Experiential Learning and Learning Styles
Abstract and Keywords
The intellectual foundation of modern experiential learning theory owes much of its roots to John Dewey’s educational philosophy. In his seminal 1916 work, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey argued that human knowledge and education are rooted in inquiry, which in turn is rooted in human experience. His ideas, along with those of Jean Piaget, formed the basis of D. A. Kolb’s 1984 book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Kolb’s theory of learning, which he formulated to better understand student learning styles, became the starting point for the debate on the use of experiential learning. Kolb introduced a four-stage cycle to explain learning: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. His framework has been adopted to investigate how learning occurs inside the classroom. However, numerous criticisms have been leveled against Kolb’s learning styles approach. One type of criticism focuses on the importance of learning style on student learning, and another focuses on the construct validity, internal validity, and reliability of Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI). There are several avenues for improving the use of experiential learning techniques, such as the integration of service-learning into the classroom and an institutional commitment to designing a complete curriculum.
Keywords: experiential learning, John Dewey, D. A. Kolb, concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation, theory of learning, learning styles, curriculum design
This article focuses on the educational theory behind experiential learning and the related concept of learning styles. Rather than providing a comprehensive review of particular active learning techniques or an overall picture of the active learning literature, the article focuses on experiential learning and the related concept of learning styles as theories of learning. At its core, this educational theory and philosophy focuses more on the process of education than it does on content. For a more comprehensive review of the existing active learning literature in International Studies, see Lantis, Kille, and Krain (2018), in addition to the more technique-specific entries in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies: Lantis, Kille, and Krain, 2018; Carter, 2017, Kuzma, 2017; Shaw, 2017; and Van Dyke, 2017. The article by Lantis et al. (2018) provides an introduction to experiential learning theory, tracing its early intellectual roots and applications of it in the first half of the 20th century, then moves to a discussion of the more modern development of experiential learning theory and learning styles, focusing on Kolb’s 1984 work Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, the starting point of much of the debate on the use of experiential learning. The article also looks at applications of Kolb and his critics, as well as the use of experiential learning in the teaching of political science and international studies, including a review of efforts to more thoroughly assess the effectiveness of active learning in the international studies classroom. It concludes with a discussion of possible avenues of future research into the uses of experiential learning and Kolb’s learning styles and implications of experiential learning theory on curricular design.
Experiential Education: Definition and Philosophy
The educational philosophy of John Dewey provides the intellectual foundation of much modern experiential learning theory. Dewey’s approach to education is summarized in his seminal work Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916). This work, along with other of his writings on education, was rooted in the progressive political era of the time and largely formed the philosophical basis of progressive educational reforms in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Dewey argues that human knowledge and education are rooted in inquiry, which is itself rooted in human experience. He states: “To ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like” (Dewey, 1916, p. 164). Using this concept, Dewey argued that humans are always learning through their interactions with the world around them, suggesting that the best form of education will be one that emphasizes creating meaningful experiences for learners in recognition of the natural way in which individuals learn. Doing so not only helps the acquisition of knowledge and skills in particular areas, but enables individuals to apply the concepts of learning from experience to other areas of their life, creating, in effect, lifelong learners who are able intentionally to shape their life experiences into continual educational moments.
Dewey’s educational philosophy took direct aim at traditional education in two ways. First, his emphasis on the importance of individual experience and inquiry meant that drilling students on reading, math, and language might enable them to repeat back rote knowledge, but did little to help them develop their minds and become effective at applying important concepts. In essence, his theory of learning called for an overhaul of how schools should be operated by de-emphasizing both traditional techniques and traditional content. Second, he argued that schools had an important social purpose to play in a democratic society by improving the prospects of social progress for students across the socioeconomic spectrum by instructing students to shape their experiences more intentionally, to improve their understanding of the world around them. Importantly, Dewey did not advocate on behalf of any one type of experience, but rather emphasized that experience is the key to learning.
Though Dewey would later argue that educational practitioners had gone too far in removing traditional subjects from the classroom, his ideas, along with those of other progressive education reformers such as William Heard Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, and Ann Shumaker, proved to be quite influential in American education for quite some time (Ravitch, 1983, pp. 58–59). Educational practitioners began to redesign curricula around the country to emphasize classes based on projects and life skills while de-emphasizing the classic liberal arts, including the teaching of foreign languages. A related development was the evolution of admissions requirements at the most prestigious universities away from the liberal arts to more standardized examinations of student aptitude, eventually including the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Such tests paved the way for students who did not attend prestigious preparatory academies to gain admission to top tier educational institutions (Ravitch, 1983, p. 69). While this era of education reform did have lasting effects, the launching of Sputnik in 1957 helped lead to a reevaluation of American education and led to a new emphasis on science and math education that de-emphasized the experiential reforms of the first half of the 20th century.
Education reform became a central topic again, in 1983, with the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which emphasized the decline in American education and called for comprehensive changes in American schools. This call for reform coincided with a new focus on how students learn and a revisiting of the most appropriate instructional methods. It was in this reform context that Kolb released Experiential Learning.
