Focus on Learning: Study Abroad

July 13, 2010

Today’s Inside Higher Education has a meaty article by Elizabeth Redden on learning gains from study abroad.  It mostly reports on a very comprehensive and well-designed study by the University of Georgia system.  Realizing that students who study abroad are not a random sample of all University of Georgia students, they constructed a matched sample of students who did not pursue study abroad to use as a comparison group. (At most colleges and universities, students who take advantage of study abroad are from more affluent families because most institutions won’t let students use institutional financial aid for such programs.)

The results are complex: some students gain more than others.  Says Don Rubin, Director of GLOSSARI, the Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad Research Initiative, “At worst, [study abroad] can have relatively little impact on some students’ educational careers. And at best it enhances the progress toward degree. It enhances the quality of learning as reflected in things like GPA.”

Perhaps most striking in terms of learning gains is this: “Researchers found a particularly pronounced effect of study abroad on academic performance among students who entered college with the lowest SAT scores. Among students who entered college with a combined SAT score of 800 (on the verbal and math sections), those who studied abroad ended up
with a GPA of 3.21 compared to 3.14 for those students who stayed stateside. On
the other extreme, for those students who entered college with a perfect SAT
score of 1600, study abroad had no effect on their GPA, which on average was
3.25 regardless.”

The Inside Higher Education article also surveys other research on learning outcomes from study abroad.

Our experience at Earlham tells us that the quality of the study abroad program matters a great deal.  We design our study abroad programs to maximize engagement and hands-on experience:  home stays with host families, community service projects and internships, individual and group research projects and more.  We want study abroad to be much more than a group tour through another country because students learn more when they are actively engaged.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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