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Research Spotlight Part I: Discussing Cognitive Complexity Abroad

By Daniel Ponce Taylor 3 months ago

As GVI’s Director of Field Programs, I’m currently leading a research project on Cognitive Complexity in Education Abroad programs in tandem with the AGA (American Gap Association) research and data committee. We are currently in the middle of analyzing data collection from pre and post surveys, and will present our findings at the upcoming Gap Year Conference this May in Denver, Colorado.

Cognitive Complexity At A Glance

Cognitive complexity can be described as “the psychological characteristic or variable that shows how complex or simple the frame and perceptual skills of a person are. It is the extent to which a person differentiates and integrates an event.”

Cognitive complexity can be described as “the psychological characteristic or variable that shows how complex or simple the frame and perceptual skills of a person are. It is the extent to which a person differentiates and integrates an event.”

For those who have had the opportunity to travel to different cultures and locations, whether in an organized fashion or independently traveling, the concept of variable perceptions and adaptability to new ‘realities’ will be familiar. These experiences force you to see things that are, sometimes, totally opposite to what you are used to, culturally – in terms of values, or even to the level in which you know yourself. By being exposed to these new experiences, especially when the experience abroad is guided, you discover uncharted territory: new ways at looking at the world, different values about yourself and other cultures that start making you question some of your known values and perspectives.

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It is possible to get similar experiences in-country, but in my experience the main difference is that when abroad, you cannot shy from these different cultures and values, whereas in country, if something is different and you are not comfortable with it, it’s easy to return to your comfort zone. Also, in order to gain those experiences in-country one has to make a bigger effort to find those culturally diverse experiences, whereas traveling abroad automatically takes you to different situations and experiences than to what you are used to.

It is also best to go abroad as long as possible, to deepen your cultural immersion and integration, but I think you can have cultural immersions that are worthwhile from 6-8 weeks. Instead of focusing on a time-frame, I would argue that it’s more about what happens during your time abroad, how the time and experience is guided, and how you are reflecting on the experiences you are living abroad. With a well guided and reflected experience, a short trip can have an amazing impact on your cognitive complexity. For the proposes of our current research, we set a limit of 8 weeks on site.

Instead of focusing on a time-frame, I would argue that it’s more about what happens during your time abroad, how the time and experience is guided, and how you are reflecting on the experiences you are living abroad.

Maximizing Time Abroad And Developing Cognitive Complexity

My primary advice to developing cognitive complexity is to be open to what your new location has to offer you. Be aware of your background, your culture, and your values, and also be open to experiencing different ways of looking at things, and different cultural values or priorities compared to your own. Try to observe and not judge them. Reflect on your experience and evaluate how your perception of the world and cultural diversity changes and becomes more complex throughout this process.

It’s still early days on our research, but so far we have seen how most of our participants consider themselves culturally aware people, confident in themselves and their skills. It’s interesting to read that after an abroad experience, some of the participants have realized that they are not as culturally aware as they thought, nor they were as capable of dealing with different values and cultures as they thought. Realizing that we are not as open and accepting as we thought we were is not uncommon, and international experiences can help you realize that, and to then also reflect on it, and change your perception and attitudes so you do actually become more welcoming and open to different values and cultures.

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Looking Ahead

In terms of future studies, the next step for this kind of research is to open it up to people with different backgrounds, and for a different duration. We also would want to engage the international education community, to see who wants to be more involved in order to get more varied information, and then to also get a controlled group – maybe in the US – of students who have not gone abroad, to have a richer comparison.

The main takeaway for us right now is acknowledging that cognitive complexity is not something you can just experience theoretically – you have to actually go and put yourself in these abroad situations, in order to alter your perspective in the world. Individuals need that experience of cultural diversity to really realize it. Some people seem to think they can develop it just by reading or studying, but our data thus far suggests that experience is what actually builds it, and that there is a clear difference between the perception of it and actually attaining it.

The main takeaway for us right now is acknowledging that cognitive complexity is not something you can just experience theoretically – you have to actually go and put yourself in these abroad situations, in order to alter your perspective in the world. Individuals need that experience of cultural diversity to really realize it.

Stay tuned for more research updates leading up to our presentation this May at the AGA conference!

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