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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International


Studies
Experiential Learning and Learning Styles  
Eric Cox
Print Publication Date: Mar 2010 Subject: International Relations Theory
Online Publication Date: Nov 2017 DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190846626.013.175

Summary and Keywords

The intellectual foundation of modern experiential learning theory owes much of its roots
to John Dewey’s educational philosophy. In his seminal work Democracy and Education:
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), Dewey argues 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 of much of the recent 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 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

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

Introduction
This essay 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 the overall picture of the active learning literature, this
essay 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, please see the essay titled
“The State of the Active Teaching and Learning Literature” in the Compendium series, in
addition to the more technique-specific entries in the series, including “Designing and
Using Simulations and Role-Play Exercises,” “Teaching with Case Studies,” “Model UN
and model EU Programs,” and “Civic Engagement.” The essay begins by providing an
introduction to experiential learning theory, tracing its early intellectual roots and
applications of it in the first half of the twentieth century, and 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 recent debate on the use of
experiential learning. The essay will also look 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 recent efforts to more thoroughly assess the
effectiveness of active learning in the international studies classroom. It will conclude
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 first half of the twentieth century in the United
States. 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” (1916:164). Using this concept,

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

Dewey argues 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 in order 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 1983:58–9). 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 1983:69). 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 twentieth 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.

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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 1984:18). Kolb
contrasts 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” (ibid.), recalling the earlier areas of emphasis of Dewey. To Kolb, the
evolution of experiential learning since 1984 in colleges and universities is 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 and Kolb 2006). Given 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, this essay will now turn to 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 and 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 develops 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

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

be sitting in a chair and gaining a tactile understanding of the chair, while abstract
conceptualization would be the use of other concepts in order 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 is to better understand student learning
styles. Using his cyclical explanation of learning, he develops 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
(quoted from Kolb 1984; Kolb et al. 2001; Kolb and Kolb 2006):

• 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.

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• 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.

Kolb further argues that students with certain learning styles are often attracted to
certain majors or career paths. Importantly, though Kolb suggests that students
interested in social science will often have the greatest strengths in concrete experience
and reflective observation, or a Diverging style (Kolb and Kolb 2006), the only research
specifically looking at political science majors found that all learning styles were
represented, with more assimilators than any other category (Fox and 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 (1997:735).

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

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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 and Catalanello 1979). This finding was supported by
a smaller test conducted using marketing students (Coulter et al. 1990). Similarly,
research conducted in a financial services company which had to participate in
continuing education classes found significant differences in preferred types of learning
delivery methods among the different learning types (Buch and Bartley 2002).

Similar research conducted in the health sciences has generated similar conclusions. In
particular, Kosower and Berman (1996) find 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
and 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 conclude 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 et al. 1998), student performance on exams (Lynch et al. 1998),
student “enjoyment” of online courses (Simpson and Du 2004; Richmond and Cummings
2005), and retention (Kalsbeek 1986) all have shown that learning style has a significant
effect on student enjoyment and outcomes. Finally, 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 and 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. The emphasis on learning as a process
opens up a broader range of teaching techniques to the instructor, including the use of
multiple settings to achieve the desired outcomes.

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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) find
no significant effect of learning style on student retention in online learning courses. Kolb
himself argues that different individuals can exhibit different learning styles in different
situations and that learning style can evolve over time (1984:78–98). 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 et al. (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 et al. 1992). Koob and
Funk (2002) summarize additional findings that criticize the use of the LSI, particularly in
its ability to replicate results. Importantly, however, Koob and Funk do note that many of
the authors who criticize Kolb “did support the general concept that individuals use
different learning strategies” (2002:303). Hickcox (2006) provides 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) summarizes
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.

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-

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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 1983:388–92). 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 1999:176)

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. Williams 2007; Schrand 2008; Boatman et al. 2008). 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 and
McCombs 1998:12).

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Experiential Learning in the Political Science


Literature
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). 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 though political scientists have
written a great deal recently about specific active learning 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) focus 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 note 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.

Moving away from Kolb in particular, political scientists have written fairly extensively in
recent years 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 et al. 2000),
APSA’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference, and online resources such as the
Active Learning in International Affairs web archive (http:/sitemaker.umich.edu/alias.isa/
home), has eased the distribution of material on teaching. The essay titled “The State of
the Active Teaching and Learning Literature” in the Compendium series, 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 has been done on active learning in international relations
than in other fields, international relations professors do have a number of resources to
which they can turn to find new techniques and exercises to use in their classroom.

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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 1999:148–9; Kolb and Kolb 2006:81). 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.

Several recent articles have reported positive student responses to a variety of activities,
including service-learning, simulations, and class discussion (cf. Patterson 2000; Shellman
2001; Krain and Nurse 2004; Chasek 2005). Shellman and Turan (2006) find that students
participating in a simulation in their international relations classes both 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.

