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Matthew Johnson, 2013 Dissertation of the Year

Clearinghouse is pleased to announce that Matthew Johnson has won the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation Award. This award goes to the author of an outstanding doctoral dissertation relevant to the field of college student character and values development.


Matthew Johnson
Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership
Central Michigan University

Educational Background: Ph.D., College Student Personnel, University of Maryland; M.S., College Student Personnel, Miami University; B.B.A., Business Marketing, Saginaw Valley State University

Title of Dissertation: Exploring the Effects of Socio-Cultural Issues Discussions and Social Perspective-Taking on College Students’ Civic Identity



1. Please give a short summary of the purpose of your research.

Colleges and universities have responded to calls for helping to prepare a generation of graduates who are more engaged in their communities and better prepared to work with the vast amount of diversity our world contains. Despite more involvement in various civic engagement efforts (e.g., service-learning, volunteering) and an unprecedented diversity of students attending college, we haven’t achieved the results we had hoped, especially at the individual student level. Those who hire college graduates have told colleges and universities that graduates are underprepared to work with diversity. We know that our society suffers from citizens retreating from community, civic, and political life due to a range of factors. We also know that the ways in which we engage in our civic and political lives aren’t always the most productive; look no further than our state and federal governments or mainstream media outlets. My research substantiates these trends and shows that it’s not enough to just offer students opportunities to interact with the community or be exposed to diversity, but rather we need to be more purposeful in our design of opportunities to foster students’ civic identities, which includes an understanding of working with diversity. And to improve the design, we need more research that helps us better understand the process by which students come to form their civic identities (i.e., how we understand and act upon our obligations to our communities). So, for instance, do students who are involved in their communities consider others’ perspectives when acting? Does having conversations with others who hold different values help form students’ civic identity? These are questions that my dissertation explores.

2. Why did you choose this particular topic of study?

For as long as I have been in higher education, I have been interested in civic engagement and diversity. I knew that I wanted to bring these two areas together in my research, but I was not sure what form it might take, so I decided to start with what concerned me most in higher education. About the time I had to choose a dissertation topic, I was becoming increasingly concerned about how colleges and universities prepare college students to be engaged citizens in a time of incredible diversity and complexity in the world. I wanted my dissertation to examine civic engagement and diversity in tandem. Colleges and universities have many opportunities for students to become engaged in their campus and surrounding communities through service-learning, alternative breaks, volunteering, and leadership programs, for instance. At the same time, the importance of diversity—not only from a representation standpoint—but from a “what do we learn from diversity?” viewpoint has never been greater. Despite colleges and universities placing a lot of importance on these two areas, they are rarely integrated experiences. In other words, we tend to see civic engagement programs and services quite separate from diversity programs and services. My dissertation tries to bring these two trends together by examining how college students construct their civic identities, and in particular, what role experiences with diversity play in this process.

3. Define these important terms for our readers:social change behaviors, social perspective-taking, socio-cultural issues discussions, and civic identity.

Many of these terms stem from scales used in the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL), so I tried to note their definitions and appropriate citations.

Civic identity – one’s knowledge, attitudes, values, and actions regarding civic engagement. Identity is something that one actively constructs and makes meaning of in an ongoing manner and comprises three dimensions of development—cognitive (i.e., knowledge, decision-making), intrapersonal (i.e., values, self-understanding), and interpersonal (i.e., relationships, working with others) (Baxter Magolda, 2001).

Social perspective-taking– the ability to take another person’s point of view (Franzoi et al., 1985; Underwood & Moore, 1982) and/or accurately infer the thoughts and feelings of others (Gehlbach, 2004).

Socio-cultural issues discussions – a term broadly used to depict conversations about and across differences. In this study, socio-cultural issues discussions is a scale from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership that measures the frequency with which students engage with their peers outside the classroom around social and cultural issues related to diversity and multiculturalism. Questions on the socio-cultural issues scale relate to differences of values, lifestyles, human rights, politics, and religion.

Social change behaviors – those active experiences that students engage in that relate to bringing about  social change (e.g., performing community service, taking part in a protest, rally, or march). In the MSL, social change behaviors were defined as “taking an active role in making a difference for the common good.”