Kolb’s work is primarily an explanation of how individuals learn, not a set of guidelines on how to construct educational experiences, though he does argue for the adoption of new instructional techniques. Drawing primarily on the work of Dewey and Jean Piaget, Kolb’s theory of learning is based at least in part on the idea that learning should be understood as “development toward a life of purpose and self-direction” (Kolb, 1984, p. 18). Kolb contrasted his theory of learning with traditional “competence based education,” arguing that experiential learning is a “program for profoundly re-creating our personal lives and social systems” (1984, p. 18), recalling the earlier areas of emphasis of Dewey. To Kolb, the evolution of experiential learning since 1984, in colleges and universities, was best understood as part of a broader effort to improve higher education, with a focus on supplanting the traditional notion of higher education as an enterprise focused primarily on a knowledge-transfer model (Kolb & Kolb, 2006). The breadth of the secondary literature that has grown around Kolb’s work, both in developing teaching techniques and in understanding the importance of learning styles, requires a more comprehensive examination of the core of Kolb’s work.
Kolb’s broad theory is based on six central premises (all paraphrased and quoted from Kolb & Kolb, 2006):
1. Learning is a process. Students will learn best when the focus is on the learning process rather than specific outcomes.
2. “All learning is relearning.” In effect, this observation suggests that a modified version of the scientific method is central to all learning. It recognizes that students bring preconceptions to each topic based on existing knowledge and beliefs. Learning is the process of testing those preconceptions and replacing them with more refined beliefs and conceptions.
3. Learning requires recognition of conflicting ways of interacting and adapting to the world. “Conflict, differences, and disagreement are what drive the learning process.”
4. Learning is about adaptation to the world. It requires recognition of the totality of an individual’s functioning, including thinking, perceiving, and acting in and about the world.
5. Learning occurs as a result of “transactions between the person and the environment.” New interactions with the world (experiences) help to modify old conceptions about the world, while existing conceptions help to explain one’s experiences in the world.
6. “Learning is the process of creating knowledge . . . social knowledge is created and recreated in the personal knowledge of the learner. This stands in contrast to the ‘transmission’ model.”
Based on this underlying argument, Kolb developed a four-stage cycle to explain learning. The cycle includes concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Both concrete experience and abstract conceptualization are about acquiring information about the world, but through different mechanisms. Using Kolb’s example, in learning about a chair, concrete experience would be sitting in a chair and gaining a tactile understanding of the chair, while abstract conceptualization would be the use of other concepts, to provide some understanding of what a chair is.
The other two phases of the cycle, reflective observation and active experimentation, are both about taking information gained through direct observation or abstract conceptualization and transforming it so that it has greater use. In reflection, one contemplates all aspects of information gained and its implications, while in active experimentation, one extends the breadth of information by actively seeking to acquire new and different input upon which to reflect (Kolb, 1984).
Kolb’s major application of his particular theory was to better understand student learning styles. Using his cyclical explanation of learning, he developed a typology of learning styles based on which phases of the cycle students are most likely to engage in and find stimulating. Kolb’s four primary learning styles are diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating (Kolb, 1984). Each of the styles is best understood as some combination of the manner in which the individual acquires and uses information about the world. In addition, each of these learning styles also has certain attitudes and abilities in regard to the learning process. The learning styles have the following attributes:
• Diverging: The Diverging style’s dominant learning abilities are Concrete Experience (CE) and Reflective Observation (RO). People with this learning style are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view. The style is labeled “Diverging” because a person with it performs better in situations that call for generation of ideas, such as “brainstorming” sessions. People with a Diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. Research shows that they are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, have broad cultural interests, and tend to specialize in the arts. In formal learning situations, people with the Diverging style prefer to work in groups, listening with an open mind and receiving personalized feedback.
• Assimilating: The Assimilating style’s dominant learning abilities are Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO). People with this learning style are best at understanding a wide range of information and putting it into concise, logical form. Individuals with an Assimilating style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. Generally, people with this style find it more important that a theory have logical soundness than practical value. The Assimilating learning style is important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.
• Converging: The Converging style’s dominant learning abilities are Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE). People with this learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They have the ability to solve problems and make decisions based on finding solutions to questions or problems. Individuals with a Converging learning style prefer to deal with technical tasks and problems rather than with social issues and interpersonal issues. These learning skills are important for effectiveness in specialist and technology careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer to experiment with new ideas, simulations, laboratory assignments, and practical applications.
• Accommodating: The Accommodating style’s dominant learning abilities are Concrete Experience (CE) and Active Experimentation (AE). People with this learning style have the ability to learn from primarily hands-on experience. They enjoy carrying out plans and involving themselves in new and challenging experiences. Their tendency may be to act on gut feelings rather than on logical analysis. In solving problems, individuals with an Accommodating learning style rely more heavily on people for information than on their own technical analysis. This learning style is important for effectiveness in action-oriented careers such as marketing or sales. In formal learning situations, people with the Accommodating learning style prefer to work with others to get assignments done, to set goals, to do fieldwork, and to test out different approaches to completing a project. (Quoted from Kolb, 1984; Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001; Kolb & Kolb, 2006)
Kolb further argued that students with certain learning styles are often attracted to certain majors or career paths. Importantly, though Kolb suggested that students interested in social science will often have the greatest strengths in concrete experience and reflective observation, or a Diverging style (Kolb & Kolb, 2006). The only research specifically looking at political science majors, according to Kolb’s framework, found that all learning styles were represented, with more assimilators than any other category (Fox & Ronkowski, 1997). This study found that, out of 132 political science students, 21 were accommodators, 22 were convergers, 33 were assimilators, and 24 were divergers (1997, p. 735).
