Monday, January 11, 2010

A Thought on the Problems I see with Researching Outcomes from Study Abroad

Many IHEC Blog readers and colleagues know that I am very interested in the scholarly side of the field of international education with particular research interests focusing on U.S. students studying abroad. While my research interests have been changing over the last several years I’m still very interested in the micro level outcomes that study abroad programs have on students. The following two articles published in International Education Forum (former journal of AIEA) in 1997 not only sparked my interest in the scholarly side of the field but put forth a framework that as guided my thinking since.

Stimpfl, Joseph R., and David Engberg. “What to Know Before You Go: Creating a Comparison for Research on Study Abroad Programs,” International Education Forum, 17 no. 1 (1997): 7-21.

Stimpfl, Joseph R. and David Engberg. "Comparing Apples to Apples: An Integrated Approach to Study Abroad Program Assessment," International Education Forum, 17 no. 2 (1997): 97-109.

In my opinion, it is a flawed research design to compare study abroad programs without calling attention to the difference between the programs. Study abroad programs share some characteristics but there are huge differences between programs. Can we really compare the student experiences on a six to twelve month homestay immersion program in China with courses taught in Chinese by local faculty/instructors to the student experiences of a three to six month program in Spain with courses taught in English by home institution faculty in our research/assessment activities?

There is not a clear set of categories that allow us to relate study abroad programs. Other research and work has been done in this area, most notably the work Lilli Engle and John Engle on study abroad levels and classification of program types, but nothing is currently being utilized in the field and research.

A question that comes to my mind when I read research studies on study abroad is:

- How do the factors that affect change relate across study abroad programs?

What are your thoughts on this?

Photo credit: Dano


  1. Though I think that outcomes assessment from the students' perspectives is extremely important and interesting, what I really find interesting and painfully under-researched is the outcomes of study abroad programs on host communities. I did a small paper on Service Learning Outcomes from the perspective of host communities for a graduate school project this last summer, and though service learning programs are supposedly designed in part to aid the host community, no one seems to actually be asking the host community if they feel the program is in fact useful to their community or doing any kind of qualitative or quantitative assessment of the effects of groups of Americans stomping through this or that country on the people who are receiving these groups of Americans. It strikes me incredibly selfish and thoughtless that we seem so concerned about the students experiences and not particularly concerned at all about what effect the plethora of Americans going abroad has on the world wide community. We assume its positive, I assume its positive for the most part, but why we seem completely unconcerned with knowing for sure is something I simply do not understand. Do either of the books you mentioned above address this issue?

  2. @Pajarita ~ Many thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts on this topic. I agree with you that researching the impact that the growing number of U.S. students studying abroad has and will have on the local/host communities should be an important part of our research efforts in the field. Unfortunately, I don't know of any research/literature focusing either directly or indirectly on this topic and I believe that neither of these articles touch on this. Thanks again for your comments! Much appreciated.

  3. One of the factors that I believe can greatly affect change is the opportunity for all to be able to participate in the study abroad exprience. Those from underserved or poverty areas (primarily minorities)often do not get this opportunity because they simply cannot afford to travel or live in other countries while pursuing their studies. By developing a government sanctioned and supported study abroad program for pre-qualified learners to increase their knowledge of other cultures and countries, greater opportunity for change can come. In my own research, I do not see where these programs exist. Are there any?