Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Honors Inquiry in Ireland: Developing a Research-Based Study Abroad Experience for Honors Students

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Honors Inquiry in Ireland: Developing a Research-Based Study Abroad Experience for Honors Students

Article excerpt

Honors programs and colleges have long placed experiential education at the core of their missions (Braid and Long). As universities have made experiential learning opportunities available to more and more of their students, a question arises about what makes honors experiential learning distinctive (Donahue). In the university-wide honors program at Georgia Southern University, we asked this question about honors study abroad offerings. With a limited staff and budget, we needed a good rationale for the honors program to develop and run a study abroad experience. Such an experience would need to provide experiential learning that would be distinctive in a way or ways constitutive of a true honors experience.

In thinking about how high-value experiential learning could form the core of an honors study abroad program, we returned to foundational literature about basic, essential practices within the experiential learning process: concrete doing and evaluative reflection. We paid particular attention to Kolb's contention that "learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (38). We felt that much study abroad does little more than expose students to pre-rehearsed, often "broad brushstroke" data about the host country. This method of knowledge-sharing probably results from instructor anxiety that students might become overwhelmed if tasked with actual knowledge-creation in an environment already disorienting because foreign.

The mere fact of being abroad with informed professors is frequently seen as a beneficial educational experience. Certainly, the participating student will gain new self-knowledge, such as empirical or tested insights into her tolerance for unfamiliar locales and cultures and for risk-taking. Furthermore, she will learn for the first time established (i.e., old) knowledge about the host country. In addition, though, surely an honors study abroad experience should designedly aspire to Kolb's notion of knowledge-creation. While agreeing that--almost by default--study abroad is an instance of experiential education, we also wanted to guarantee that knowledge-creation would flow from any iterative do-and-reflect learning on the part of our honors students beyond the U. S. We concluded that it might prove efficacious while abroad to engage students in a genuine research project: perhaps a portion of a larger, team-led inquiry with at least some established infrastructural elements. As we will explain later, we identified and realized a "version 1.0" of such an opportunity.

Carolyn Haynes outlines several key components of worthwhile and successful study abroad programs: defining core learning outcomes; incorporating diverse learning opportunities; ensuring broad accessibility; and facilitating meaningful engagement and critical reflection. She also emphasizes that a given program should be congruent with and integrated into its participating students' greater curriculum. The above features are surely desirable in any study abroad program and not just an honors scenario. However, when drilling down into what honors study abroad should be, Haynes's attention to the greater curriculum resonated strongly with us because the Georgia Southern University Honors Program has a signature requirement that each of its students complete a research-based thesis, a bottom line we model by providing many research-focused courses. Our impulse, derived from experiential learning theory, to build research into honors study abroad was bolstered by the fit between that ambition and the fact that undergraduate research is a central, distinctive demand within our honors curriculum.

Study abroad and undergraduate research are two approaches included in George Kuh's list of high-impact educational practices. These pedagogical strategies provide experiences that engage students in an enriched learning environment. Students who participate in high-impact practices have a variety of desirable outcomes: increased academic engagement; improved critical-thinking and -writing skills; and enhanced retention and graduation rates (Brownwell and Swaner). …

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