Legislative Branch

Understanding Federalism


Each of the five activities in this lesson introduces a different aspect of federalism. Introducing Federalism explores everyday situations that demonstrate the influence of federalism. The Historic Roots of Federalism shows students how the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are grounded in federalism. Federalism in the Constitution explores federalism as described in Article I of the Constitution. Federalism in History uses historic legislation to illustrate how the relationship between the Federal government and the states has changed over time. Federalism in Everyday Life uses everyday experience to show the overlap among the different levels of government. The activities can be completed separately over the course of several classes.


Students will learn about federalism and its role in civic life by completing one or more of the activities.

Guiding Question

What is federalism, and how does this constitutional principle influence government and civic life in the United States?


6 Worksheets

Answer Keys

Recommended Grade Levels

Grades 6-8


Civics; U.S. Government

Time Required

Each activity requires approximately 30 minutes to complete. Activity 5 has two optional parts which can be done in class or as homework assignments.

Learning Activities

Activity 1: Introducing Federalism

  1. Discuss the concept of federalism. Ask the students the following questions: (A suggested answer is italicized following each question.)
    • What is the definition of federalism?
      A system of government divided among local, state, and national responsibilities.
    • Why is federalism an important civic concept to understand?
      People encounter and interact with different levels of government—local, state, and Federal—every day.
  2. Distribute Worksheet 1. Instruct each student to use the definitions for each term to fill out the remaining two columns. The column for "Visual Representation" should be completed with an illustration showing the level of government and what it presides over. (E.g., a representation of the Federal government presiding over the states.) Check the students' work using the Worksheet 1 Answer Key.
  3. Distribute Worksheet 2. Instruct each student to answer the questions, write the explanation called for, and fill out the diagram following the directions on the worksheet. Check the students' work using the Worksheet 2 Answer Key.

Activity 2: The Historic Roots of Federalism

  1. Discuss the changing definition of federalism throughout history. Talking points could include:
    • Federalism has not had one set definition throughout history, because the idea of the appropriate balance of authority among the local, state, and Federal governments has changed over time.
    • Federalism is not specifically defined in the Constitution, but its meaning is suggested in how the national government is described.
  2. After the students have completed Worksheet 3, have a class discussion based on the following two questions: (A suggested answer is italicized following each question.)
    • How is the role of the states different in the two preambles?
      Under the Articles of Confederation the states were partners in the union and had power over the action of the Federal government. The relationship of the states to the Federal government was not mentioned in the Preamble of the Constitution.
    • Does the difference in the role of the states suggest a change in the meaning of federalism?
      Federalism under the Articles of Confederation meant that all states had to agree to each action of the Federal government in order for the Federal government to act. The role of the states and their relationship is not spelled out in the Preamble of the Constitution.

Activity 3: Federalism in the Constitution

  1. Discuss the concept of enumerated powers (powers granted to the Federal government), denied powers, and reserved power in the Constitution.
  2. Distribute Worksheet 4. Instruct the students to read the excerpt from the Constitution, and label each power as either E for enumerated power, D for denied power, or R for reserved power. Check the students' work using the Worksheet 4 Answer Key.
  3. Conduct a class discussion on the following question to check the students' understanding: (A suggested answer is italicized following the question.)
  4. Which clause of Article I, Section 8 do you think has the greatest influence on the discussion of Federalism?
    The answers can vary, but the most solid case might be made for Article I, Section 8 "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."
  5. Display or read aloud the Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Conduct a class discussion on the following questions to check the students' understanding: (A suggested answer is italicized following each question.)
    • The Tenth Amendment does not list any specific powers. What does that mean?
      The Tenth Amendment broadly says that all powers not given to the national government are reserved for the states and the people. This leaves the meaning of reserved powers open to interpretation.
    • In what ways might the Tenth Amendment influence the interpretation of the Enumerated Powers?
      The Tenth Amendment suggests that the states have undefined powers reserved to them. Determining the extent of the authority reserved to the states by this amendment has been a long-running debate in U.S. history.

Activity 4: Federalism in History

  1. Introduce the students to the idea that the balance of authority between the Federal government and the states has shifted at different times in American history.
  2. Explain how legislation can grant new authority or responsibility to Federal, state, or local government.
  3. Distribute Worksheets 5. This worksheet presents two famous acts of legislation that changed the balance of authority between the Federal government and the states during the 20th century. Each example invites an assessment of the balance of authority over a topic. Check the students' work using the Worksheet 5 Answer Key.

Activity 5: Federalism in Everyday Life

  1. Remind the students of how Worksheet 2 illustrated the overlap among the levels of government. Explain that, as a consequence, we often see examples in everyday life that demonstrate the overlapping authority of different levels of government.
  2. Distribute Worksheet 6 to the students. Completing this worksheet will illustrate how federalism is encountered every day, and how the responsibilities of the three levels of government are interconnected.

Optional Activity

  1. The optional activity printed on page two of Worksheet 6 invites the students to identify how they experience the constitutional concept of federalism in everyday life.
  2. Ask the students to present their experience of federalism to the class by making a PowerPoint, poster, or video.

Additional Resources

Did you like this lesson? Educators who used this lesson also viewed:

  • Teaching Six Big Ideas in the Constitution - Students engage in a study of the U.S. Constitution and the significance of six big ideas contained in it: limited government; republicanism; checks and balances; federalism; separation of powers; and popular sovereignty.

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