Application of Learning Styles to the Classroom
Learning styles are very important to classroom instruction in that different students find different types of material engaging. The same type of classroom activity or learning method may work better with some students than others. Research in a variety of fields has indicated that learning style has an influence on a student’s performance in certain types of settings, a student’s preferred path of study (and career), and even on the interaction between faculty and staff. One of the first studies using Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI) studied students in an introductory management course and found that students with different learning styles performed differently on a common assessment depending on the type of discussion section (experiential, discussion, or simulation) to which they were assigned. Learning style did affect the level of learning that occurred in each type of section. In fact, the study also showed that certain types of learners even had higher attendance (Brenenstuhl & Catalanello, 1979). This finding was supported by a smaller test conducted using marketing students (Coulter, Coulter, Widing, & Rowe, 1990). Similarly, research conducted in a financial services company that had to participate in continuing education classes found significant differences in preferred types of learning delivery methods among the different learning types (Buch & Bartley, 2002).
Similar research conducted in the health sciences has generated similar conclusions. In particular, Kosower and Berman (1996) found that different types of residents receiving medical training have different preferred learning styles, finding that those with more generalist areas of focus preferred concrete experience and active experimentation, while more specialist-oriented residents preferred abstract conceptualization. Interestingly, faculty differed significantly from residents by being far less likely than residents to favor concrete experience or active experimentation. Further, the authors find a similar difference in elementary school teachers, who are typically more generalist in approach, and secondary school teachers, who tend to be more specialized (Kosower & Berman, 1996). Their research is supported by findings by White and Anderson (1995) on effective learning techniques in residency programs. Based on a series of interviews between residents and attending physicians, they concluded that faculty expectations on when learning occurs often differ from those of their residents.
Several other studies have demonstrated the importance of the learning cycle and learning styles. Studies involving engineering students (Stice, 1987), social work field instruction (Rashick, Maypole, & Day, 1998), student performance on exams (Lynch, Woelfl, Steele, & Hansen, 1998), student “enjoyment” of online courses (Richmond & Cummings, 2005; Simpson & Du, 2004), and retention (Kalsbeek, 1986) all have shown that learning style has a significant effect on student enjoyment and outcomes. Some research indicates that offering a variety of learning methods to accommodate different styles can lead to improved outcomes and higher student satisfaction (Lengnick-Hall & Sanders, 1997).
One common thread in many of these studies outside of political science is the emphasis on out-of-classroom experiences as educational experiences, not terribly surprising given that many of the fields of study that have conducted the most research using Kolb’s framework, such as medical education, business, teacher education, social work, and distance learning, have significant out of classroom components that are central to their educational missions. In doing so, they highlight the importance of works like those of Dewey and Kolb in bringing work outside the classroom and inside the classroom into the same broad explanation of how learning occurs.
Criticism of the Learning Styles Approach
Kolb’s work is not without its critics. The first type of criticism centers on the importance of learning style on student learning, arguing either that learning style does not affect outcomes, or that different learning styles can be taught. Terrell and Dringus (2000) found no significant effect of learning style on student retention in online learning courses. Kolb himself argued that different individuals can exhibit different learning styles in different situations and that learning style can evolve over time (Kolb, 1984, pp. 78–98). Indeed, several authors (including Kolb) encourage the development of skills from each of the learning styles in order to facilitate learning (cf. Cornett, 1983). Moreover, Jones, Reichard, and Mokhtari (2003) specifically argue that students, while having a dominant learning style, are able to use different learning styles depending on the discipline being studied, particularly when they are trained to do so. Their study also indicated that males and females may have different preferences, not in abstract learning styles, but in specific instructional methods. In particular, men tend to prefer traditional classroom learning styles, while women exhibit a preference for less traditional, less formal learning settings.
A second set of learning style criticism focuses more on the construct validity, internal validity, and reliability of Kolb’s learning style assessment instrument, the LSI. Studying an earlier version of the LSI, Cornwell and Manfredo (1994), for example, did not find support for Kolb’s learning style types. A separate study similarly found that differences in learning style do exist, but that an analysis of differences does not necessarily support Kolb’s learning styles or his four primary learning abilities (Geiger, Boyle, & Pinto, 1992). Koob and Funk (2002) summarized additional findings that criticize the use of the LSI, particularly in its ability to replicate results. Importantly, however, Koob and Funk did note that many of the authors who criticize Kolb “did support the general concept that individuals use different learning strategies” (2002, p. 303). Hickcox (2006) provided a review of several other indices that measure different learning types that serve as alternatives to Kolb’s LSI. Additionally, in examining a revised version of Kolb’s LSI, Kayes (2005) summarized research in support of and opposed to the LSI and, in a study of 221 graduate and undergraduate business students, largely supports Kolb’s approach.
