«Title: STUDY ABROAD AS A PASSPORT TO STUDENT LEARNING: DOES THE DURATION OF THE STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM MATTER? Jill M. Neppel, Master of Arts, 2005 ...»
As stated above, the majority of long-term respondents indicated that they lived in more permanent locations and multicultural environments than short-term respondents, who tended to stay in hotels with other American students. For long-term respondents, this exposure to diversity extended into the academic context as well, since they tended to take courses taught by host national instructors, and with students from a variety of cultural and national backgrounds. In contrast, an overwhelming preponderance of shortterm respondents indicated that the majority of their classmates were other Americans.
The research that is available on the impact of diversity on learning outcomes is helpful in understanding why long-term respondents reported greater perceived growth than short-term respondents in all outcome areas included in this study. Blimling (2001)
provides this useful summary:
Students who attend institutions with a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff report greater learning, increases in various measure of interpersonal competencies, develop greater self-confidence, are less likely to hold irrational prejudices, make greater gains in critical thinking, and have greater involvement in civic and community service behaviors (Beckham, 2000; Gudeman, 2000; Gurin, 1999; Pascarella, Palmer, Moye, & Pierson, 2001; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000; Milem, 1999; Smith, Gerbick, Figueroa, Watkins, Levitan, et al., 1997; Sedlacek, 1987) (p. 518).
Practical Implications This growing trend of students spending shorter amounts of time abroad is partially a result of institutions and study abroad program providers offering a greater number of short-term programs to either fulfill or drive student and faculty demand (it has not yet been determined which is the cause and which the effect). This is happening largely without practical assessments of needs and outcomes occurring, which suggests that more intentional research and assessment needs to be conducted by practitioners in the field. Study abroad professionals should attempt to stay current on relevant literature and research as it becomes available. Practitioners should also constantly re-evaluate and reassess the goals and mission of the field of study abroad to see who is and is not being served, and to determine how well the field is fulfilling its charge.
This particular study was more concerned with advancing practice than advancing theory. It was conducted for the purpose of assessing the outcomes of short-term study abroad in relation to the outcomes of long-term study abroad. Neither the results of this study, nor the available research on study abroad, indicate conclusively the extent to which short-term study abroad participants may or may not achieve growth in learning outcomes over comparable students who do not participate in a study abroad experience.
It is likely that studying abroad, even for a short amount of time, produces more growth in learning outcomes than not studying abroad at all; however, that cannot be stated with certainty. This study maintains that both short-term and long-term study abroad programs are of value, and does not intend to imply that short-term study abroad programs should be diminished or eliminated. The results of this comparison study do suggest, however, that long-term study abroad appears to be more likely to produce growth in learning outcomes than short-term study abroad. Therefore, practitioners in the field, as well as at the University of Maryland, should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of developing a large number of short-term study abroad programs at the expense of longterm programs, in light of this study’s findings, and the overall purpose and mission of study abroad. It should be determined who the consumers of short-term study abroad programs are, and the expectations that they have for short-term programs. Program providers and study abroad advisors should be prepared to thoughtfully discuss the distinct nature of short-term and long-term programs with potential study abroad participants, so that they may make informed decisions that fit their personal and academic needs and expectations.
Alternatively, institutions and independent program providers could endeavor to re-structure short-term programs to more closely resemble their long-term counterparts.
Perhaps by including more activities and experiences found to be empirically linked to enhanced learning outcomes, these short-term programs could have a greater effect on those for whom these offerings are more conducive.
Limitations and Generalizability of the Study Threats to internal validity. Because this study involved a non-experimental research design, there are, accordingly, a few threats to internal validity that need to be noted. These identified threats include history, selection, subject attrition and maturation. First, the historical threat to internal validity concerns the fact that respondents studied abroad in different locales and at different times. As has been noted throughout this document, there are also a myriad programmatic features that no doubt contribute to the uniqueness of individuals’ study abroad experiences. Therefore, the situations, events and occurrences that may have happened during and since participants’ study abroad programs could have had varying effects on their respective experiences and thus may have affected the way that subjects chose to respond.
The selection threat to internal validity suggests that it is possible that long-term respondents may have indicated greater growth in learning outcomes than short-term respondents due to initial differences in values, motivations and expectations for their study abroad experiences. The extent to which these factors ultimately contributed to the choice of a long-term program or short-term program is unknown, and thus must be noted as a limitation. For example, it is possible that, from the beginning, individuals who chose long-term programs were more open to growth, change and long-term exposure than their short-term counterparts, who perhaps approached study abroad with their own distinct expectations. Another example of a threat to internal validity caused by the selection effect concerns the portion of the sample who chose to respond to the survey. These self-selected respondents may have had the most positive reactions to study abroad, which could have been the catalyst prompting them to participate in the research study. This could have caused the results to be skewed.
The subject attrition threat to internal validity concerns the fact that some subjects considered to be part of the sampling frame may have withdrawn from the university or have graduated during the 2003-2004 academic year, or in December 2004.