In addition to these studies focusing on student responses, some recent works by


international relations scholars have engaged in more systematic analysis of knowledge
gained through active learning techniques. 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 conclude that their evidence does suggest that students learn
differently and may take different lessons away from active learning techniques. In
particular, they state:

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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 and Lantis 2006:405)

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 Banquet
did self-select, Krain and Shadle argue 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” (2006:63).

Powner and Allendoerfer (2008) build 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
find that participation in both traditional discussion and role-play improved student
performance as 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.

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

Future Avenues for Research


These studies, and similar exercises done in simulating the activities of American political
institutions (Baranowski 2006; Lay and 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. Smith notes 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” (2006:
164).

This insight suggests that current assessment techniques are not sufficiently capturing all
of the benefits of 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 in order 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” (2006:81). 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 current 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 as compared to other techniques in order to better measure
whether certain types of knowledge are more easily taught through experience. Most of
the pre/post assessment instruments discussed above used very few questions in order to
facilitate rapid assessment over a small range of questions. It may be important to create
more detailed assessments with due attention paid to the types of knowledge tested. For

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

example, questions could explore details over agreements negotiated versus the process
of negotiation and diplomacy.

This last suggestion also points to another flaw in the current experiential learning
literature in international politics: current 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 the 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, none of the aforementioned studies examine the impact of active
teaching techniques on different learning styles, an issue acknowledged by Powner and
Allendoerfer (2008:86) 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.

Attention to learning styles 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 and Ronkowski 1997; Kneale et al. 2006). 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 both
classroom instruction about what it is, what each actor’s incentive is, how it has been
used in the literature, and its weaknesses, followed by the use of some form of a
prisoner’s dilemma simulation (cf. 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. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, an
organization dedicated to promoting service-learning and providing resources for those
interested in creating service-learning opportunities, defines it as “a teaching and
learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and
reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen
communities” (www.servicelearning.org/). Service-learning has as its goal not only
promotion of student learning, but also improving college engagement with the

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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 and Sax 1998; Astin et al. 1999; Eyler and Giles 1999).

Little work has been done in political science examining the inclusion of service-learning
into the classroom, though its use is becoming more widespread. Recent works
describing service-learning in international politics include working with refugees
(Patterson 2000) and teaching human rights (Krain and Nurse 2004). There are multiple
keys to creating an effective service-learning experience. Among those are: (1) to have
clearly defined educational objectives and to identify a project that will allow students to
explore issues related to those objectives; (2) to relate the service experience closely to
classroom content, the two should be reinforcing of one another; (3) to incorporate in-
class discussions of students’ experiences, both 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 (4) 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; Welch and 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 (Honan and Day 1984:222; Ciafolo 1992:
5; Garrison 1992:32; Colby et al. 2007). 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,
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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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 (Garrison 1992; Colby et al. 2007:223–4). 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 also 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 essay 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 current
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. The holistic
design of a course 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) stress 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.

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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 ask 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.

Concluding Thoughts
Much progress has been made in the international studies literature in recent years
concerning the use and effectiveness of techniques in the experiential learning tradition.
Studies that have been done have shown, at worst, that 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. Recent 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. Those works that have done
so have tended not to contain effective assessment, while those which 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 suggests the need for
additional incentives for faculty to redesign and study the effectiveness of their courses.
Finally, taking the educational philosophy behind active and experiential learning
seriously may require members of the discipline to take a serious look at curricular
design to insure 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.

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

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Links to Digital Materials


American University Summer Internship Program. At www.american.edu/
summerintern/, accessed May 7, 2009. The American University Summer Internship
program helps students to locate internships in Washington, DC, offers seminars to
ground the internship in the classroom, and helps students develop networking
opportunities.

Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning. At http:/


sbaweb.wayne.edu/∼absel/bkl/splash.pdf, accessed May 7, 2009. This is the archive
for this organization and contains a number of resources for those interested in
experiential learning, including research into the efficacy of experiential learning as well
as instructions for exercises.

Campus Compact. At www.compact.org/, accessed May 7, 2009. 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.

Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. At www.learningfromexperience.com,


accessed May 7, 2009. 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.

Osgood Center. At www.osgoodcenter.org/, accessed May 7, 2009. The Osgood Center is


an organization in Washington, DC, that collaboratively operates the National Model UN–
DC conference in addition to several other simulations and conferences each year. The
organization is dedicated to offering experiential learning opportunities in Washington,
DC.

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Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

Service-learning Clearinghouse. At www.servicelearning.org/, accessed May 7, 2009.


This website contains a number of resources for designing and implementing service-
learning programs in classes, and also has references to research supporting the use of
service-learning.

United Nations Association for the United States of America. At www.unausa.org,


accessed May 7, 2009. This website contains useful information and resources for
participating in and conducting Model United Nations Simulations.

Washington Internship Institute. At http:/ielnet.org/, accessed May 7, 2009. One of


many internship organizations in the Washington, DC, area. This organization helps to
arrange internships, and offers classes that accompany internships in order to help
students place their internship experiences in appropriate context.

Eric Cox

Department of Political Science, Texas Christian University

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details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 18 December 2018