Diversity and Democracy

The Joy of Learning: The Impact of Civic Engagement on Psychosocial Well-Being

There is an aspect to learning that too often goes unmentioned in pressing conversations about why learning matters. It is within every “a-ha” moment, becoming visible on a student’s face when he or she “gets it” and learning becomes real. What we often forget in necessary conversations about outcomes, retention, and graduation is that learning can, if just for a moment, fulfill us—providing a sense of purpose, connecting us with others, and helping us gain perspective. Simply put, learning helps us to flourish.

That moment when learning connects our intellectual understanding with our emotional being is connected to the “liberation” at the etymological root of the term “liberal education.” As AAC&U’s Statement on Liberal Learning elaborates,

Because liberal learning aims to free us from the constraints of ignorance, sectarianism, and myopia, it prizes curiosity and seeks to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. By its nature, therefore, liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity…is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives. (1998)

Importantly, this framing roots our “liberation” in civic contexts, tying our curiosity to learning about and for others. It suggests that the joy of learning is in large part the joy of understanding our place in community. This connection is also an essential means for fostering student success, as extant and emerging evidence has shown (see, for example, Brownell and Swaner 2010; Swaner 2005).

Higher Education’s Multifaceted Mission

American higher education was founded, at least in part, to educate responsible and active citizens—a mission that many, if not most, US colleges and universities strive to uphold. According to AAC&U’s 2009 membership survey, 53 percent of institutions have articulated outcomes for civic engagement, 62 percent for intercultural skills, and 59 percent for ethical reasoning. Additionally, the majority of institutions surveyed have stated commitments to developing students’ knowledge about global/world cultures (68 percent) and diversity in the United States (57 percent) (Hart Research Associates 2009, 5).

“Civic practices” have also become increasingly common at colleges and universities. These practices typically include opportunities for students to engage with community members and organizations over shared issues. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, about half of all students at four-year institutions will encounter service-learning experiences in college (2010). By comparison, about one-quarter of all community college students engage in service-learning experiences (AACC 2011).

Even as campuses are upholding these civic commitments, they are recommitting to educating students as whole persons. The philosophy of liberal education grounds learning in personal as well as intellectual growth, with students’ development as individuals and as social beings occurring not only in parallel with, but because of intellectual inquiry. As Donald Harward, president emeritus of Bates College and executive director of the national Bringing Theory to Practice project, has written,

There [is] a “triad” of interrelated core purposes for liberal education: the epistemic (coming to know, discovery, and the advancing of knowledge and understanding); the eudemonic (the fuller realization of the learner, the actualizing of the person’s potential—classically to achieve individual well-being and happiness); and the civic (the understanding that learning puts the learner in relation to what is other, to community and its diversity in the broadest sense, as well as the responsibility that comes from sustaining the community and the civic qualities that make both open inquiry and self-realization possible). (Harward 2007, 6–8)

In short, learning has the ability to help us flourish. The concept of flourishing (see Keyes 2002) combines aspects of positive emotions, positive daily functioning, and positive social interactions as core dimensions of psychosocial well-being. Flourishing encompasses individual pleasure, but it is more than that. Eudemonia, like flourishing, includes personal happiness but also fulfillment that is about more than oneself. Thus the psychosocial elements of learning reflect students’ desire not just to feel joy, but to share it with others by seeking or building a community of learners.

Linking Civic Learning and Well-Being

Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP), an independent project in partnership with AAC&U, has looked closely at the interconnection between students’ psychosocial well-being, their engagement in learning, and their civic development, asking, “What do students get out of their civic participation?” The answer is a lot. A literature review of the research conducted on civic engagement in higher education provides a window into the range of outcomes that are positively impacted by students’ civic participation (see Finley 2011). BTtoP has also enabled researchers to better understand how students’ civic learning is connected with aspects of psychosocial well-being, specifically with flourishing.

Students at Dickinson College participating in focus groups as part of a BTtoP-funded research project spoke to the impact of particular engaged learning pedagogies:

I think getting more involved…engaging the people [through service work] was definitely what defined my being…It was like what measured my level of happiness. (First-year student)

I’m involved in the community service organization…And it makes me feel a lot better to go from [what] you’re learning in class to be able to go out and do something about it and feel like you’re making a difference. (First-year student)

[I]t totally is really cool whenever you learn something in a class and then you can apply that immediately afterwards. (Sophomore student)

Empirical findings from unpublished BTtoP-funded research conducted at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship, St. Lawrence University, and Wagner College have similarly indicated a link between particular characteristics of students’ civic engagement and an increased sense of flourishing.

Additionally, a recent issue of Liberal Education dedicated to examining the connection between civic engagement and psychosocial well-being provides a number of valuable insights. For example, Flanagan and Bundnick (2011) provide a helpful synopsis of the scholarship linking civic work and psychosocial well-being. In the same issue, Shawn Ginwright writes powerfully about research that has illustrated the potential of civic work to increase a sense of hope and flourishing among African American students (2011).


As AAC&U’s Statement on Liberal Learning emphasizes, “The ability to think, to learn, and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively, the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society, and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity” (1998). Finding this fulfillment through learning in civic contexts should not be a privilege for the special few. Our students will flourish if we enable them to explore pathways for civic learning, and to connect that learning to their psychosocial well-being. To help students recognize the value not just in learning, but in living as a whole person, is to help them fully achieve the promise of a liberal education.


American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). 2011. “Active and Collaborative Learning.” Community College Survey of Student Engagement.http://www.ccsse.org/survey/bench_active.cfm.

Association of American Colleges (AAC&U). 1998. “Statement on Liberal Learning.

Brownell, Jayne, and Lynn Swaner. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Finley, Ashley. 2011. “Civic Learning and Democratic Engagements: A Review of the Literature on Civic Engagement in Postsecondary Education.” Unpublished paper.

Flanagan, Constance, and Matthew Bundnik. 2011. “Civic Engagement and Psychosocial Well-Being in College Students.” Liberal Education 97 (2): 20–27.

Ginwright, Shaun. 2011. “Hope, Healing, and Care: Pushing the Boundaries of Civic Engagement for African American Youth.” Liberal Education 97 (2): 34–39.

Hart Research Associates. 2009. “Trends and Emerging Practices in General Education.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. 

Harward, Donald. 2007. “Engaged Learning and the Core Purposes of Liberal Education: Bringing Theory to Practice.” Liberal Education 93 (1): 6–15.

Keyes, Corey. 2002. “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life.”American Sociological Review 43 (2): 207–22.

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2010. “Grand Frequencies by Major, First-Year Students and Seniors.” Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Swaner, Lynn E. 2005. “Linking Engaged Learning, Student Mental Health and Well-Being, and Civic Development.” Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice Project.

Ashley Finley is a senior director of assessment and research at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and national evaluator for Bringing Theory to Practice.


Previous Issues