4. What type of methodology did you use and why was this type of methodology chosen?

When I was beginning to conceptualize my dissertation, I set up several meetings with people who had some expertise on my topic because I needed help thinking through some ideas. The more that I met with people and started to shape my ideas, I realized that I wanted to investigate several relationships. Finally, when I met with one particular faculty member, she encouraged me to sketch my study on a piece of paper. As I began to do that, she told me that I needed to use structural equation modeling (SEM). Seeing that I did not know what that was, she handed me a book and I was on my way. After I took a short course in SEM, I realized it was an appropriate fit because SEM allows for determining the relationships between several variables, including latent variables like those in my study.

5. How do you distinguish direct effects and indirect effects on civic identity in the study?

Direct effects are those that have an unmediated or direct relationship on the dependent variable. Indirect effects are those that do not have a direct relationship to the dependent variable, but rather have an indirect effect, which means there is another variable(s) through which the relationship is mediated. If you look at the model in my dissertation, the direct effects on civic identity are those relationships that have a single pathway or coefficient to civic identity. The indirect effects are those relationships that have more than one variable or pathway to civic identity. In other words, if a variable has a direct relationship to civic identity, the relationship is a direct effect. If it has an indirect relationship (through another variable), it is an indirect effect.

6. What results did you find most encouraging regarding students’ civic identity?

The most encouraging result was that engaging in social change behaviors is the most significant predictor of civic identity. If students are involved in social action, their civic identities are strongly and positively impacted. Students report being involved in a host of different social change behaviors, from community service to working toward social justice. And the hope here, of course, is that these impacts endure post-graduation.

I was also quite encouraged that being involved in social change behaviors was moderately predictive of socio-cultural issues discussions. Working toward social change requires encountering diversity. The relationship that I found in my study between these two constructs was positive and moderately strong. This suggests that when students take social action, it prompts discussions about diversity and forces students to talk with others who are different from themselves. That is incredibly encouraging because the worlds in which social action are taken, such as a service site or a campus community, are mediated by lines of social identities. These spaces contain racial, class, gender, religious, and many other identity elements that influence how different people experience them. And for students to be having these conversations about the differences they encounter, it is encouraging.

7. What results did you find most troubling?

The most troubling result for me was how little engaging in social change behaviors predicts social perspective-taking. Higher education has made a monumental investment to provide students with opportunities to become engaged in social change through community service opportunities and student organizations, but it appears—at least in this study—that these experiences do little for fostering social perspective-taking. When done well, it would be logical to expect these experiences to foster social perspective-taking, which a lot of research has indicated. But, my study suggests that they do not, which would mean that we have a problem, and we need to rethink the ways in which we structure these civic experiences for students. We, as educators, need to help students make meaning of these experiences. Social perspective-taking is a higher order developmental and cognitive skill that requires careful scaffolding and repeated positive experiences to build. It may be wishful thinking that students are able to develop social perspective-taking by merely being exposed to service, taking part in a protest, or organizing a community cleanup.

8. Did your results uncover any information that was very surprising to you?

There were two sets of results that were particularly surprising to me, and they were the two weakest paths in the overall model. The first was the path between socio-cultural issues discussions and civic identity. I was shocked at just how little impact socio-cultural issues discussions had on college students’ civic identity. Having conversations about differences and with people who are different from oneself does very little for civic identity. Learning more about someone’s life experience, we should hope, should influence how we think about and act in our communities. But according to my study, it does not. At least not directly.

The other result that was troubling was also the weakest path in the model. Engaging in social change behaviors does little to nothing for social perspective-taking. In other words, when students take part in social action, they do not incorporate the learning from these experiences into social perspective-taking. Some argue that social action leads to broadening of perspectives, which it very well could. But my study suggests that there is not much of a direct relationship there. Are students ignoring differing perspectives that they encounter when engaging in social action? Is there a lack of other perspectives present? Or is it that students lack a vital mechanism that helps them distill the meaning from encountering difference to a new, more nuanced and informed way of knowing? I tend to think the latter explanation is actually what is happening in this instance. Whatever the reason(s), the fact that engaging in social action might not predict social perspective-taking should be concerning to all of us who facilitate these experiences for students.