Subsequent scholarship that criticizes the use of learning styles argues that even in the face of significant psychological research that calls the approach into question, the use of learning styles is still widespread in educational literature. Riener and Wllingham (2010) argued that, while evidence supports the idea that students have different preferences in how they learn, and that different students do excel in different areas, less evidence suggests that learning style exists independent of subject matter or that matching testing and instructional methods to learning outcomes leads to different outcomes. Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi (2015) further argued that little-to-no scientific evidence exists to base instructional strategies on learning styles, while Newton (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of research on learning styles and finds that, while it has little scientific support, a significant majority of papers referencing learning styles endorses there use in instruction.
Other Approaches to Learning Styles
Written in the same reform context as Kolb, Howard Gardner’s (1983) work Frames of Mind provided a comprehensive introduction to his theory of multiple intelligences, which emphasized that human intelligence is not a singular construct, but rather is composed of different innate abilities, with most individuals being stronger in certain areas than others. Using an analytical framework defining the characteristics of individual intelligences, he originally identified seven distinct intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal; in a later work, he expanded the list to include a naturalist intelligence (Gardner, 1999).
Gardner’s work helped to explain why certain individuals could excel in one area of education while struggling in others. It also suggested that one could tailor learning experiences to the individual learner, so that individuals could enhance areas of strength (such as musical intelligence) while using those strengths to better learn other subject areas. By way of example, individuals with different dominant intelligences may learn to read in different ways (Gardner, 1983, pp. 388–392). The implications that follow are similar to those of Kolb’s work: that multiple instructional methods may be required to help students with different areas of strength to succeed. Gardner summarizes:
First, it is necessary to spend significant time on a topic. Second, it is essential to portray the topic in a number of ways, both to illustrate its intricacies and to reach the various students. Third, it is highly desirable if the multiple approaches explicitly call on a range of intelligences, skills and interests.
(Gardner, 1999, p. 176)
Like Kolb, a significant secondary literature has grown around Gardner, arguing for the general efficacy of using multiple intelligences in the classroom as an effective learning tool (cf. Boatman, Courtney, & Lee, 2008; Schrand, 2008; Williams, 2007). More importantly, however, both approaches are part of a larger body of theory on effective education. The American Psychological Association has endorsed a learner-centered approach to education at all levels, including higher education, that relies on the same central point pressed by Kolb, Gardner, and other researchers—that effective instruction requires “an understanding of the nature of the individual learner (his or her characteristics, cultural and family background, experiences, and needs)” and that “educational programs must be concerned with all of the unique individual differences of each learner” (Lambert & McCombs, 1998, p. 12).
Experiential Learning in the Political Science Literature
It was once true that less attention has been paid to experiential learning in the political science literature than in other fields such as medicine and health sciences, business management, computer science, and education (Kolb et al., 2001). A robust pedagogical literature in political science and international relations has begun to form since the early 2000s, though it does not always use an explicit framework such as Kolb’s. An examination of bibliographies on experiential learning and a search of the political science pedagogical literature for works explicitly applying Kolb’s learning types reveal that, although political scientists have written a great deal about specific active learning techniques and have undertaken more systematic assessment of those techniques, few have written on the comprehensive use of Kolb’s theories specifically or learning styles more generally. Two articles specifically look at Kolb’s experiential learning theory and learning styles. Fox and Ronkowski (1997) completed a study of students at Union College enrolled in political science classes in spring 1995. Their research found strong representation of all of Kolb’s learning types, and further found some difference in junior/senior students versus freshmen/sophomores, with the latter having a preference for concrete experience over abstraction, though the result was not statistically significant. Based on their findings, they recommend using a number of different teaching methods in each course. In this way, focus would not be on one method or one learning style, but rather would offer something different to each learning style.
Brock and Cameron (1999) focused less on the types of students that are in political science classes and more on the types of activities that can be used to engage each type of the learning cycle. Importantly, they noted that different exercises can be used to stimulate different parts of the learning cycle depending on how they are used. This article provides some guidance for designing activities to appeal to different types of learners; it does not actually assess the use of these techniques on different learning types.
Subsequent work by Leithner (2011) used an alternative conception of learning styles based on the Solomon and Felder Learning Style Index to conduct an experiment to match two sections of students, one control group with a specified exam format and one experimental group in which students could select a format. The study finds that students with different learning styles perform at different levels depending on the exam format. Moreover, when given a choice in exam style, students who choose the correct format for their particular learning style perform better than students choosing the incorrect format. In the experimental group, this matching of learning style to exam format even lessens the importance of GPA in predicting exam performance.
