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Margin Notes

The (ambiguous) benefits of short-term study abroad

Researchers find “limited empirical support” for such programs.


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.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Catherine Fisher / March 20, 2013 at 12:57

    Interesting article. I have managed faculty lead programming – both short term and semester length – for more than a decade at my University and I would agree to an extent about what the authors say. I have also seen the same effect when students live for a semester or more in expat communities. The truth is that even spending a full year in a community, living with a family and attending full time classes with domestic students only allows us to scratch the surface of a new culture. I believe that we now understand that true cultural immersion is a process that needs to be guided, reflected upon and re examined over time in order to get the full benefits of a Study Abroad experience.

  2. Leah Spinosa de Vega / March 20, 2013 at 15:43

    When will we stop being surprised that it is not enough to immerse students to another culture in order for them to engage and to develop interculturally? The previous post sums it up: Guided Reflection is key.

  3. Anthony Ogden / March 21, 2013 at 07:44

    The assumptions the author of this paper is actually part of the problem. First of all, education abroad is not the same as travel abroad. It is less about the actual movement of students across national borders as it is about engaging students and meaningful intercultural and intellectual engagement in other cultures and academic contexts. Also, too many folks, like those referenced in this article, use the scale of most convenience. To use the NSSE as a pre- and post-test measure doesn’t seem appropriate at all to understand the learning outcomes associated with studying in Mexico. Rather, they should have laid out clear and measurable goals for the program, implemented design interventions to ensure progress toward those outcomes, and then measured whether or not students made progress toward those outcomes. To say that short-term may be less valuable than long term, or vice versa, is not logicial. If the educator establishes a clear set of goals and designs/implements the program so that students can achieve those goals, then duration is only as relevant as to the extent the program design allows students to achieve those outcomes. Not all education abroad programming is about intercultural learning. There are many disciplinary-specific reasons why students need to spend short-term periods abroad. Check your assumptions and your research methodologies before landing on potentially misguided interpretations.

  4. Lisa Stowe / March 21, 2013 at 11:26

    I agree with the above comment that the problem with such studies is that they are often filled with assumptions about what travel study is and how to measure the learning outcomes. Short term travel study programs are unique in their learning situations and as a result should not be measured by the same learning metrics that are used in the more traditional classroom. I have taught three short term programs and am currently engaged a demonstrative case study that is showing that there are very significant learning outcomes in these programs. The learning outcomes are rooted in informal and incidental situations and there is a tremendous amount of learning that happens at the intersections between formal and informal learning. Multidimensional learning is also significant and that is some thing that is rarely measured on the NSSE scale. The problem lies in how we are defining learning. Higher Educational Institutes tend to privilege cognitive learning outcomes and those are important. But as Catherine Fisher suggests, with proper guided reflection and consciously and purposively structured curriculum that takes advantage of the cultural location, short term programs are just as significant in their learning outcomes as the longer programs. We as educators need to expand our vision of what learning is rather than trying to pigeonhole programs into already accepted learning descriptors.

  5. Ash / November 28, 2016 at 04:39

    Short term study abroad programs now a days means “an opportunity to party abroad”. For many students who chose to go abroad for such courses are looking to drink in a foreign land and not going there for the experience or exploration. Those travelling in groups specially try to live the same way they’ve been living in their own country. The whole idea of exchange programs is being undermined by students who can afford to go for such courses. On the contrary, those who really want to do it for the sake of experience find the costs too high and are unable to get any scholarships to fulfil their dreams.

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