Using experiential learning to teach international relations

Using his experience as a case study, Adrian Man-Ho Lam outlines how to use experiential learning to improve students’ understanding of humanitarian intervention

Adrian Man-Ho Lam's avatar
The University of Hong Kong
6 May 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Food bank workers packing up the produce

You may also like

Developing virtual experiential learning: key takeaways
Advice on creating virtual fieldtrips to complement in-person teaching

One of our undergraduate international relations classes focuses on the emergence of humanitarian intervention, its contemporary nature, successes and failures, moral challenges and ways forward. Students must think critically about the possibilities, limits and dilemmas of effective humanitarian intervention and creatively apply their insights to real-life cases around the world.

One of the highlights of the course is an in-depth case study of a contemporary humanitarian crisis that requires students to connect theory with practice. Through experiential learning opportunities students develop new skills, such as problem-solving, negotiation, reading and writing, time management, teamwork, and the application of abstract academic concepts to accessible real-life situations.

Last semester, we focused on Venezuela’s ongoing crisis. We framed the exercise with a scenario: in it, the United Nations General Assembly requests that the UN secretary general convene a special session on the country. This special session convened in the latter part of the semester, and we broke students into small groups, or “round tables”, with each group tasked with producing an intervention strategy memo to submit to the secretary general. To scaffold students to complete this case study, we came up with a few learning and teaching components.

Contextual framing

After giving some lectures on the basic concepts and fundamental issues of humanitarian intervention during weeks one to three, we introduced students to relevant information about the case study in week four, such as the country profile, a timeline of the key events, details of the crisis, humanitarian aid controversies, responses of international organisations, lingering debates and unresolved issues, to give students with no prior knowledge a more comprehensive and detailed picture of the background of the case. This enabled them to critically analyse and evaluate the complexities of humanitarian intervention and develop a more informed and nuanced understanding of the subject matter.

Individual policy paper

By week seven, we asked that students submit an individual policy paper on the case study. This should read like a briefing report and advise on how the government or organisation that the student represents should approach the humanitarian crisis. They had to conduct extensive and detailed research on the current issues, positions, interests and policy priorities for their state or organisation. They then had to make relevant recommendations. Students also had to outline their priorities, red lines and potential areas for compromise for the subsequent part of the group intervention strategy memo. They also had to engage with a series of core concepts discussed in class, such as sovereignty, human rights, justice, charity, consent and coercion, Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and typology of humanitarian intervention. This gave them a stronger grasp of the theoretical frameworks and ethical considerations associated with humanitarian intervention.

Since some actors, such as states, may have more leverage during the crisis because they are more powerful, we assured students that we would not grade them based on their capacity to intervene. Instead, we would grade them based on their overall ability to produce a well-researched, clearly written and realistic paper that sets out their intervention strategy and priorities in as much detail as possible. We also reminded students that their strategy must be in line with their organisation or state’s capabilities, interests, values and areas of expertise. For instance, it would be unrealistic for an underdeveloped country to deliver foreign aid to Venezuela, or a food or medicine aid-focused INGO to offer peacekeeping strategies. This approach encourages students to be aware of real-world constraints.

Group intervention strategy memo

After the completion of the individual policy paper in Weeks 10 to 12, we divided students into groups of five within their tutorial slot. Each group was made up of students representing different states or organisations in the same regions such as the UK, France, Spain, Sweden and the European Union. Each group was tasked with writing up a memo that documented the points agreed on by all members of the group. They needed to first offer a summary of the case study from the point of view of all group members, followed by a series of concrete recommendations on an intervention strategy.

After completing this policy paper, students had to set out a clear and specific negotiation strategy for each actor. That way, when they started negotiating, everyone knew who they were, what they wanted and what was acceptable/unacceptable for their state or organisation. We asked students to focus in particular on whether the memo served his or her state’s or organisation’s immediate and long-term interests. This required them to negotiate, cooperate and compromise with other group members during continuous and interactive discussions in the last two tutorials and after class.

When students were devising their individual actor’s strategies, we encouraged them to identify their state’s or organisation’s capacity to influence events in Venezuela. Some of them may not be able to achieve their policy goals alone, so it may be necessary to build alliances with others who share similar interests and values. For instance, INGOs may need to work with governments in securing the delivery of aid and protecting humanitarian workers in the field. This can allow them to overcome limitations and maximise their impact. The exercise enhances understanding of the potential synergies and areas of overlap between actors with diverse capabilities and expertise.

Debriefing and reflection

At the end of the semester, we congratulated students for demonstrating creativity, initiative and good faith. Conceptually, they learned how to analyse a complex and multifaceted crisis, incorporate others’ perspectives into their own and formulate critical and timely decisions with incomplete information. Practically speaking, they cultivated communication and collaboration skills, flexibility and ability to compromise, the ability to see things from others’ points of view, the ability to overcome the limitations of the format and to work to a tight deadline. By recognising these accomplishments, we motivated students to continue building on their skills and knowledge, preparing them for future challenges and endeavours.

A breakdown of the steps involved:

  • Select a complex and multifaceted case that reflects current global issues and engages students’ interest with contextual framing
  • Task students with writing individual policy papers that offer advice on approaching the crisis from the perspective of the actor they represent
  • Divide students into small groups representing different actors and encourage them to create a group intervention strategy memo based on negotiation, cooperation, compromise and consensus
  • Encourage students to develop intervention strategies that align with their actor’s capabilities, interests, values and expertise and consider real-world constraints
  • Highlight students’ development of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, flexibility and ability to meet deadlines at the end of the semester, and motivate them to build on these in the future.

Adrian Man-Ho Lam is course tutor in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site