Moving away from learning styles in particular, political scientists have written fairly extensively on a variety of active learning techniques that have been and can be used in the classroom. The availability of outlets, including journals such as PS: Political Science and Politics, International Studies Perspectives, and The Journal of Political Science Education, books such as The New International Studies Classroom (Lantis, Kuzma, & Boehrer, 2000), APSA’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference, and online resources, such as ISA’s teaching and learning Professional Resource Center, has eased the distribution of material on teaching. The article titled “Active Teaching and Learning: The State of the Literature” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, in addition to the topic-specific entries, does an excellent job in reviewing the general literature on a variety of active learning techniques, so that review will not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that, though less work may have been done on active learning in international relations than in other fields in the past, international relations professors do have an increasing number of resources to which they can turn to find new techniques and exercises to use in their classroom.
Political scientists have begun taking a greater interest in assessing the impact of alternative learning techniques as well. Assessment of active learning techniques is important for several reasons. First, effective assessment instruments to measure student learning are needed not only to assign student grades, but also to determine if students are, in fact, achieving the desired learning outcomes. Second, from a strategic standpoint, assessment of non-traditional instructional techniques is important to demonstrate that they are effective at achieving desired outcomes in order to gain continued support for their use (Gardner, 1999, pp. 148–149; Kolb & Kolb, 2006, p. 81). Third, assessing student learning and student reaction to learning experiences is a necessary part of improving instructional techniques. If an exercise does not achieve its desired objectives, effective assessment can provide valuable insight into where the exercise went wrong.
Early works assessing active learning and experiential learning techniques relied more heavily on student responses. Many of these reported positive student responses to a variety of activities, including service-learning, simulations, and class discussion (cf. Chasek, 2005; Krain & Nurse, 2004; Patterson, 2000; Shellman, 2001). Shellman and Turan (2006) found that students participating in a simulation in their international relations classes enjoyed the activity, ranking it favorably compared to other college learning experiences, and believed that they learned a great deal from it. This study, however, did not use a control group or an independent assessment of student knowledge, but rather relied on student surveys.
Additional works have expanded on this approach, using a variety of in-class assessments to measure student progress and satisfaction. For example, Pettenger, West, and Young (2014) developed a framework based on Anderson and Krathwohl’s learning taxonomy (discussed in Anderson, Krathwohl, & Bloom, 2001) to assess student learning on exams at multiple universities. They found that, in a climate change simulation, among other things, students from Canada and the United States had different views regarding the simulation. Burrell Storms, Labonte, Siscar, and Martin (2015) developed an overall assessment approach to measuring learning in global humanitarian programs that are part of the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network. In a cross-campus comparison that utilized pre and post-tests, Zapille, Beers, and Raymond (2017) argued that using real-time, problem-based simulations increase student empathy and political engagement under certain conditions, while Lorenzini (2013) found that direct engagement of student constituencies in planning of the Atlas Program at St. Louis University improved self-reported student knowledge and awareness of global issues. Horn et al. (2016) used a zombie epidemic simulation to improve student knowledge of international relations theory, finding that the simulation improved student understanding of certain theoretical concepts. Saiya (2016) used the Statecraft simulation as a supplemental assignment and tested whether or not student attitudes on foreign policy shifted as a result of the simulation. The article finds that while attitudes did not change tremendously, students that were the furthest to the left and the right both moved toward the center. Rothman (2012) argued that the use of a negotiating simulation helped students to improve their understanding of game theoretic concepts, though the article acknowledges that the lack of a comparative design limits the claims that the authors are able to make.
Rothman’s (2012) insight, that his study lacked a true comparative element (p. 449), highlighted an issue that continues to be problematic for much of the literature regarding student learning in international studies: we lack a clear comparison. Some studies have attempted to address this issue. Krain and Lantis (2006) used an experimental design to test the effectiveness of the Global Problems simulation. To complete their study, one section of Introduction to International Relations was exposed to the simulation, while a different section during the same semester received the same material through lecture. Each section was taught by one of the co-authors. To control for instructor effects, one instructor used a simulation negotiating a global non-proliferation treaty while the other lectured over the same material. The two then reversed roles, with the instructor who lectured over proliferation conducting a simulation of negotiations for the Convention Against Torture, while the other lectured over the material. For both simulations, the students completed a pre- and post-test quiz that contained both factual questions and student self-assessments of knowledge over the subjects. In both tests, the study found that both active learning techniques and traditional teaching methods had similar effects on acquisition of knowledge. Student responses on perceptions of knowledge gained differed in the two experiments, but not in a statistically significant manner. The authors concluded that their evidence does suggest that students learn differently and may take different lessons away from active learning techniques. In particular, they stated:
the Global Problems Summit helped boost student understanding of some of the broader dimensions of international cooperation. This finding adds empirical evidence to bolster claims made by proponents of active and experiential learning. Not only did students enjoy the simulation and believe that it helped them to relate better to what otherwise might feel like distant and abstract global problems, but they also gained knowledge as demonstrated by rigorous and objective assessment techniques.
