Civic Education, Political Knowledge, and Dimensions of Political Engagement

By Diana Owen and Suzanne Soule

A variety of factors coalesce in civics instruction to promote political engagement.  This study examines the extent to which political knowledge, classroom environment, and pedagogic approaches influence participatory dispositions among high school students.  We address the research questions:  What is the connection between political knowledge and different forms of political engagement?  And, are particular instructional approaches associated with greater knowledge gain and propensity to participate in politics?   We employ an original study of high school students in schools across the state of Indiana to investigate these questions empirically. We find that students gain political knowledge as a result of taking a civics class. We affirm that people who have a base of political knowledge are more inclined to engage in political and civic activities than those who do not. We establish a positive relationship between knowledge and contacting, voting, campaign engagement, community engagement, digital engagement, and activism.  There are differences in the strength of the correspondence between knowledge and engagement based on the knowledge domain.  Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution has the strongest relationship to political engagement followed by knowledge of government institutions. Students whose civics class was taught in an open environment and whose instruction included active learning approaches are the most inclined to engage in politics.  The study’s strongest finding is that an open classroom climate is conducive to developing participatory inclinations among high school students.