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Report finds that Study Abroad Improves Learning Outcomes…what does this mean for College Abroad?

Welcome to my redesigned and revamped website where I will do my best to blog occassionally on all things related to studying abroad, international education, living abroad, and international travel.  I hope you find the information interesting and useful.  I hope you will take the time to comment, share, email me, tweet me, or even buy my book.

A massive study was recently completed by the University of Georgia in which learning outcomes were compared between students who studied abroad and those that didn’t.  They found that studying abroad improves students’ GPAs, graduate rates, and several other measures.  One of the researchers pointed out that the results contradicts one of the long-held views of studying abroad, and one that I myself lend some credence to in my book, that students going overseas spend their time boozing it up in European bars and little to no time studying.  One the one hand, this is great news especially for skeptical parents or worse…nationalists who are convinced there is nothing to learn beyond the borders of the good old US-of-A.  On the other hand, I’m sure the researchers didn’t actually factor “heavy partying” into their statistics for either the students that stayed stateside or those that went abroad, and my guess is that more than likely BOTH groups did their fair share of beer pong/late nights at the discotheque.  This simply shows that students, regardless of where they are studying, are able to keep their GPAs fairly high, whether they are partying or not.  And furthermore, the graduation rates and the GPA of the study abroad students did indeed go up, but only by a small degree.

View of the Margit Bridge, crossing the Danube.

View of the Margit Bridge, crossing the Danube.

Still though, it is reassuring to know that studying abroad won’t delay graduation or ruin your GPA (or your life for that matter), but rather does the opposite.  But if this is the case with students who spend a short time abroad (the article linked here doesn’t say whether the researchers studied the effects of short-term versus long-term study abroad programs), then we can assume that the effects of spending one’s entire academic career abroad would be even higher.  One of the rather frustrating outcomes of the study showed that even students who study abroad still can’t answer basic world geography questions like, “name three rivers in Europe.”  Trust me, if you spend more than just a couple of weeks having to cross the Danube every single day while actually LIVING in Budapest, as supposed to simply studying there, you’ll know at least one river.  And if you have the time and flexibility over the course of several years to travel all over Europe, you’d have no choice but to learn a few more.

And further, while this study is useful for those in study abroad departments looking to keep their programs open against administrators who are looking for programs to cut in the face of less and less state support, I don’t think you can measure the value of an education, whether it is conducted domestically or abroad or some combination of the two, in numbers.  So what if your GPA goes down a few points after spending a year in Japan, while you were studying in…JAPANESE!  I would almost expect your GPA to go down.  But you’re fluent in Japanese.  That won’t be captured by your GPA in most cases.  So you’re going to graduate a semester late?  But you spent one semester interning with a Spanish company that you might be able to parlay into an international career.  What is more important about your education is what you want to get out of it.  For some, getting the highest GPA possible is the most important thing.  Nothing wrong with that.  But for others, keeping your grades above average is important but having fun, challenging yourself, and having new experiences is more important.

There is no way to compare the learning outcomes of American studying abroad versus those that stay at home, versus those that do their entire degree abroad, like I did.  However, my guess would be that American international students such as myself would show average to maybe slightly above average performance compared to the other two groups.  The argument that I’ve always made in favor of becoming an international student has much more to do with personal growth, catching up with the international experience so many other nationalities already have, and a deep and nuanced appreciation for culture and language rather than absolute academic performance.  These are things that can hardly be measured by brute statistics.  But it might at the very least give you an edge in the world geography category on trivia night.


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