ISI's survey of student learning about American history and institutions gathered information on a wide variety of environmental or cultural factors that influence student learning independent of classroom instruction. While not the focus of our survey, what we learned about these additional factors is important for policymakers and rich grist for researchers, who will be able to use this information to more fully understand what we can do to enhance student learning.
For example, we found that family matters. There is now a large body of educational research demonstrating that family structure significantly influences student learning, and the evidence on civic learning further corroborates this. Clearly, what the university or college does is paramount in terms of learning during the undergraduate years, but we cannot ignore the background role the family plays. Family influences for which data were collected and which were associated with increased civic learning included the parents' marital status, their education levels, and the extent to which parents discussed public affairs with their children.
Specifically, we found that students from intact families—those who report having two parents married and living together—demonstrated greater civic learning than did students whose parents are separated or divorced or where at least one parent is deceased. Furthermore, parental education and the frequency of family discussions of current events are associated with higher civic learning.
Low civic learning is explained in part by the fact that over one quarter, 27.8 percent, of all freshmen and seniors at America's colleges and universities are from separated or divorced families. After controlling for numerous other student, family, and college variables, a full 1 percent is added to civic learning when parents are married and living together.
- Having a mother with at least a bachelor's degree added significantly to a student's civic learning.
- Family discussion appears to contribute to higher civic learning. For example, 73 percent of seniors' families at Grove City and Harvard discussed current events or history on a weekly or daily basis.
- At the lowest-ranking colleges, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, only half of all families engaged in discussions of current events or history on a weekly or daily basis.