Course Syllabus

Welcome to POLSC232: American Government

Specific information about this course and its requirements can be found below. For more general information about taking Saylor Academy courses, including information about Community and Academic Codes of Conduct, please read the Student Handbook.


Course Description

Get an introduction to American politics: its constitutional foundations, the electoral process, political participation, the decision-making process in Congress, the executive branch, and federal courts.


Course Introduction

The scope and emphasis of this course go beyond a general understanding of civics to incorporate the core concepts of the American system of government, the workings of its myriad of actors and agencies, the key components of "politics" in the American system, and how American government shapes and influences the individual freedoms and rights of its citizens.

In the first unit, you will consider the core concepts and theoretical underpinnings of the American system of government: American political culture, the Constitution, and federalism. A solid grasp of these concepts will help you better understand the underlying basis for the structure of the American political system. In the second unit, you will explore the processes citizens use to learn about politics, including public opinion, the mass media, political parties, interest groups, campaigns, elections, and electoral participation. In the third unit, you will discuss the organizations and processes that impact the political and electoral landscape and how candidates and voters are affected. In the fourth unit, you will analyze the major governing bodies in the United States: Congress, the presidency, the bureaucracy, and the courts. In the fifth unit, you will discover how the American government shapes and influences the individual freedoms and rights of its citizens. In the final unit, you will take a close look at US social, economic, and foreign policies and the ways in which the broad themes of constitutional principles, political behavior, and governmental institutions have intersected to shape them. By the end of the course, you will have a strong understanding of the American system of government.

This course includes the following units:

  • Unit 1: American Political Foundations
  • Unit 2: American Political Behavior
  • Unit 3: Political Parties, Campaigns, Elections, and Interest Groups
  • Unit 4: American Political Institutions
  • Unit 5: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
  • Unit 6: Policymaking in American Government


Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • differentiate between the various forms of government and democracy;
  • analyze the various experiments with colonial governments in the British colonies;
  • discuss the issues, debates, and compromises that originated from the Constitutional Convention;
  • describe the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism as manifested in the US Constitution;
  • describe public opinion and how it is utilized as a barometer for measuring election results;
  • define the major factors that influence individual political socialization;
  • describe the major ways in which Americans participate in the electoral process;
  • analyze the role of the media in the American political system;
  • explain the role and function of political parties;
  • explain the process for electing congressional and presidential candidates to political office;
  • explain how the Electoral College functions;
  • assess the importance of incumbency in congressional elections;
  • discuss the roles and functions of interest groups on the political process;
  • explain the roles, duties, and functions of the US Congress;
  • compare and contrast the inner workings of the Senate and the House of Representatives;
  • explain the various factors that determine how a bill becomes a law.
  • assess the role of congressional committees in facilitating the legislative process;
  • explain the role and constitutional powers of the presidency, vice presidency, and the cabinet;
  • explain how the bureaucracy functions as the implementation arm of the Executive Branch;
  • explain the constitutional origins and structure of the federal court system and the Supreme Court;
  • analyze the difference between the legal philosophies of judicial restraint and judicial activism;
  • discuss the importance of judicial review as a power-checking mechanism on the other branches of government;
  • assess the ways in which the judicial nomination process has become politicized over time;
  • distinguish between civil rights and civil liberties;
  • explain the various constitutional protections afforded to individuals in the Bill of Rights;
  • trace the history of the civil rights movement and the expansion of civil rights to other disenfranchised groups;
  • define public policy and explain the major steps in the policy-making process;
  • explain the federal appropriations and budgetary process;
  • explain the various theories of tax and spending policies and their methods of implementation; and
  • trace the history and goals of economic, social, and foreign policy in the United States.

Throughout this course, you will also see learning outcomes in each unit. You can use those learning outcomes to help organize your studies and gauge your progress.


Course Materials

The primary learning materials for this course are articles, lectures, and videos.

All course materials are free to access and can be found in each unit of the course. Pay close attention to the notes that accompany these course materials, as they will tell you what to focus on in each resource, and will help you to understand how the learning materials fit into the course as a whole. You can also see a list of all the learning materials in this course by clicking on Resources in the navigation bar.


Evaluation and Minimum Passing Score

Only the final exam is considered when awarding you a grade for this course. In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you may take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt. Once you have successfully passed the final exam you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

There are also end-of-unit assessments and checkpoint quizzes in this course. These are designed to help you study, and do not factor into your final course grade. You can take these as many times as you want until you understand the concepts and material covered. You can see all of these assessments by clicking on Quizzes in the course's navigation bar.


