Active Learning and the Acquisition of Political Knowledge in High School

By Diana Owen and G. Isaac W. Riddle

This study assesses the effectiveness of high school civic education in conveying political knowledge.  It addresses the question: Is political knowledge acquisition related to the type of civic education course a student takes?  It compares classes using the We the People: The Citizen and Constitution (WTP) instructional program to other civics classes.  This largely exploratory analysis employs student knowledge assessment data from an original study fielded in schools across the state of Indiana during the fall semester 2014. 

Overall, students displayed a moderate level of political knowledge at the completion of a civics class.  There are significant differences in students’ political knowledge based on whether or not they took a WTP class, were instructed by a WTP teacher, were in a required or elective class, and took the course for AP credit.  An open classroom environment that fosters respectful discussion has a strong positive relationship to knowledge.  Lecture and current events approaches are associated with knowledge acquisition, although the relationship is not particularly strong.  There is a significant negative correlation between classes that heavily employ community-based activities and knowledge.  Finally, students’ use of traditional newspapers, news websites, and political websites is positively associated with knowledge gain.  There is a negative relationship between social media and blog use and knowledge.