This means that those students who were considered to be part of the study could have essentially dropped out of the study, if they left the university and did not change or update their email addresses with the Study Abroad Office.
Finally, maturation is another identified threat to internal validity. A sincere attempt was made to mitigate this threat as much as possible by including class standing as a covariate in the research design, since short-term and long-term respondents tended to differ in terms of their current class standings. Maturation occurs from more than just advancing in age and class standing, however. Depending on the length of time that has lapsed between being abroad and participating in this study, respondents are likely to have matured to varying degrees from events and occurrences unrelated to the study abroad experience; although they may still have attributed their growth to the study abroad experience. The fact that the effects of maturity could have affected the manner in which respondents answered the survey questions is therefore a noteworthy limitation.
Threats to external validity. Also inherent in the research design is an identified threat to external validity, namely the Hawthorne Effect. This particular threat is based on the fact that subjects’ responses may have been biased simply because subjects had knowledge that they were part of a research study on the effects of study abroad. Most students who choose to study abroad are well aware of the touted benefits of study abroad before they even depart for their international destinations. Therefore, in completing the survey, subjects may have chosen the most socially desirable responses, instead of answering truthfully and upon examination of their own feelings and experiences.
Other limitations. Other potential limitations of this research design concern the size and scope of the study. First, due to financial and time constraints, the study was limited to one institution, the University of Maryland, College Park. In addition, it was not possible to determine the extent to which the survey respondents represented the total population of study abroad participants at the University of Maryland, because demographic information was unavailable for the original sample. Furthermore, the sampling frame was not composed of equal numbers of students who participated in the different types of study abroad programs (i.e., winter-term, summer, semester and academic year). In fact, there were only 55 actual subjects in the sampling frame who studied abroad for an entire academic year, as compared to the other types of programs that had hundreds of participants. In order to lessen the subject attrition and maturation threats to internal validity, the decision was made to only include participants in the research design who studied abroad during the current (2004-2005) or preceding (2003academic year. Because only twenty-three individuals from the academic year program subcategory responded, it was necessary to collapse the data. This means that, as a result, the independent variable (i.e., length of study abroad program) was only analyzed on two levels instead of four. This factor needs to be noted as a limitation, because, for instance, studying abroad for a semester could be qualitatively very different from studying abroad for an entire academic year, just as summer and winter-term programs may be divergent in terms of their respective lengths and effects as well.
A related limitation concerns the use of the chi-square statistic for ancillary analyses. Cross-tabulations allowed for the comparison of long-term and short-term respondents on many background and programmatic factors. However, despite the utility of this statistical procedure for illuminating differences between and among the distribution of response choices of short-term and long-term respondents, a major limitation concerns the fact that the chi-square statistic is unable to reveal where exactly the significant differences lie between the two groups.
Although the dependent variables in this research study were learning outcomes, the research design was set up in such a way as to compare students who studied abroad on short-term programs (i.e., summer and winter-term) vis-à-vis students who studied abroad on long-term programs (i.e., semester and academic year). This means that there was no control group; study abroad participants were not studied vis-à-vis those students who never participated in a study abroad program. Since this was a comparative study, it is not possible to claim causality. Therefore, this study cannot be used to infer that study abroad programs of a semester or longer cause growth in cognitive complexity, liberal learning, personal philosophy and interpersonal self-confidence directly, only that individuals who study abroad for longer periods of time report greater increases in these learning outcome areas over individuals who study abroad for shorter periods of time.
Another limitation of this study centers on the finite number of outcomes that were ultimately included in the research design, since it would have been unwieldy to study every single outcome that has ever been associated with study abroad.
Further consideration should also be given toward the varying attitudes and personal characteristics of individual study abroad participants before, during and after their individual study abroad experiences, since this research study relied on a self-report survey instrument. Attitudinal differences in survey respondents may have been manifested in such divergent areas as satisfaction with the study abroad experience in general, developmental readiness for the study abroad experience, foreign language proficiency (where applicable), and pre-existing levels of ethnorelativism/ethnocentrism, patriotism, and international-/worldmindedness. Such factors could have affected the way that participants chose to respond to survey questions.
Suggestions for Future Research As noted in the literature review of this study, there are many deficiencies associated with the body of study abroad research. The available research could be aptly described as inconclusive, inconsistent, and largely outdated. There was a span of time when there seems that very little if any research was done on the effects of study abroad.
Given that even the older literature, which was largely published in the mid-twentieth century, was not conclusive about the nature of the effects of study abroad, it is not clear why there was such a dearth of research in the latter half of the twentieth century.
However, with the current emphasis on accountability (Pulley, 2002; Woodard & Komives, 2003), it is advisable that those in the field conduct more regular and periodic research and assessment. As will be suggested here, the potential topics that could be investigated within the field of study abroad are numerous. Many of the topics that will be suggested below are related to the current study, and would add considerable insight to the topic at hand, and to the field of study abroad in general.