Personal Growth & Study Abroad

Ingraham, E. C., & Peterson, D. L. (2004). Assessing the impact of study abroad on student learning at michigan state university. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 10, 83-100.

Since 2000, Michigan State University (MSU) has been engaged in a process of assessing the impact study abroad has on student learning at their institution.  Ingraham and Peterson’s (2004) report is the first publication to present the initial findings of the study.  In the report, the authors rely on pre and post surveys administered to study abroad program participants, journals written by students while abroad, focus groups of returned students, and written reports from faculty who have led programs.  The study also used information from MSU’s central student database “to compare various aspects of students who have studied abroad with those who have not” (p. 85).

What I appreciate about MSU’s project is that it seems like a great example of action research in study abroad from which I can learn for my future research.  Rather than creating a study that is designed to have broad implications for the field, the institutional assessment committee established to oversee the project set out to carry out a study that would continually assess the impact of study abroad on the specific goals and learning outcomes MSU set for its students and programs.  These goals are listed by Ingraham and Peterson as follows:

1. Facilitate students’ intellectual growth
2. Contribute to students’ professional development
3. Accelerate students’ personal growth
4. Develop students’ skills for relating to culturally different others
5. Enhance students’ self-awareness and understanding of their own culture
6. Contribute to the internationalization of the students’ home department, college or university (p. 84)

The project used qualitative and quantitative analyses of the aforementioned datasets to verify its findings.  In terms of a qualitative analysis, the researchers used student self-assessments and consulted faculty observations of students on their programs.  As for qualitative analysis, the project reviewed student data obtained from the University’s central student database. The authors state that because the findings were meant to be used only internally at the institution, “we have not undertaken a search of the existing literature in order to provide a bibliography and citations” (p. 84).  While I understand this to some degree, I think it would have still been useful to present some key pieces of literature that the project’s assessment committee consulted in order to establish their research design, especially to glean some insight as to how they agreed upon the aforementioned goals.

The presentation of the report is organized and concise, but is notably lacking in some areas, such as the research design section.  I would have appreciated more insight into the pre and post program questionnaires that were used, as well as being provided more information in how focus groups were formed, although I suspect a reason why details such as these were not shared was because of the intent to have this serve internal institutional priorities.  I do not think that the findings can necessarily be considered to be significant for the field at large, namely because the research design was based around MSU’s specific goals for its students and programs, but the findings do seem credible and would probably be alike if other institutions were to carry out similar projects.  I appreciate that the study was closely linked to MSU’s own institutional priorities since outcomes of study abroad programs can vary depending upon how study abroad is situated at each individual institution.

As evidenced in some of my earlier posts on this blog, Ingraham and Peterson found that “overall, there is a strong perception of significant gain from participation in study abroad and it is evident that short-term programs provide notable value” (p. 90).  This study further clarified the nature of this gain in finding that personal growth was among the most impacted by study abroad, whereas professional development did not demonstrate any statistically significant difference.  One reason for such a profound effect on personal growth is “the psychological challenge posed by the unfamiliar…[it] is particularly acute when abroad and, while sometimes the anguish it can cause (e.g., homesickness, depression) can diminish the benefit, there is no doubt that the predominant effect on personal growth is positive and profound” (p. 94).

This recalls the notion, posed by Jordan and McDaniel (2014), of “productive uncertainty” (p. 34).  I strongly believe that part of the reason study abroad is lauded as such a transformative educational and personal experience by international educators is precisely because of its ability to encourage learning in highly unfamiliar contexts.  Students not only learn academics, but learn about their various identities and how they react in different scenarios when they are forced to navigate unstructured and foreign settings.  Therefore, it is not surprising to me that the authors would find such marked increase in the area of personal growth.  I think the area of ‘productive uncertainty’ in the study abroad context holds rich opportunities for research.  Specifically, on short-term programs led by American faculty, examining how groups of American students rely on one another and their faculty member to negotiate these unfamiliar settings seems to me as though it would be very useful.  Depending upon the findings, strategies for preparing students to embrace the idea of productive uncertainty rather than succumb to mental health issues that may arise, such as homesickness or depression, would be very useful for the field.

Concerning what further study might effectively build on this piece of research, since it is very tailored to MSU’s study abroad initiatives, I think the researchers should next look at a group of students who have not applied to study abroad and examine personal growth for this group.  In higher education, there is much discussion on student engagement theory so it would be interesting to know if the levels of personal growth gained during study abroad have any statistical significance as compared to those gains in personal growth by students who did not study abroad but who are engaged in other manners on the home campus.

References:
Ingraham, E. C., & Peterson, D. L. (2004). Assessing the impact of study abroad on student learning at michigan state university. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 10, 83-100.

Jordan M.E. & Mcdaniel R. (in press). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams : The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

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