The Pedagogical Value of Risk in Study Abroad - Part 1 Students Are Not Trained to Manage Risk

by Bill Frederick

The majority of university-sponsored study abroad programs offer, provide and in many cases require some formal pre-departure orientation that is in part concerned with conveying concerns about health, safety and security. Additionally, many of them, as well as most program providers, require some additional in-country risk management orientation. Additional safety briefings often precede specific program activities. However, most health, safety and security education for students is relatively brief. At a recent Forum on Education Abroad Standards Institute: Beyond the Basics of Health, Safety and Security, an informal poll was taken regarding student orientations. This event was largely attended by staff from those institutions with a significant commitment to health, safety and security. Many of them have at least one full time position dedicated to safety and sent them to this conference. So it is likely the case that their institutions do better than most along most risk management indicators. It turns out that for this group two hours or less is typical for a student study abroad orientation. The format for most was information transmission. The Forum on Education Abroad’s Critical Incident Database (2010, 2014) has consistently indicated that poor judgment (presumably on the part of students) is the number one contributing factor for health, safety and security incidents. And yet higher education study abroad programs do not typically make significant efforts to train their students. There are a number of complex assumptions underlying this, many of which may simply not be true.

Currently, most study abroad programs have some staff at least partially dedicated to risk management. In some cases, more than one staff person is fully dedicated to health, safety and security. Programs spend enormous sums on external expertise for evacuation and repatriation, medical and mental health oversight, security intelligence, student tracking services, communications, vetting, etc. Why do we spend so little time and expense on developing student risk management skills?

The Questions

There is research that supports the belief that college students are not cognitively capable of managing their risk taking behavior. There is additional research that supports the idea that training students to manage their risks is ineffective. The view that has emerged of the contemporary college cohort is consistent with that of Peter Arnett’s emerging adults, i.e., not really fully adults. What if these prevailing beliefs are wrong? Are we spending millions of dollars every year on risk management but focusing on the wrong things? What if biology is not destiny and that many of the limiting beliefs about the capacities of college students are cultural?

The Research

A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk Taking (Steinberg 2008) surveys much of the research that underpins the proposition that the management of risk taking behavior that characterizes the transition from adolescence to adulthood is mediated by the maturation of structures in the pre-frontal cortex which is not complete until close to the age of 25. Brain scanning has allowed researchers to monitor changes in the brain and to track arousal of specific areas of the brain when the individual is engaged with specific tasks. There are three major changes to the brain that occur during adolescence, all having to do with improving neural networks (Paus 2005). In the prefrontal cortex there is pruning of unused pathways, increasing the myelin sheathing of other pathways, and increasing connectivity with other areas of the brain. However, these observable developments are all complete by the age of 20. Assumptions regarding additional maturation of some structures are based on performance on psychological tests intended to measure executive function and the observed increasing recruitment of certain parts of the pre-frontal cortex when engaged in planning, deferred gratification, etc. While the implications of this research are very interesting from a risk management perspective, it does appear to assume that the data generated by students taking written psychological tests is directly applicable to real world risk management. Additionally, the research does not imply that everyone under the age of 25 is incompetent at managing risk or that anyone over the age of 25 is necessarily competent. It is essentially saying that while the process may be significantly complete by the age of 20, the process continues for some additional years.

Earlier research looked at questions of whether or not adolescents processed or perceived information about risk differently or if adolescents were simply less risk averse. But that research showed no essential differences between adolescents and adults in terms of their perception of risk or their perception of their relative vulnerability (Millstein & Halpern-Felsher, 2002; Reyna and Farley, 2006; Steinberg and Cauffman, 1996).

Studies cited as evidence in a 2006 CDC study that education based approaches are ineffective at reducing adolescent risk taking come primarily from high school health education programs designed to reduce behavior specific to smoking, drinking, drug use, safe sex and driving. Such programs are informational in nature. They provide explanations of the consequences of risky behavior. A survey of the literature does demonstrate that such programs are successful at increasing participant knowledge but not at changing behavior (Steinberg, 2004, 2007). The apparent underlying assumption was that providing information would change behavior.

So, brain maturation in regards to the pre-frontal cortex is mostly complete by the time that most students go abroad. And, most study abroad practitioners would likely agree that most of their students do in fact successfully manage their risks quite well while abroad. Program risk managers spend most of their time responding to incidents that involve a very small percentage of their students. And simply providing information is ineffective at improving risk management behavior.

What is effective at improving risk management behavior?

Skill Building Versus Providing Information: A Story from Study Abroad

On the last night of a semester program, a female student was sexually assaulted by a local man. The perpetrator was part of a group of local men who were regarded by the program as predatory in the sense that they were adept at identifying particularly vulnerable students and manipulating them into having sex after which many expressed strong regret, anger, shame, etc.

Part of the student orientation always included a briefing about these men and the local bar scene. Conveying this information to students appeared to have little to no effect on how individual students or the student group in general behaved at the bars or how they interacted with these men. After the assault, the program contacted all of the incoming students prior to the beginning of the subsequent semester to inform them of this event. A lot of the next semester’s in-country orientation focused on the sexual assault and how to stay safe. There was no apparent change in student behavior. In subsequent semester orientations a number of approaches were tried. At one point the local police were invited to participate and they conducted a slide show of local predators and their related criminal backgrounds. No amount of information appeared to have any impact. While there were no additional known sexual assaults, there apparently were some students who did feel preyed upon. It should be mentioned that not all local men were predatory nor was all sex between students and local men regretted.

A year after the sexual assault, a Peace Corps rape crisis counselor informed the program of a book by Gavin de Becker entitled The Gift of Fear. In part it describes seven common manipulative ploys used by predators to turn people into prey. The program created a curriculum based on it. The curriculum consisted of presenting information regarding patterns of manipulative behavior and then having students practice recognizing those patterns. They’d then role-play responses while engaged in interaction where the role players tried to utilize very specific ploys to manipulate them. It appeared to prove very effective. When students recognized any of these strategies being used on them, the game was over. They’d also practiced how to extricate themselves from an interaction without conflict or escalation.

Training for Risk Management

Exercising good judgment in an international setting is a skill. It requires information transmission, but additionally it requires opportunities to apply knowledge and to get performance feedback when you fail or succeed to varying degrees. To simply provide information to students regarding navigating health, safety and security abroad and then expect them to exercise good judgment is akin to presenting a PowerPoint about gymnastics to students an expecting them to be able to execute complicated gymnastic routine.

Skill building takes time. This training took about 2 hours and only addressed one particular aspect of risk management, i.e., how to avoid being mugged, sexually assaulted or hustled. And the students didn’t master these skills, but they did develop a working capability and a foundation for further development. Putting together a travel health strategy and maintaining it is a skill. Being able to maintain situational awareness without being paranoid is a skill. Observation (understanding what you see) is a skill. Cross-cultural competence is a range of skills. How to develop personal insight is a skill. First aid is a range of skills (generally, people who have learned real first aid skills become much better at avoiding getting injured). These are the skills that might really impact our students’ safety overseas. And any skills-based training intended to train students to navigate health, safety and security abroad would at least 2 days, not 2 hours. Study abroad practitioners to greater and lesser degrees have developed these skills experientially during their travels over a protracted period of time. They are also educators. Health, safety and security informational content is readily available. Putting together exercises and experiences designed to foster skill development requires some work but isn’t outside the skill sets of most study abroad departments. The key is understanding that skills-based training is effective. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of implementing an effective skills based training scheme is carving out time and budget and requiring students to attend. On the other hand, not effectively addressing the primary contributing factor to health, safety and security incidents has its own time and budgetary implications.