(Krain & Lantis, 2006, p. 405)
A similar study by Krain and Shadle (2006) compared students who chose to attend a Hunger Banquet on campus with students in two international politics classes who did not attend the banquet, but received instruction on the problems of world hunger. The two groups of students had similar levels of knowledge and perceptions of their level of knowledge in pre-test, and both did make significant gains in both categories upon treatment. The group that attended the Hunger Banquet, however, had a statistically significant greater gain than the control group both on a pre/post-test quiz and in a pre/post-test assessment of perceived knowledge. Though the students attending the Hunger Banquet did self-select, Krain and Shadle argued that the Banquet helped improve knowledge acquisition when compared to a normal classroom format, but also that “[a]ctive learning at its best is empowering to students, because they participate more directly in their own education, and learn that they can be both recipients of and generators of knowledge” (Krain & Shadle, 2006, p. 63).
Powner and Allendoerfer (2008) built upon these studies with an experimental design testing the use of active learning techniques at the University of Michigan. The authors used discussion sections of Introduction to World Politics at the University of Michigan to compare the use of a role-playing simulation with traditional discussion. In the design, two graduate student instructors (GSI) taught one section using the role-playing simulation and one section using traditional discussion methods. At the end of the sessions, students completed a brief assessment containing five multiple choice questions and one short answer question. All assessments were scored by the authors, not the students’ GSIs. As an additional control, two sections were given the assessment before participating in any discussion of the material beyond the lecture. Not surprisingly, they found that participation in both traditional discussion and role-play improved student performance, compared to traditional lectures. The findings were surprising in another regard, however. Contrary to expectations, students in the traditional discussion group experienced greater gains than the lecture-only group on the short answer question, while the role-playing groups did better on the multiple choice portion. Differences between the role-play and discussion groups were not statistically significant, but the sign was not in the expected direction; that is, the discussion groups performed better than the role-play groups, but the difference was not significant.
Leithner’s (2011) work on learning styles discussed in the previous section “Experiential Learning in the Political Science Literature” used an experimental design to assess whether or not learning styles affect performance on exams. Sjöstedt (2015) used a quasi-experimental design to compare student learning outcomes in an introductory international relations course. Students taking the course in the first of the three-year study took a traditional course, while students taking the class over the next two years took a class that used a variety of techniques, including smaller seminar discussions, the use of film, and simulations. Students in the courses using active learning techniques did perform better overall than students in the traditional course. The students enjoyed the active learning techniques and believed they were helpful in learning material, though overall course evaluations were not higher for the courses using more learning techniques. This study, however, did not control for many factors outside of participation in the active learning versus more traditional course.
Future Avenues for Research
These studies and similar exercises done in simulating the activities of American political institutions (Baranowski, 2006; Lay & Smarick, 2006) do show some benefit to using active learning techniques in the classroom, though the benefit is not as great as expected in some cases and cannot be shown through traditional assessment in others. These studies are an important step in evaluating the use of experiential techniques in the classroom, but each also points the way to future directions for the assessment and a more systematic use of experiential learning theory and learning styles in the classroom.
The first area for improvement in the use of experiential learning techniques is suggested by Krain and Lantis (2006) and Krain and Shadle (2006): students may gain something qualitatively different from active learning than they do from traditional classroom learning. Though traditional lecture is effective at increasing student knowledge, as noted earlier the theory behind experiential learning is as much about learning process as it is about material. By engaging in active learning techniques, students become more active participants in the learning process and gain new skills to acquire future knowledge to go along with the increased knowledge from the particular lesson. This seems to be a key insight from Lorenzini (2013): students gain something by being part of the learning process. Smith noted that “I have many more students return a year or two or three after the service-learning experience to tell me . . . about the impact of the service work on their worldviews . . . than I do students telling me of the same long-term impact of a research paper I assigned” (Smith, 2006, p. 164). Saiya (2016) may be another example of this kind of work by measuring the effect of the Statecraft simulation on foreign policy attitudes, while Zappile et al. (2017) explicitly set out to affect student empathy with their simulation.
Nonetheless, the teaching and learning literature specific to the study of international relations for the most part does not sufficiently address a comparison between traditional and experiential learning. Neither comparisons of, nor perceptions about knowledge gained will reveal the true benefit of experiential learning techniques in the classroom. Kolb and Kolb (2006) share this concern, arguing that, though experiential learning must prove its effectiveness to be adopted in a more widespread fashion, “the current evaluation methods favored by most institutions of higher education are not only deficient in responding to the experiential learning pedagogy, they are inadequate in measuring learning outcomes of any educational pedagogy currently in practice” (Kolb & Kolb, 2006, p. 81). This concern suggests that as we move forward in our studies of experiential learning methods, we need to devise new methods of assessment that can meaningfully measure the differential effects of experiential learning techniques. As reflected in Powner and Allendoerfer’s critique of assessment efforts, one such approach may simply be to include more longitudinal studies of learning outcomes. Another may be to complete more detailed assessment of knowledge gained through active learning techniques, compared to other techniques, to better measure whether certain types of knowledge are more easily taught through experience. Burrell Storms et al. (2015) provided one example of this; education for humanitarian aid workers often relies on both the classroom and experience. This study’s effort to develop a common assessment for humanitarian aid programs provides an interesting model for those using experiential techniques. Pettinger et al. (2014) may also point a way forward by developing an assessment strategy to examine outcomes in simulations, while works such as Rothman (2012) and Asal, Sin, Fahrenkopf, and She (2014) may suggest ways that simulations and games can be used to teach process in a way that traditional learning methods do not.
