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English Language Arts | Social Studies | Teaching Strategies | February 28, 2024

7 Strategies to Engage Students in Civics

Many students and many Americans cannot answer basic questions about the workings of the United States government or principles of our democracy. More and better civics education can address this critical problem. This article outlines seven strategies to make teaching civics an active and engaging experience that will educate and motivate students as citizens.

A Civics Quiz

Can you correctly answer the following questions?

  1. What is the "rule of law"?
    1. The law is what the President says it is
    2. The people who enforce the laws do not have to follow them
    3. Everyone must follow the law
    4. Judges can rewrite laws they disagree with
  2. Under the Constitution, which of these powers does not belong to the federal government?
    1. Ratify amendments to the Constitution
    2. Print money
    3. Declare war
    4. Make treaties with foreign powers
  3. How many amendments does the Constitution have? 
    1. 10
    2. 14
    3. 21
    4. 27

How did you do? (See the end of this post for the answers.) If you had some trouble, you’re not alone. Those questions are among the hardest on the test that immigrants must pass to become  United States citizens.

In a 2018 survey, only about a third of American citizens could pass the test. Among immigrants, 91% do. Of course, they had been studying, and it’s been a long time since many citizens sat in a government or civics class. Many states give that test to high school students, and they have trouble with it too.

These results point to a problem in this country.

The Problem

Americans don’t know enough about how our government works, or the principles upon which our constitutional democracy is built. They don’t understand the important role they play as citizens in a democracy. And they aren’t motivated to become active citizens.

But as Barack Obama said, “Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry.”

A Solution: More and Better Civic Education

Creating an “active and informed citizenry” is a tall order, and the challenge can’t be met only with more and better civic education in school—but it can help.

In the elementary grades, civics, and history/social studies generally, have taken a back seat to literacy and STEM in recent decades. Those subjects are, of course, important, and there’s only so much time in the school day. But civics can fit on teachers’ plates, too, with the right approach and resources.

In middle and high school, the issue is a little different. Students still have a social studies class as part of their daily schedule. This usually means history, except for occasional electives and perhaps a one-semester government/civics class in high school. Unfortunately, though, when students are asked in surveys which subject is the most boring, they often say it’s history or social studies. No wonder they soon forget most of what was covered!

I see two solutions to these issues. The first solution is teaching civics in elementary school whenever possible, as a standalone subject. But also remember you can find ways to include civics lessons when students are studying history, building literacy skills, and learning to be “citizens” of their classroom. The second solution is teaching civics (and history) in a more engaging way, whether in elementary or secondary school. This means active, not passive learning.

Seven Strategies for Teaching Civics

Let’s explore some of the ways these goals can be accomplished with these seven tips and ideas for teaching civics.

Include Civics Lessons

When students study state, U.S., or world history, include civics lessons. For example, discuss the debate over government power and individual rights in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Point out how ancient civilizations governed themselves and draw connections to the present. Find local and state connections to wider events and developments, such as the civil rights movement. (A note to science and math teachers: you could find connections to civics too!)

Connect with Literacy

Include civics in literacy lessons, and literacy in civics lessons. Today’s ELA standards include many connections to civics. For example, the standards call for citing textual evidence when writing or speaking; conducting research projects; participating effectively in conversations with others; and making presentations with media. Civics topics can be used for all of these. Students can read books and informational text about civics and history. Primary source documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, can provide opportunities for building close reading skills.


Don’t Focus on “Factoids”

Focus on important knowledge, concepts, and skills, not the “factoids.” In the quiz at the beginning of this post, question #3 is an example of the latter. It’s not all that important to know how many Constitutional amendments there are—so I’d quibble with including that item on the citizenship test. Memorizing that kind of information is what makes civics class boring. Questions #1 and #2 on the quiz, on the other hand, are about the deeper concepts that students could actively explore, not simply memorize: the rule of law and how power is divided between the federal and state governments.

Use Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is a perfect fit for civics. It’s active, in-depth, and meaningful to students. Just so we’re clear on what PBL is and is not, I’m not talking about a poster showing the powers of the three branches of government or a slide presentation about a United States president that a student has researched. PBL is a process, not simply the creation of an artifact, as shown on the diagram below.


(Source: Teaching Civics Today, page 115)

Here are three examples of PBL projects for civics:

  • Students determine which level of government (local, state, or federal) has the power to do something about an issue they care about, then contact the appropriate people or agency by writing persuasive letters.
  • Students create a public awareness-raising campaign about an issue or problem in their community or the wider world, using publicly shared videos, art, speeches, and/or social media.
  • Students create podcasts about concepts such as freedom, rights, or democracy by interviewing community members and experts.

Teach Civil Discourse

Civics teachers can help by building the habits and skills young people will need for reasoned, evidence-based, respectful discussion of civics-related issues. Two excellent resources for information on teaching civil discourse can be found at Facing History and Ourselves and Learning for Justice. Consider having discussions, not debates, where the point is not to “win,” but to understand.

Teach Information Literacy

In these times of online information overload and misinformation, this is an essential competency citizens must build. Civic education can help students build a firm foundation for finding the truth from trustworthy sources and developing evidence-based arguments. Some of the best resources for teaching information/media literacy are from iCivics, Learning for Justice, and the Digital Inquiry Group.

Build Classroom Citizenship

Civics can be taught in many ways, not just through formal lessons and activities like the above. Build democratic citizenship in the classroom. The classroom culture a teacher creates can teach students how to listen to and talk with each other respectfully, participate in decision-making, the values of cooperation, compromise and sharing—all the things kindergarten teachers do in circle time on the rug! Creating the culture can begin by co-creating with students a list of classroom norms or agreements that promote civic values.

Civics teachers have an essential job to do! Equip and motivate students to become an active and informed citizenry by teaching civics, beginning with the seven strategies outlined in this article.


Here are the answers to the quiz, and here’s to more and better civic education!

  1. c
  2. a
  3. d
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Author Bio:

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John Larmer, Author

John Larmer is an expert in project-based learning, with a special interest in K–12 social studies. He is a former teacher of high school government/civics, history, and English. In his 20 years as a director and editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, managed and wrote its blog, and developed project-based curriculum units in economics, government, and history. He is the author of several books for K–12 teachers, including...

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