SIA students get real-world experience through one of a kind experimental mediation class

SIA student Matthew Hoffman reviews the study with survey pool members
SIA student Matthew Hoffman reviews the study with survey pool members Credit: Vanessa McLaughlin

Does a mediator with power, or maybe even bias, produce better or worse conflict resolution? Penn State School of International Affairs students studied that question firsthand in Professor Scott Sigmund Gartner’s Experimental Mediation class (INTAF 597B) through an experimental simulation.

Students conceptualized the study, created and implemented a computer questionnaire, recruited subjects, conducted the study, compiled the results, created a presentation for conferences, and co-authored a paper to submit for publication. This year, the project has been accepted for presentation at the Folke Bernadotte Academy Workshop on Conflict Prevention. Gartner will present the project in June at the workshop held in Stockholm, Sweden.

“The Experimental Mediation Class is an example of our hands-on experiential approach to teaching and learning, here at SIA,” said Gartner. “Experiential learning activities, like this one, create an active learning environment that replicates real-world experiences. Students gain expertise in contemporary global issues while learning the fundamentals of international relations.”

Each year, students choose the mediation topic on which to conduct the study through a democratic process. This year, the class voted and chose to study whether a mediator’s power and bias affects the mediation process and final decision positively or negatively.

Matthew Hoffman, a student in the class, said before they made their decision, they had discovered research theorizing that biased mediators will press harder for the best or most practical solution.

“The literature we read suggested that mediators with bias or power were better at reaching a solution between two parties, and this was intriguing to us,” Hoffman said. “We found this was most prevalent in regional conflicts versus global conflicts, and, since we found no study to support this research, we decided this was our topic.”

The students began by developing a survey, with questions about a hypothetical conflict with a mediator having bias or power. About 350, Penn State undergraduate students comprised the survey pool. Therefore, the SIA students had to tailor a survey scenario and questions relatable to undergraduates, instead of creating the survey to reflect a global issue, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or another global conflict.

“What we are interested in is when people are involved in a conflict, how do they feel about the bias of the mediator that steps in to mediate and the different power levels of the mediator,” Hoffman said. “In most conflicts, for example, between friends, we try to overstress objectivity, and socially, we’re trained to be neutral or try hard to be neutral in our decision making, but how do we react when power and bias are involved.”

The survey for the study set out a brief scenario of two college roommates who had a party in their apartment. During the party, the apartment was damaged. The survey questions asked how much money each roommate was willing to contribute to the damage. Then, the scenario was restated to include slight changes: the majority of guests at the party were friends of one of the roommates; the landlord was related to one of the roommates; and the mediator was the friend of a roommate. Each one of these scenarios tested the theory of power and bias in a conflict. Subjects answer multiple choice and open questions about fairness and equity.

“While the study comes with its own challenges, I have learned how to take world scenarios, carefully analyze them, and then from that create real life experiments,” said Sandeep Regmi, another student in the class. “I have learned how think creatively, and learning to analyze problems and breaking them down into simpler parts is something I will use wherever I work in the future.

Hoffman explained what he enjoyed about his class is the hands-on learning and doing, instead of sitting in a room reading textbooks and theories, students are putting theory into practice.

“This class, this study, harnesses our critical thinking skills, thinking about a single problem, designing an experiment that can test this problem, and making sure it’s interesting enough to present to international mediation scholars,” said Hoffman. “And here we are doing global work, conducting the experiment here inside the Katz Building’s library.”

Once the SIA students developed the survey, they recruited undergraduate students from the Political Science and Sociology departments to take the survey. The study was organized in the computer lab in the Lewis Katz Building’s H. Laddie Montague, Jr. Law Library. The SIA students coordinated all the logistics, quietly funneling 350 undergraduate students through the building and the library over one week.

“A study like this shows our library is alive and a vital instrument for blending teaching and research,” Gartner said. “It also shows the benefit that the School of International Affairs is embedded in a great university, which allows us to recruit outstanding students from this institution for our study.”

After the study was completed, the students compiled the results and co-wrote a research paper to submit for publication.

“The SIA students do it all from start to finish, and the goal of this class is to prepare these students to get great, global jobs,” Gartner said. “This is a 15-week project that spanned the entire campus at Penn State, and the students demonstrated that they can work at a high professional level.”