An additional flaw in the experiential learning literature in international politics as of this writing is that controlled comparisons have, by and large, treated traditional learning and experiential learning in opposition to one another by asking the question: which students learned more—those engaged in traditional classroom learning or those exposed to experiential design? If the above insight is correct, that students may learn differently from different learning techniques, active learning components of courses should not be seen as discrete units in a class replacing traditional teaching, but rather as integrated parts of a classroom that combines traditional teaching methods with alternative teaching approaches.
Finally, related to the need to treat discrete active learning activities as parts of a holistic learning experience, only one of the aforementioned studies examined the impact of active teaching techniques on different learning styles, an issue acknowledged by Powner and Allendoerfer (2008, p. 86) in regard to their own study. This insight is particularly important in that the learning styles approach suggests that different students will be stimulated by different types of activities. In this regard, we should not be surprised that some students do better when exposed to active learning activities than others, or that some students will do better in traditional classroom settings than others. Even if we do not fully accept that learning styles can be effectively measured, even critics of the approach argue that varied teaching techniques may improve learning experiences.
Attention to learning styles and mixed teaching methods presents two additional challenges. First, due attention should be paid to including multiple learning styles not only in each course, but often in regard to the same lesson (Fox & Ronkowski, 1997; Kneale, Bradbeer, & Healey, 2006). Sjöstedt (2015) demonstrated improved learning outcomes and student engagement when employing multiple techniques. When one teaching technique is used to the exclusion of others for a major portion of the class, instructors should also take care to provide sufficient guidance to learners who may not be as engaged by that particular technique. In other disciplines, particularly the sciences, frequent use of lab sessions to build upon classroom knowledge is a good example of the application of multiple techniques being used to better educate students. In international politics, one possible example of using multiple methods to teach the same material without taking too much time is the teaching of the prisoner’s dilemma through classroom instruction about what it is, what each actor’s incentive is, how it has been used in the literature; and about its weaknesses, followed by the use of some form of a prisoner’s dilemma simulation (cf. Asal et al., 2014; Ehrhardt, 2008).
A second example of using multiple methods in the teaching of international politics could be the expanded use of out-of-classroom experiences, as exemplified by the use of service-learning and internships. Service-learning has as its goal not only promotion of student learning, but also improving college engagement with the community and promoting greater civic participation and awareness by students upon graduation. These goals are in line with the experiential approach to education in that they reflect both a concern with student knowledge acquisition gained through interaction with their environment, and Dewey’s concern with promoting lifelong learning and positive social development. Service-learning has, among other benefits, the additional benefit of already being supported by a strong body of literature demonstrating its effectiveness at improving student performance in the classroom, and in promoting better awareness of diversity and greater community involvement by students after college than among peers who did not engage in similar experiences (cf. Astin & Sax, 1998; Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999; Eyler & Giles, 1999).
Little work has been done in political science examining the inclusion of service-learning into the classroom. Works describing service-learning in international politics include working with refugees (Patterson, 2000), teaching human rights (Krain & Nurse, 2004), and promoting civic engagement (Raymond, 2017). There are multiple keys to creating an effective service-learning experience. Among those are: (a) having clearly defined educational objectives and identifying a project that will allow students to explore issues related to those objectives; (b) relating the service experience closely to classroom content, the two should be reinforcing of one another; (c) incorporating in-class discussions of students’ experiences, so that they can reflect on the meaning of the service project and so that they can draw the connections between the course and the project itself; and (d) to develop effective assessment techniques both of student learning and of the service-learning experience itself. For the instructor interested in using service-learning in the classroom, there are a number of convenient resources on both its effectiveness and how to incorporate it into a range of different classes (cf. Jacoby, 1996; Kenny, 2002; Stoecker, 2016; Welch & Billig, 2004). Depending on the chosen service activities and classroom assignments related to the activities, service-learning has tremendous potential to use an array of student skills and appeal to a wide array of learning types.
Like service-learning, internships provide students with an out of classroom educational experience. The literature concerning internships is not as well developed as that surrounding service-learning, but the limited literature from a variety of fields does agree on several basic points concerning internships. First, though internships are often perceived as separate from classroom experiences, they are most effective when carefully integrated into an overall curricular experience (Ciofalo, 1992, p. 5; Colby et al., 2007; Garrison, 1992, p. 32; Honan & Day, 1984, p. 222). Integration is important, as internships should not be seen as an opportunity simply to apply classroom knowledge, obtain work experience, or sample possible professions, but also to gain new knowledge and understandings that contribute in a meaningful way to the educational experience. Second, internship experiences and programs can be greatly varied, including part-time internships that are offered in conjunction with a class, or full-time internships done over a summer or semester either in the surrounding community or off-site (such as in Washington, DC). Third, internships may be done for government offices, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, businesses, or campaigns. The key, whatever the setting, is to help students put their experience in proper context through some sort of guided reflection and application process, whether it be through reflective journaling, the completion of research papers related to the internship, or group discussions, among other approaches (Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Corngold, 2007, pp. 223–224; Garrison, 1992). In summation, like other types of active learning and experiential education, internships work best when they are part of a systematic learning experience, with well-designed learning objectives and due attention paid to helping students make the connections between their in, and out of, classroom experiences. Though the academic literature surrounding internships is not extensive, significant resources exist to help students secure internships. Often, organizations offering internship placement either provide or coordinate classes with local universities to help students ground their internship experience in an academic setting. The annotated list of Online Resources at the end of this article provides links to some of these programs.
