Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They're Not, and What We Can Do about It

By Tillman, Martin | International Educator, March/April 2013 | Go to article overview

Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They're Not, and What We Can Do about It


Tillman, Martin, International Educator


Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They're Not, and What We Can Do About It

By Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris Hemming Lou

Reviewed by Martin Tillman

Student Learning Abroad offers an in-depth analysis and set of recommendations, backed by a summary of applied research that education abroad professionals, faculty, and senior administrators could adapt in reexamining the perceived versus actual learning outcomes of their education abroad programs. This volume describes how different academic institutions and nonprofit organizations have developed approaches to education abroad that seek to intentionally align desired learning outcomes with their education abroad models.

For many years, the international education community has tried to address the nettlesome issue of why the number of U.S. undergraduate students studying abroad remains low as a percentage of all students enrolled in higher education in the United States. If increasing numbers was tied solely to financing education abroad, which has happened at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, numbers would surely increase throughout the country. But what if there is a more fundamental academic issue to address that questions long-held assumptions about the merits and impact of study abroad? For those interested in such a reexamination, I highly recommend Student Learning Abroad.

This book addresses the core issue facing faculty and administrators responsible for assessing the impact of international educational experience at their institution: What did the student learn? The editors state that despite growing evidence from available research, administrators and faculty have not acknowledged that "...a dispassionate review of the evidence will leave little room for doubt: Far too many U.S. undergraduates are not learning and developing (as a result of their participation in study abroad programs) in ways that most members of our community typically believed they did as recently as a decade or two ago (my emphasis)." While they question, at the outset, the meaning [if not the accuracy] of student statements- upon return home and to campus- about how they have been "transformed" or "changed" as a result of their education abroad experience, the editors do not dismiss them as without meaning. They write, "The important questions, though, are not about whether students are learning anything or not; they are about what students are learning, about how they are learning, and about whether the process- the experience - of learning abroad is allowing them to develop competencies they might not have if they had stayed at home." On this point, the editors acknowledge that the study abroad field has, for many decades, maintained an uneasy coexistence of two different narratives: the optimistic view of those students claiming their overseas experience taught them many "useful things" and the other, that too many students were "not learning very well."

The editors have brought together authors who discuss, in great detail, three specific types of evidence to support the above finding: (1) research findings on study abroad; (2) insights from different disciplines that offer "new understandings about human learning and development; and (3) six "concrete" examples of education abroad programs or courses that "intervene" (a central tenet of the book is how essential it is to design programs that intentionally shape the learning outcomes for students) in the learning process by purposefully (my word) "applying the interdisciplinary insights and research findings" (i.e., found to most likely support student learning).

The book is organized around four chapters that review recent research and assumptions in the education abroad field; review foundations of teaching and application of learning theory; discuss and describe six academic and study abroad provider initiatives (the American University Center of Provence's Experiment in Holistic Intervention, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities online course, "Global Identity: Connecting Your International Experience to Your Future," a case study of intercultural experiences on the Scholar Ship (no longer in operation), and the CIEE elective credit-bearing Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad, which illustrate methods of intervening in student learning; and lastly, present conclusions and "closing insights.

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