Study abroad is one of those things that many educators just want to believe in. Personally, I love to travel and would have jumped at the chance to do a study term abroad as an undergraduate, but at the time I was unaware of any such opportunity. I also believe deeply in the intrinsic value of travel – I have learned a great deal about the world around me, and about myself, through my travels.
But, of course, it would be good to know empirically that there is a pedagogical benefit to a study-abroad program, a point addressed in an article in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education. The article, “Student Engagement and Study Abroad,” is by Liam Rourke and Heather Kanuka at the University of Alberta.
The two authors looked at a short-term study abroad program that consisted of a group of Canadian undergraduates spending six weeks in Mexico. The program included a 10-day bus tour, three half-credit courses and accommodations with local families. The two authors had the novel idea of using a modified version of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, to investigate the extent to which the students engaged in their learning activities while abroad. The authors administered the NSSE twice – once at the conclusion of the students’ school year as a sort of baseline measure, and six weeks later at the end of their study-abroad program – and compared the results. (I’m oversimplifying, but you can check out the paper yourself for the full methodological detail).
Their results weren’t terribly encouraging. The authors report that there was “a pattern of results favouring the study-abroad experience” but the effect was modest: “Participants reported levels of engagement during their study-abroad experience that were similar to levels in class, on campus.” The results, they say, “are consistent with those of several others who find limited empirical support for short-term study abroad in higher education.”
The next part of their discussion seems pretty damning, so I’ll quote at length:
An examination of these reports suggests that the lack of an unmistakable difference may be a gulf between the potential of study abroad, which captivates proponents, and the actual effect that is observed and reported by researchers. The potential is students engaging in goal-directed behaviour – linguistic, cultural, disciplinary, personal, or professional goals – amid the complexity of their subject matter unfolding in real time. What actually happens, in those instances when the benefit of study abroad is equivocal, is students circumventing immersive, goal-directed activity. The students in our program … spent the bulk of their time travelling in a tight group, moving from the classrooms where they passed much of their days to the Internet cafés at night to work on assignments. Avoiding any real need to grapple with intercultural issues, they were in continual contact with their friends and family back home via Facebook, email, and text messaging.
University Affairs reported something similar regarding students doing short-term volunteering abroad. The article quotes Rebecca Tiessen, associate professor of international development studies at Royal Military College, who said: “Universities and colleges are somewhat blindly pushing short-term assignments in developing countries without truly understanding their efficacy as learning opportunities, the ethical implications, or their true impact.”
What surprised Dr. Tiessen, in particular, were students’ motivations for going abroad: “The desire to help others ranked really low,” she said. “It was probably one of the lowest ranked motivations compared to more personal development factors like skills-development, resumé-building, and adventure and travel.”
Now, it must be emphasized, that we’re talking here about short-term experiences abroad. The results may very well be quite different for a longer-term program of a semester or more, a point the U of Alberta authors make. I also wonder if there are benefits to these short-term experiences which just aren’t being adequately captured or which could be fortified through student self-reflection activities during and afterwards.
The authors conclude that for a study-abroad program to be most effective, students should be thoroughly immersed in the experience. “Unfortunately, few authors have identified methods to ensure student immersion. The program we studied … seemed designed to discourage immersion.”