From an assessment perspective, testing the effectiveness of the use of multiple methods to address different learning styles would require a very different approach than past assessment efforts. First, such an approach would need to begin by having the students complete one of the assessments available for identifying learning styles. Second, the course would need to be designed to incorporate techniques that appeal to each of the different learning types. Third, student perceptions of the use of each technique would need to be compared according to their learning types. Fourth, knowledge assessments could be broken down to see if different learning types performed differently according to the dominant teaching technique used for a particular subject or issue. Finally, new assessment techniques that rely, at least in part, on free response exercises to determine if students are learning something other than what was intended or what is being measured by more traditional techniques may be an integral part of demonstrating the importance of a focus on the learning process and active learning techniques (cf. Leithner, 2011; Willingham et al., 2015). The holistic design of a course, built around different methods, appealing to different learning types, and testing the effect of that design, is a daunting task, but it is an appropriate next step in assessing the applicability of experiential learning theory.
Beyond the Classroom: Considering the Curriculum
A final area for development in the application of experiential learning theory is that of curriculum design. Kolb and Kolb (2006) stressed that the proper application of experiential learning theory requires an institutional commitment to designing a complete curriculum, assessing the short-term and long-term effects of the chosen curricular design, and considering the role of each component of the curriculum in the overall development of the student.
Some evidence does exist that the design of the political science curriculum can have a substantial effect on college graduates. Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2003) compared students in the political science programs at Truman State and Frostburg State Universities. Using a formulation recommended by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), the authors asked whether a political science curriculum, in which student majors are fairly structured and courses are designed to build sequentially on one another, would lead students to think differently than students completing a major with much looser requirements. In particular, the AACU recommends that majors should be constructed to encourage abstract thinking and critical analysis. The study found that though there was little difference between underclass majors at the two universities, among upperclassmen, students in the more structured Truman State political science major made much larger gains in abstract conceptualization than their counterparts at Frostburg State. This finding suggests that the more structured program at Truman State is conducive to teaching the sort of abstract conceptualization skills encouraged by AACU. This particular study was not large, consisting of a total of 93 undergraduate students, but it is suggestive of the importance of overall curricular design in addition to the importance of single course design. Later work by Blanton and Breuning (2016) undertook a comprehensive survey of interdisciplinary international studies programs; after identifying 403 programs, they received responses from 140 programs. Their study examined the size, curriculum, and administrative structure of the programs.
Much progress has been made in the international studies literature concerning the use and effectiveness of techniques in the experiential learning tradition. Studies have shown that, at worst, students exposed to active learning techniques learn just as much as those exposed to traditional techniques, while, at best, active learning techniques may give students other types of skills and knowledge that they cannot gain through traditional classroom settings. The literature is full of valuable contributions providing suggestions on innovative learning exercises that can be incorporated into a wide range of international politics courses. Nonetheless, there are numerous avenues for improving existing research and curricular design. Few works referencing the use of active learning techniques have delved deeply into learning styles or the combination of multiple techniques in the same class in a rigorous, comparative way. Those works that have done so have prioritized direct assessment of the activity itself without a clear comparison to a control group. Even studies using a pre-/post-test model may show the effectiveness of a particular technique, but not in comparison to traditional learning methods. Those studies that have been rigorous about assessment have, typically, studied shorter-duration active learning exercises in comparison to traditional learning techniques. The more extensive research needed to truly test a holistic course design may prove daunting, and this suggests the need for additional incentives for faculty to redesign and study the effectiveness of their courses. Finally, taking seriously the educational philosophy behind active and experiential learning may require members of the discipline to take a serious look at curricular design to ensure that students are engaged in a learning enterprise in which courses build logically upon one another and teach students important skills to conduct political science.
Links to Digital Materials
Best Delegate. Best Delegate is an online resource that provides information about Model UN conferences around the world and provides resources on how to begin a Model UN program.
Campus Compact. Campus Compact is an organization dedicated to promoting service-learning and community involvement in education. The website contains sample syllabi, lists of participating campuses, and other resources to help professors begin to integrate service-learning into their classes.
DC Internships. DC Internships provides information regarding a variety of internships in Washington, DC, including international affairs focused internships. It also provides resources for housing and support for students.
Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. This is David Kolb’s website. It contains a useful reference library and bibliography of experiential learning techniques in addition to information about using the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory.
United Nations Association for the United States of America. This website contains useful information and resources for participating in and conducting Model United Nations Simulations.
Washington Internship Institute. One of many internship organizations in the Washington, DC area. This organization helps to arrange internships and offers classes that accompany internships, to help students place their internship experiences in appropriate context.
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