Student reviews examine study abroad value

With growing strains on family and university spending, study abroad offices are under increased pressure to prove the value of their programs.

Study abroad offices across the country are prioritizing surveys and anecdotal reports from participants to demonstrate the academic and social advantages of international learning and to justify its expenses.

“For a long time, people just believed that study abroad worked, without really stepping back to try to measure its impact,” Karin Fischer, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, said. “But there’s growing outside pressure to ascertain if it really does produce the outcomes its advocates say it does.”

The heightened importance of bringing transparency to participants’ assessments – the focus of a national study abroad conference last Wednesday – comes after a December 2011 report by researchers from Forum on Education Abroad questioned the conventional wisdom that overseas experiences strengthen intercultural knowledge. As universities nationwide underscored studying abroad as a prerequisite for employment in a global economy, students with greater cultural competency are in demand, the authors of that report stressed that cultural take-aways vary greatly with each program.

Mark Salisbury, one of the co-authors and a speaker at the conference, said in an interview that many university administrators across the country are increasingly using assessments to determine funding from universities for study abroad programs, making sure “the institution meets certain standards of practice, organization, and fiscal responsibility.”

Salisbury said that colleges have long collected anecdotal evidence about students’ experiences by talking about what the students learned from their programs. He said that assessment must now compile data that can more clearly demonstrate what a program offers, based on student feedback.

“If done right, assessment can be an incredibly valuable means of designing and improving study abroad programs,” Salisbury said.

To measure the success of GW study abroad programs, Robert Hallworth, the director of the Office for Study Abroad, said surveys are conducted both before and after students go abroad.

He said the surveys, created with colleagues from Graduate School of Education and Human Development, gauge learning outcomes from cultural self-awareness to worldview frameworks and openness.

His office also uses focus groups with returning students to gauge “what they’re learning, how they’re learning and what we can do to help better prepare students to live and learn abroad,” Hallworth said.

“Aside from the academic gains from taking courses abroad, we believe that study abroad helps broaden a student’s perspective and increases their ability to deal with new surroundings and adapt to challenging situations,” Hallworth said.

Salisbury said many study abroad offices are still learning how best to evaluate student learning in their programs, and “there still aren’t a set of surveys that could be considered a gold standard.”

Study-abroad rates at GW have been steadily increasing over the last decade, hitting a peak in 2007, when 1,651 students left the University for at least one semester.

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