University of Iowa

Research on Study Abroad

August 17th, 2012

By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs

It has been some time since I focused an entry on study abroad; and particularly since media attention has recently been focused on study abroad, with a spot on National Public Radio and a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I thought I would try my hand on another. 

Given the importance of ensuring that students graduate on time and are equipped to be successful in their careers, and given the emphasis the University of Iowa is giving to student success, my earlier post addressed the connections between study abroad and student success.  Since then, the number of students studying abroad has gone up a bit: now over 20% of UI undergraduates study abroad at some point during their time at the University, which is a significant and encouraging number.  However, as I noted previously, the study abroad population remains strongly female, and there is still significantly lower participation among minorities than among white students.

Angela Flournoy in Corfu
Angela Flournoy participated in the Overseas Writers' Workshop and was able to meet with members of the African Diaspora in Greece while studying abroad on the island of Corfu.

Many of us firmly believe that having an experience in a foreign country can be transformative, even life-changing.  Being exposed to other beliefs and ways of living and working is an intense experience unlike most others that forces students to reflect, to adapt, and to learn new skill sets.  Even a simple request in a foreign language can be tough; so consider the learning that occurs when students are challenged with expressing themselves, negotiating, or handling an abstract conversation.  Even in English-speaking environments abroad, everything from food and dress to religious belief can be quite foreign.  In other words, England is unexpectedly foreign in ways that France may not be.

A very large question for study abroad professionals is: how you demonstrate the transformative power of study abroad experiences?  Data from institutions belonging to the 35-institution University System of Georgia have been studied to make the case that students who study abroad graduate at measurably higher rates and demonstrate better knowledge of cultural contexts than students who do not study abroad.  The Glossari project, as this research project is know, has also controlled for a variety of variables such as SAT scores and GPAs to highlight the benefits study abroad has for at-risk populations. African-Americans who studied abroad, to take the most eye-opening example, were 31 percent more likely to graduate in four years than their counterparts who did not. Contrary to what is generally assumed, study abroad does not delay graduation.  Rather, the effect goes the other way: throughout the Georgia system, students who go abroad tended to graduate earlier and at higher rates.

However, what many of these studies have not adequately addressed is how to demonstrate that it is the experience itself (or more accurately, the experience abroad as it is incorporated into the overall education experience of students) that has led to student success, rather than a predisposition on the part of students who study abroad to do better academically.  A recent study, "On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking," purports to close this gap in the research. It appears to address the issue of predisposition, in other words that students who study abroad have other characteristics that also predispose them to success, by looking at data from three groups: 1) students who studied abroad, 2) students who were predisposed to studying abroad, and planned to do so, and 3) students who did not intend to study abroad.  Group 1 outperformed both other groups on a series of tasks designed to measure creativity through the ability to generate ideas and solutions.  Problem solved.

Well, perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions quite so fast.  I had the opportunity to consult with two specialists in the field: Ernest Pascarella, who is Mary Louise Petersen Chair in Higher Education here at the University of Iowa, and Mark Salisbury, a former student of Ernie's and now Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College. They tell me that while this study does attempt to bridge the gap in the research, it does not utilize a pretest-posttest design.  As a result, we don't know if the students who studied abroad and scored well on the test would have also done so before their international experience. We also don't know whether the students who scored well did so because they were juniors or seniors, rather than freshmen or sophomores.

While it is almost certainly the case (and many of us would agree without hesitation) that study abroad can be a valuable, even transformative, experience when it is well prepared, designed, and followed up, more research needs to be done in order to demonstrate the effects of study abroad more fully.  In the meantime, we should do everything we can to ensure that study abroad is an option for all students, and moreover that these experiences are well integrated into the academic ecosystem of U.S. university campuses.

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