied to study the impact of curricular and cocurricular programs throughout a student’s career. At the Spiral’s core lies the notion of learning across six interwoven elements, or “braids”: Self, Communities and Cultures, Knowledge, Skills, Values, and Public Action. Each turn of the Spiral represents the synthesis and integration of these different facets of civic learning. After using the Civic Learning Spiral to set civic learning goals, campuses can use the DLE and other CIRP instruments to measure related outcomes, as shown in Table 1 (which describes the six DLE measures mapped onto four areas of the Spiral).

Table 1
Civic Spiral Braid Outcome Measures on the DLE Survey


Social Agency (α =.831) A six-item scale measures the importance of active community involvement in students' personal goals. This is the most studied outcome of students' values, since most items have been on CIRP surveys for forty-five years.


Pluralistic Orientation (α = .810) A five-item scale asks students to rate their relative skills and dispositions appropriate for living and working in a diverse society (for example, perspective-taking, negotiation of differences, tolerance, and cooperation). 
Critical Consciousness and Action (α = .813) A five-item scale measures how often students critically examine and challenge their own and others' biases.


Integration of Learning (α = .615) A three-item scale measures students' behavior in integrating sources of knowledge and connecting and applying concepts and ideas. This is a new scale and is likely to be refined further to reflect knowledge application.

Public Action

Civic Engagement in Public Forums (α = .765) A three-item scale measures public expression of opinions and values (for example, participation in demonstrations or work to raise money for a cause).
Political Engagement (α = .766) A three-item scale measures frequency of discussing politics and the importance of political goals to the student.

Note: α = alpha reliability score, an internal consistency estimate of the reliability of the measure

Results Highlights

In addition to conducting descriptive analyses of DLE survey results, we engaged in multilevel modeling, controlling for student characteristics, political orientation, and predispositions in order to determine to what extent particular behaviors and experiences in college serve as key predictors of the six Civic Learning Spiral outcomes. Most important among these findings were those associated with campus-facilitated experiences as well as informal student activities that can become the basis of formal programs and practices.

Campus-Facilitated Academic Experiences. Our findings about curricular content and pedagogy indicate that classroom experiences are indeed tied to civic outcomes. For example, after controlling for all other college experiences and elements of student background, participation in service learning was a positive predictor of five of the outcomes (p<.001, indicating a 99.9 percent chance that the relationship is true). These five outcomes were Critical Consciousness and Action, Social Agency, Integration of Learning, Civic Engagement, and Political Engagement. Experiences with an inclusive curriculum through which students can learn about difference also have a relationship to multiple outcomes. Figure 1 shows how exposure to different kinds of course content and pedagogy is associated with higher scores in relation to pluralistic orientation (a scale composed of self-rated survey items that tap into students’ perspective-taking, tolerance of different beliefs, openness to having their views challenged, ability to negotiate controversial issues, and ability to work cooperatively with diverse people). The more courses students took that included opportunities to study and serve communities in need (for example, through service learning), materials or readings about race/ethnicity, or opportunities for intensive dialogue between students with different backgrounds and beliefs, the more confident students were in their skills for living and working in a diverse society.

Figure 1

Other findings suggest that participation in study abroad is associated with higher civic engagement scores and positive changes in political engagement from the freshman year. Having taken a women’s studies course also contributes positively to those outcomes, and is associated with individual change on social agency and higher scores on critical consciousness and action. Students who took an ethnic studies course reported higher scores on critical consciousness and integration of learning compared with peers who had not taken these courses. Campuses should be aware that coursework and experiences that encourage perspective-taking foster a broad range of civic outcomes.

Thus civic learning is associated with particular academic experiences. But is it also connected to other learning priorities on campus? To answer this question, we examined students’ scores on the scale of Habits of Mind for Lifelong Learning—a measure of student behaviors associated with academic success. Student habits associated with academic success (for example, frequently asking questions in class, revising papers, evaluating sources of information, and seeking feedback) are significantly related (p<.001) to changes on all six civic outcomes on the DLE. These findings hold true even after controlling for student ability (measured using high school GPA and SAT scores), race/ethnicity, and gender. These results begin to suggest that civic learning is enhanced by activities that empower students as learners, and that the same mechanisms that promote cognitive development may also promote civic learning.

Informal Experiences with Diversity. Previous research has established the association between positive cross-racial interaction in college and a wide range of civic gains. (See Bowman [2011] for a review of the research, and Gurin et al. [2003] for theoretical rationale regarding diversity and democracy.) Our analysis confirms that the more students reported engaging with others of different racial/ethnic groups (such as through meaningful discussions about race, or intellectual discussions outside of class), the higher their scores or change on all six civic outcomes. Student participation in racial/ethnic student organizations is also significantly related to positive changes in students’ social agency and political engagement, and higher scores on civic engagement in public forums. Thus these organizations play a role in civic learning. Participation in a sorority or fraternity is also positively linked to civic engagement in public forums, but members had significantly less change on social agency and lower scores on critical consciousness and action.

These results speak to the role that a healthy campus climate can play in developing engaged citizens, as positive cross-racial interactions reflect the behavioral dimension of the climate for diversity on campus related to all areas of civic learning. Results also suggest that it is important to maintain a diverse campus where students can learn about differences from peers on an informal, interpersonal level. Along with campus-facilitated curricular and cocurricular activities, informal interactions play an important role in propelling contact, deepening appreciation of differences, and ensuring that students learn from conflict in productive ways.


Through rigorous longitudinal assessment of student outcomes, we are learning that many promising practices, such as service learning and engagement with diversity in the curriculum, have positive results related to students’ civic learning. Each campus that participates in the CIRP surveys can replicate our analysis in their own contexts, and we encourage all to tell their stories of students’ success as emerging citizens. With the DLE and other CIRP surveys, institutions can provide evidence of the difference particular practices make in students’ sense of personal and social responsibility and capacities for public action. They can also systematically link these outcomes to diversity work, global learning initiatives, intergroup relations, and service and community learning initiatives. With evidence-based fuel, practitioners can ignite interest and create connections across campus to advance diversity and civic learning as a priority.


Bowman, Nicholas A. 2011. “Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement.” Review of Educational Research 81 (1): 29–68.

Gurin, Patricia, Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin. 2002.“Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review 72 (3): 330–66.

Hurtado, Sylvia, and Linda DeAngelo. 2012. “Linking Diversity and Civic-Minded Practices with Student Outcomes: New Evidence from National Surveys.” Liberal Education 98 (2): 14–23.

Musil, Caryn M. 2009. “Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility: The Civic Learning Spiral.” In Civic Engagement in Higher Education, edited by Barbara Jacoby. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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.

Sylvia Hurtado is a professor, and Adriana Ruiz and Hannah Whang, graduate research analysts--all of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles.


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