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.

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.


“Our failure to account for how researchers leave the field–how they can responsibly extricate themselves from an ethnographic situation that binds researcher and researched through ongoing processes of ‘colonialism, imperialism, missionization, multinational capital, global cultural flows, and travel’–is a troubling area of silence” (Figueroa, 2014, p.129).

This week I choose to reflect on the above quote from Paris and Winn’s (2014) Humanizing Research because of the applicability to my own area of research.  In education abroad, reentry, or reverse culture shock, “is the process of readjusting, reacculturating, and reassimilating into one’s own home culture after living in a different culture for a significant period of time” (Gaw, 2000, p.83).   In Figueroa’s poignant essay, she implores social researchers to pay more attention to the ‘exit’ phase of the research process, whereby the researchers depart their communities that they have been studying to return to their regular communities of practice. This part of the research process can be overlooked and instead, Figueroa suggests that researchers should ask, “have we acknowledged and fulfilled our responsibility to the communities who have welcomed us?  Have we–in both our own opinion and the opinion of participants–fulfilled the commitments we made at the beginning of the study?” (p.129).  

Just as researchers must leave a community that at once may have seemed foreign and personal to them, so to do our students leave their host cultures only to return to a home that is perhaps less familiar where they must then make sense of all that they encountered and learned while abroad.  Consider this #ReEntryProblem tweet from Twitter user @DanielleSleeper:

The sad fact is, that as Figueroa asserts is the case in research, often times, not much attention is paid to the critical exit and reentry period.  Aside from a myriad of psychological issues that might affect returning students, such as depression, loneliness, and general anxiety (Gaw, 2000), having an intervention during the reentry process can be important for meaning-making as part of the students overall transformational experience. Rowan-Kenyon and Niehaus  (2011) echo this sentiment, stating, “as institutions provide these short-term experiences, it is also important for follow-up to occur after the experience is over. This follow-up presents opportunities for students to build on their experiences rather than letting them fade” (p. 225).

Therefore, as I consider the goals international educators often have for their study abroad participants it is intriguing to apply this education abroad lens to support Figueroa’s plea for researchers to “move beyond outdated notions of researcher neutrality,” (p.130).  Rather than merely being passive bystanders observing the host culture from a bubble, we tend to want to see our students engaging in thoughtful, reciprocal interaction with their hosts.  That is where intercultural learning and understanding can occur.  Why, then, do we expect that this would be any different for social researchers?

While I still struggle with the concept of forgoing objectivity in research, when I think about this dilemma from my education abroad lens, I begin to see logic in what Figueroa and others are advocating for in terms of humanizing research.  In order to maximize the learning opportunity, shouldn’t researchers seek to understand their subjects by injecting themselves in the middle of their daily lives?  The problem is, if this is done, then care must be taken when it comes time to leave the community.  It is a question of humans interacting with humans–a science wholly different from that of a researcher breaking down enzymes in a lab or an engineer working with software on a computer.  When we relegate our human research participants to data in a spreadsheet, what do we lose in the knowledge-making process?  What about ethics?  These questions are similar to those questions I have about our American students studying abroad.  When we fail to assist our students in reflecting in order to derive meaning and to be able to articulate their abroad experiences, when we turn a group of American college students loose in a foreign town without teaching them about humility and cultural relativism, do we not do more harm than good?



Gaw, K. (2000). Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 24, 83-104.

Paris, D., & Winn, M. (Eds.). (2014). Humanizing research. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Niehaus, E. K. (2011). One year later: The influence of short-term study abroad experiences on students. The Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(2), 213-228.



Productive Failure?

For most of my life I have been involved in some form of schooling.  At this point, it is beginning to seem as though I will forever be a student.  It was with this framework that, as I read Jordan and McDaniel’s (2014) study this week, I began to think about the idea of failure and how since I was in kindergarten, I have been conditioned to think that failure is not an option.  There was no use for failure in terms of my education.  Though I acknowledge that my parents’ strong work ethics had a role to play in helping me to form this opinion, I think that much credit is due to my own self-motivation and being conditioned in the United States education system where competition seemed to start at such a young age.  Therefore, I paused when I read the following passage in Jordan and McDaniel’s study,

“However, research by Kapur and colleagues has shown that, properly managed, involving students in active struggle can be productive for learning.  Both failure and uncertainty create opportunities for argumentation, for the pursuit of different lines of logic, for knowledge construction, and for the movement of ideas from tacit to explicit…achieving productive failure is no easy task and requires careful attention to the entire process of the educational endeavor” (p. 34).

Productive failure.  As the product of nearly 20 years of conditioning myself to believe that anything less than an ‘A’ is unacceptable, this phrase seems highly oxymoronic.  Yet, when I consider the intersection of this aspect of the study with my line of research in education abroad, I immediately see the logic in this line of reasoning.  Some of the moments where the most powerful learning happened to me while studying abroad occurred when I was engaged in a process of productive failure (only I certainly did not think of it in this way at the time!).  I can remember a time when I was trying to communicate with a crêpe-maker on the streets in Paris after a long day of class and all I wanted was a ”crêpe au sucre,” only thanks to my poor American accent, the crêpe-maker could not understand what I was asking for.  Baffled at why I could not succeed in communicating when, in my mind, I was saying exactly what I wanted, I then proceeded to practice the nefarious French ‘R’ sound with my newly-made French friends later that evening for hours on end.  After failing to succeed in this most basic of tasks, I was determined to figure out what the issue was so I could fix it.  The rest of my summer seemed to be spent over-correcting my French R’s, much to the amusement of my Parisian friends.

Study abroad seems like a perfect environment in which to build upon Jordan and McDaniel’s intriguing research on how uncertainty is managed, in particular with relation to peer influence. On short-term programs where students are studying abroad with fellow U.S. students, group dynamics are very intriguing to watch as it seems relationships form and deconstruct very quickly as peers navigate the foreign and highly uncertain contexts in which they find themselves.  To be sure there are many opportunities for productive failure.

However, with productive being the operative word, success with this model all depends upon a methodical intervention.  I believe that left unsupervised, or without a student who is intrinsically motivated, these opportunities may do more damage then good.  Consider moments where students fail to understand why a host culture does something a particular way.  That student might interpret the host culture as worse than their own simply because of a misunderstanding that had gone unchecked.  As Perry, Stoner, and Tarrant (2012) argue in their article, “Within study abroad experiences, exposure to new places, cultures, and learning environments where a students’ preconceived and established notions and beliefs are tested, may act as the catalyst or impetus for bringing forth a transformative experience.  Of particular importance is the creation of moments of critical reflection and discussion.  In these types of environments, exposed to realities that are outside their previous understanding, the learner may discover a need to acquire new perspectives in order to gain a more complete understanding” (p. 682).  Though international educators laud the experience as a transformative one, the reality is that this cannot be the case without intentional opportunities for critical reflection.  Moments for productive failure will remain failure if we do not seek to engage students in this process of thoughtful reflection.


Jordan, M., & McDaniel, R. (2014). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 00, 1-47.

Perry, L., Stoner, L., & Tarrant, M. (2012).
More than a vacation: Short-term study abroad as a critically reflective, transformative learning experience  Creative Education, 3(5), 679-683.

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.