Assessing Study Abroad: Theory, Tools, and Practices

By Tillman, Martin | International Educator, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Assessing Study Abroad: Theory, Tools, and Practices


Tillman, Martin, International Educator


Assessing Study Abroad: Theory, Tools, and Practices

By Victor Savicki and Elizabeth Brewer, Editors

Stylus Publishing, 2015

Reviewed By Martin Tillman

AS BRIAN WHALEN, Forum on Education Abroad CEO, says in his foreword, this book stands out because the chapters are not authored, in all cases, by "experts in assessment"; rather, they are written mostly by practitioners. While study abroad has grown in importance in recent years, the focus on assessment of outcomes from such programs has only been considered "important" for the past decade. While this volume discusses an often complex process, there is an effort to provide practical advice (authors represent a wide range of academic institutions), samples of documents, and campus case studies to emphasize that program assessment need not be designed and implemented solely by expert practitioners.

At the outset, there are several key questions asked to pull back the curtain on the heightened interest in study abroad- exemplified by the IIE Generation Abroad initiative to double the number of participants by 2020. Is the increased attention and effort warranted? How do we know this? Are programs achieving the results they promise to students? Are other campus stakeholders satisfied that calls for increased resources are merited by evidence of success in meeting study abroad program learning outcomes? The editors have sought to respond to these questions by dividing this book into three chapters: one on theory, one on tools and strategies, and, the last-and largest-describes a diverse set of campus case studies.

The editors emphasize the need for staff to be flexible in their selection and design of an assessment tool that uses either qualitative or quantitative methods to capture data and student feedback. No one instrument or approach is necessarily better than another. It depends on the context in which the assessment tool is being applied on a campus. The authors state that "study abroad assessment goals gain legitimacy to the degree that they reflect the goals and mission of the larger organization of which the study abroad program is a part."1 And they offer a useful historical perspective on the changing expectations of institutions regarding the purpose of study abroad and the resulting need to assess the "rigor" of programs.

At first, most American students studied abroad taking courses at local universities. There was concern as to whether or not their course of study [then, as now, mostly in Europe] was sufficiently rigorous and comparable to their coursework on their U.S. campus. There was a presumed equivalence between "rigor" and student learning. Such thinking led to the assumption that readiness to study abroad was reflected in a student's GPA and record of grades in coursework already taken. In 1965 the Council on Student Travel (now known as CIEE) developed A Guidebook to Institutional Self-Study and Evaluation of Educational Programs Abroad. Course grades "remained the primary measure of student learning."2

Fast forward from this very narrow analysis, the book discusses (in great detail with much attention to current research) the more complex learning environment of today's campus and the larger set of institutional goals and learning objectives through which any study abroad program would be evaluated. No single short-term study abroad experience could possibly capture the breadth and depth of learning outcomes expected from the "entirety of a college experience."3 Thus, the assessment of a particular study abroad program needs to be placed within both the context of the institution's broad mandate to assess student learning and the demands for accountability of programs conducted by the study abroad office (or a thirdparty provider organization). Assessment becomes a shared responsibility "between the institution and the study abroad office or program ."4

I'd call attention to Chapter Two (which I found too brief given its importance), "Beyond the Study Abroad Industry," which highlights the unfortunate fact that, ". …

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