9. Please describe the implications of your results for moral education of college students.

I think one important implication is that educators must help students make meaning of experiences with diversity. Taking social action does little, at least directly, for social perspective-taking. Even though social action is largely predictive of civic identity, I think most people would hope that students’ civic identities are informed by diverse perspectives. Baxter Magolda (2001) argues that educators should be “good company” for students to promote their learning and development, meaning that educators should seek to challenge and support students through the meaning-making process. Helping students make meaning through guided reflections, dialogues, and structured activities that help them take the information they learn from civic experiences and integrate that information into new ways to see and operate within the world would help achieve the aim of being good company for students. Educators’ roles in developing the morality of students cannot be understated.

Many of the relationships I found in my study between the latent variables showed important differences by race. This suggests that the ways in which students develop their civic identities varies by race. Mean scores of the latent variables highlighted these racial differences as well. The development of morality in college students, I would argue, is racialized, just as it is likely gendered, mediated by social class, and varied by a host of other identities. Our ability to understand and learn from diversity is the key to the development of civic identities, which my research suggests, but I think the same can be said for moral development, too.

10. Dr. Susan Komives has been an especially important mentor to you in your studies. In what ways has she influenced your work in higher education as a student, teacher, researcher, as well as a mentor to your own students?

I always say that I’m lucky to be part of a long lineage of students who have had the good fortune of working with Susan. I like to joke that I had the “full Susan Komives experience” at Maryland—she was my advisor, dissertation chair, co-instructor, internship supervisor, assistantship supervisor, mentor, and teacher. From these various roles, she also became a very good friend to me. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from her is that it is possible to excel in all three areas of the professoriate (i.e., teaching, research, service), and also be a great partner and parent. I feel lucky to have witnessed glimpses into these aspects of her life and have always admired how she balances them.

She is a great blend of challenge and support as an advisor. She demands a lot out of her students, but she will do whatever it takes to ensure that you meet those high standards. I have always believed that the true testament of an educator is being able to see the potential in a student and bring that potential to fruition even when the student cannot see it. Susan excels at doing this difficult task. Susan has helped me think critically about research and the types of questions I want to investigate. She helped me understand the research process and build my research self-efficacy, as she would call it. As far as teaching, she would always situate the learning in a historical context by talking about the contextual factors that influenced what we were learning. She would talk about the genesis of a certain piece we were reading, points of contention about a leadership model she helped develop with others, or how a national committee came to be. She has a lifetime of experiences and stories about student affairs and higher education history and those stories are priceless and are often only carried down by word of mouth. I try to retell those stories as often and as accurately as possible because I believe they are important.

11. How has being a winner of the 2013 Dalton Institute Dissertation of the Year Award influenced your professional and academic experience?

The 2013 Dalton Institute was invigorating personally and professionally. It was nice to engage with so many educators who are focused on how college affects students and what we can do to influence their moral and civic development. Usually when I attend conferences, there is a small contingency of people interested in these issues amongst a much larger group of conference goers. But the Dalton Institute is specifically focused on these issues. That was refreshing!

Since I won the award, I have gained a lot of visibility and traction for my research. I was selected for a faculty excellence exhibition here at Central Michigan University to present my dissertation. This award has given me a platform to engage with many people around my dissertation research (including theJournal of College & Character) that I would not have had the opportunity to do so otherwise. I am very thankful to the Dalton Institute.

12. Where do you go from here with your research?

There are a couple of directions I would like to take my future research. Because my dissertation only provided a broad view of how social action, socio-cultural issues discussions, and social perspective-taking impact civic identity, I want to examine some of these relationships in a more nuanced way. I am particularly interested in how to develop increased social perspective-taking in college students because my research shows it is vital for students’ civic identity. In fact, I think one could argue that social perspective-taking undergirds most learning outcomes in higher education.

I am also interested in studying how college students take what they learn from socio-cultural issues discussions and incorporate that into social perspective-taking. This was a moderate relationship in my dissertation, but the relationships were not as strong as I think educators might hope. If students report having conversations about and across differences frequently, why aren’t they incorporating these perspectives into their worldview and acting upon that more informed worldview more often? There are probably a couple of research projects embedded in that question that I would like to pursue.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Franzoi, S., Davis, M., & Young, R. (1985). The effects of private self-consciousness and perspective taking on satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48 (6), 1584-1594.

Gehlbach, H. (2004). A new perspective on perspective taking: A multidimensional approach to conceptualizing an aptitude. Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 207-234.

Underwood, B., & Moore, B. (1982). Perspective-taking and altruism. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 143-173.