If we are to evaluate the academic merit of studying abroad only by evaluating the classroom lectures, in most cases study abroad would fall short in comparison with staying at home, as shown in the 2010 GLOSSARI Final Report. But that same study also concluded that, controlling for other factors, students who studied abroad experienced an increase in GPA and had a higher rate of 4-year graduation than those who did not. Most significantly, the study showed that the immersiveness of a study abroad program was correlated with the increase in functional knowledge. Study abroad is an exercise in experiential learning that best serves students when it incorporates practical experience with related classroom knowledge and time to reflect.
According to UNESCO, “Experiential learning engages students in critical thinking, problem solving and decision making in contexts that are personally relevant to them.” The result of experiential learning is introduction to new concepts and interests, which will contribute to an increased interest in academic exploration of those interests and a re-dedication to studies.
Therefore, the Academic Performance benefit is not tied to the quality of lectures or research output at study abroad destinations, but rather the degree to which the university blends active and classroom learning to create an environment that enables students to accomplish the goals below:
Discover New Research Topics and Academic Interests
Study abroad exposes students both to new ideas and to old ideas from new perspectives. Even taking a general education credit in an international setting will expose students to a different set of biases or frames of reference from a foreign professor and other international student classmates. This change in perspective can spark deeper interest in a topic and reveal research opportunities within its sub-fields. Additionally, students may gain access to unique course offerings and research opportunities based on the comparative strengths of their host university.
A variety of English-taught courses is essential to give study abroad students access to new ideas. Similarly, a diverse faculty and international student body will offer the greatest variety of perspectives on the offered topics. Finally, engaging studies of locally relevant issues, though Project-Based Learning courses or integrating community service into the curriculum, leverages the “relate studies” sub-benefit below to develop further interest into a topic that can lead to self-driven studies and increased academic performance in the future.
Specific measures used include:
- Diversity of international student body
- Availability of research placements to international students
- Class size
*Note: Number of classes offered in English is not covered here, but is used instead as a filter criteria on the Best Places to Study Abroad rankings to let students sort by the number of English courses available in their specific major.
Relate Studies to Events in the World Around Them
Academic topics that are personally relevant to students consistently result in higher learning engagement. Studying abroad takes students out of their usual campus environment and puts them in a situation where not only do the surroundings offer new and unique experiences, but there is an implied incentive to spend more time outside of the classroom engaging in the environment. This time spent engaging gives students a higher possibility of encountering unique experiences – one step of the experiential learning cycle – and because the environment is so different from what students are accustomed to, they are more likely to spend time reflecting on the experience – another step.
Where the study abroad university contributes to this sub-benefit of academic performance is in connecting the students’ off-campus experiences to classroom learning and engaging the remaining two steps of experiential learning: abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Universities should offer sufficient time and opportunities for students to have meaningful experiences off-campus and follow up on those experiences inside the classroom through means such as:
- University-arranged tours to culturally-significant areas
- Offering direct access to local and regional transportation networks
- Offering courses that apply subject matter to the host country as a case study
Develop Commitment to Lifelong Learning
The third significant way that study abroad contributes to students’ academic performance is in inspiring lifelong learning. Study abroad is a series of discoveries: new cultures, new languages, and new ways of thinking. When students have the time and resources to digest those discoveries and explore them in depth, it can trigger a passion for the learning process and a desire for more. One manifestation is the oft-evidenced trend for study abroad students to seek further international experiences through travel, work, or another study abroad. Another, evidenced by the GLOSSARI study, is the trend for study abroad students to improve their measurements of academic performance: GPA and on-time graduation rates.
The journey from experiencing discovery abroad to developing a commitment to lifelong learning is a personal one. There is no single trigger that will reach all students. But universities that provide the most varied experiences, as well as the human and physical resources to enable students’ passions, can be counted among the best places to study abroad. Specific indicators of university performance in this sub-benefit include:
- Small class sizes and percentage of faculty-taught classes
- Wide variety of subjects that draw on the host country as a case study
- 24-hour accessible library and other self-study resources
Opportunity for Improved Academic Performance
As with the other six benefits, the Academic Performance Benefit of Study Abroad is concerned with the opportunities that universities offer their study abroad students. Not every student who goes abroad, even to a university rated highly in this element, will develop research interests, commit to lifelong learning, or see a higher GPA by the time they graduate. Too much of that is dependent on students’ individual preparation and home country curriculum requirements. What is important is that universities understand how the academic role of study abroad – the discovery, relation, and commitment aspects – differs from the academic needs of their own degree-seeking students and provide the resources and environment to encourage success.