The Importance of Student Motivation in Short-Term Study Abroad

Allen, H. W. (2010). What shapes short-term study abroad experiences ? A comparative case study of students ’ motives and goals. Journal of Studies in International Education, 14(5), 452–470.

Summary of Study
Having been a participant on a short-term intensive French language study abroad program twice myself, I found Allen’s study to be very relatable.  Allen chose to examine the goals and motivations that shaped two female students’ short-term study abroad experiences, specifically examining their language learning while participants on a 6-week program in Nantes, France.  If there are naysayers out there about the ability of short-term programs to instill long-term cross-cultural benefits in students, it seems that there are even more academics who contest the true language skills students are able to derive from participating on a short-term study abroad program such as this one and the two I completed.  Consider the literature Allen cites, including Davidson (2007), “[Davidson’s research] claimed that for programs of 6 weeks or less, development of linguistic and cultural proficiency is extremely unlikely to occur” (p. 453).  Certainly I do not think that fluency in a language is something to be expected by participating on a program of such a short length, but reflecting on my personal gains, I cannot help but think there are other gains made, such as the acquisition of more colloquial and current vocabulary, as well as gains in self-confidence leading to continued study of the language.  This latter point was something that Allen actually examined in this study as well.

Allen’s findings indicated that the motives surrounding each students’ reason for pursuing study abroad seemed to have the most impact on determining to what extent the students’ language levels developed during the study abroad program.  Allen’s connection to Lompscher’s (1999) characterization of the types of learning motives was very powerful at contextualizing this finding, explaining that “Molly’s [learning motives] were consistent with social learning (i.e., to communicate or cooperate with others) and higher level cognitive motives (i.e.; arising from her intrinsic interest in learning), whereas Rachel’s were consistent with lower-level cognitive motives (i.e., learning with the goal of obtaining a result)” (p.467).  Therefore, it was logical to see that after the program, Molly went on to declare a major in French and was considering moving to France upon graduation, whereas Rachel ended her study of French after she completed her minor in it, something she had cited as a reason for participating in the study abroad program in the first place.

Strengths and Critiques
Though the research questions posed in this study are not terribly unique as language acquisition during study abroad programs has been studied before, I found Allen’s use of an active theory perspective to be quite revealing in the study’s findings, namely attributing importance to students’ own goals and motivations for participating on a study abroad program.  Overall, I find the article to be well organized and developed, leading to very logical conclusions and important discussion for the field (particularly for advisors and faculty leading short-term programs, who are perhaps best positioned to work with students on identifying their goals and motivations) however, the fact that Allen only examined two students on a single program makes drawing any large-scale conclusions rather tough.  Methodology included recruiting eight participants and then hand-selecting two females based on shared characteristics such as GPA, little prior travel experience, and similar levels of French language skill. I presume this allowed for an even ground for comparison, however I wonder if bias might have been present given that this does not seem very randomized.  The study’s main source of data came from participant blog entries and three interviews.  A pre-trip questionnaire and one administered during the program’s final week were also used.  The researcher also explains that she served as the program director for the trip and interacted with participants weekly, “allowing establishment of trust,” however I think that this, too, might have introduced some level of bias when analyzing data.

Relation to Personal Experiences
As I indicated, since I participated on a short-term French language program, it was helpful for me to reflect on my own motivations for pursuing a study abroad program and to think about how much I feel I learned on my program in terms of language acquisition.  For me, participating on the study abroad program was not an option but something that I felt I had to do in order to come closer to my overall goal of one day being fluent in the language.  This seemed similar to Molly’s motivation as Allen indicates, “What led Molly to participate in study abroad was that full immersion was critical for achieving French fluency” (p. 457).  However, like Molly, I fully acknowledged that participating on a short-term program was not going to make me become the fluent speaker that I desired to be.  Rather, I saw it as an important next step in bringing me closer to that goal.  After having 4 years of French study, it was time to take what I learned in the classroom and put it into practice, which was an important step in building my confidence at speaking French.

At the end of the program I felt pleased with what I managed to accomplish on my 4-week program.  Though I was not fluent, the biggest gains for me were that 1) I had connected with French people my age who taught me how young French people really speak (colloquial and slang variants as opposed to the textbook French I had been learning) and 2) I had succeeded in communicating with a variety of French people in multiple aspects of their society, not the least of which was passing two courses taught completely in French at a French institution.  These successes were critical for me in building my self confidence in continuing to speak and learn the language, and I think, helped me to make greater gains in the language at a quicker rate than I was learning in a traditional classroom setting.  I liken this to the fact that, like Molly in Allen’s study, my goals were more in line with wanting to be able to communicate and learn for the sake of learning, rather than merely wanting to complete the program to advance a degree requirement, which is more in line with Rachel’s motivations.

Ideas for My Area of Interest
In Allen’s discussion and conclusion, she raises two excellent points for my area of interest.
First, based on her findings, Allen asks, “How can study abroad curricula accommodate students with varied motives and goals who enact agency in different ways?” (p. 469).  Given that students’ decisions to pursue study abroad opportunities are so varied, how can international educators and faculty directors work together to develop learning outcomes that will speak to these differences?  As Allen discovered in interviews with Rachel, part of the reason that she did not advance as much as she wanted to with her French language skills stemmed from the fact that she was unable to adapt her learning methods to a style outside of the traditional classroom. International educators need to develop ways to identify students who are are not as self-sufficient at adapting to the new learning environments that study abroad incorporates and provide interventions that assist these students accordingly.

Secondly, and this is a topic I have considered for my own research before, Allen discovered that “Blogging can serve as a tool for self-reflection and goal-setting; however, it is evident that blogging without faculty mediation or other intervention is insufficient” (p. 469). Engaging students in meaningful reflective practices before, during, and after their time abroad is something that I believe is necessary to ensure maximum gains in benefits to be derived from participating in study abroad.  However, this reflection must be monitored and leaders of programs must intervene in order to help students make meaning from their experiences and reflections.  One idea I have is the development of an online course module that study abroad participants would engage in during their experience abroad, regardless of what program they were studying on.  This online module would be designed to be a reflection intervention that provides a way for international educators to help students work through the obstacles they might encounter when pursuing their goals and developing their new skills on their programs.

Allen, H. W. (2010). What shapes short-term study abroad experiences ? A comparative case study of students ’ motives and goals. Journal of Studies in International Education14(5), 452–470.

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