College Board CLEP® PREP Alignment

Saylor Academy provides these free materials as a means to help students prepare to take various CLEP exams. However, Saylor Academy cannot guarantee that anyone studying these materials or taking a Saylor Academy CLEP PREP course will pass a CLEP exam. As stated in the User Agreement, Saylor Academy makes no warranty, express or implied, on the ability of anyone to pass a CLEP exam after studying these materials. All risks are assumed by the test taker.

Knowledge and Skills Required: The American Government CLEP examination covers material that is most commonly taught in a college-level, introductory American government and politics course. Questions on the American Government examination require candidates to demonstrate one or more of the following abilities in the approximate proportion indicated:

  • Knowledge of American government and politics (55%-65%)
  • Understanding of typical patterns of political processes and behavior (including the components of the behavioral situation of the particular actor) and the principles used to explain or justify various governmental structures and behaviors (30%-35%)
  • Analysis and interpretation of simple data that is relevant to American government and politics (10%-15%)

The subject matter of the American Government examination is drawn from the following topics. The percentages next to the main topics indicate the approximate percentage of exam questions on that topic.

30%-35% Institutions and Policy Processes: Presidency, Bureaucracy, and Congress

  • The major formal and informal institutional arrangements and powers
  • Structure, policy processes, and outputs
  • Relationships among these three institutions and links between them and political parties, interest groups, the media, and public opinion

15%-20% Federal Courts, Civil Liberties, and Civil Rights

  • Structure and processes of the judicial system, with emphasis on the role and influence of the Supreme Court
  • The development of civil rights and civil liberties by judicial interpretation
  • The Bill of Rights
  • Incorporation of the Bill of Rights
  • Equal protection and due process

15%-20% Political Parties and Interest Groups

  • Political parties (including their function, organization, mobilization, historical development, and effects on the political process)
  • Interest groups (including the variety of activities they typically undertake and their effects on the political process)
  • Elections (including the electoral process)

10%-15% Political Beliefs and Behavior

  • Processes by which citizens learn about politics
  • Political participation (including voting behavior)
  • Public opinion
  • Beliefs that citizens hold about their government and its leaders
  • Political culture (the variety of factors that predispose citizens to differ from one another in terms of their political perceptions, values, attitudes, and activities)
  • The influence of public opinion on political leaders

15%-20% Constitutional Underpinnings of American Democracy

  • Federalism (with attention to intergovernmental relations)
  • Separation of powers
  • Checks and balances
  • Majority rule
  • Minority rights
  • Considerations that influenced the formulation and adoption of the Constitution
  • Theories of democracy


Tips for Success

POLSC232: American Government is a self-paced course, which means that you can decide when you will start and when you will complete the course. There is no instructor or an assigned schedule to follow. We estimate that the "average" student will take 125 hours to complete this course. We recommend that you work through the course at a pace that is comfortable for you and allows you to make regular progress. It's a good idea to also schedule your study time in advance and try as best as you can to stick to that schedule.

Learning new material can be challenging, so we've compiled a few study strategies to help you succeed:

  • Take notes on the various terms, practices, and theories that you come across. This can help you put each concept into context, and will create a refresher that you can use as you study later on.
  • As you work through the materials, take some time to test yourself on what you remember and how well you understand the concepts. Reflecting on what you've learned is important for your long-term memory, and will make you more likely to retain information over time.
  • Although you may work through this course completely independently, you may find it helpful to connect with other Saylor students through the discussion forums. You may access the discussion forums at


Technical Requirements

This course is delivered entirely online. You will be required to have access to a computer or web-capable mobile device and have consistent access to the internet to either view or download the necessary course resources and to attempt any auto-graded course assessments and the final exam.

  • To access the full course including assessments and the final exam, you will need to be logged into your Saylor Academy account and enrolled in the course. If you do not already have an account, you may create one for free here. Although you can access some of the course without logging in to your account, you should log in to maximize your course experience. For example, you cannot take assessments or track your progress unless you are logged in.

For additional guidance, check out Saylor Academy's FAQ.



This course is entirely free to enroll in and to access. Everything linked in the course, including textbooks, videos, webpages, and activities, is available for no charge. This course also contains a free final exam and course completion certificate.

Last modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 12:24 PM