Higher education professionals agree that learning abroad fosters growth, but it is much harder to quantify exactly how a student’s intercultural skills change through those international experiences. The University of Utah Learning Abroad office set out on a mission to measure that growth several years ago and shared their recently-launched method with other learning abroad professionals at a June conference hosted by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
“There’s a lot that says ‘if you go abroad, you gain skills.’ But you have to have a really intentional program design to actually articulate those outcomes,” said Katrina Brown, former Associate Director for Learning Abroad at the U.
Brown, along with Beth Laux, President/CEO of Quest Cultural Solutions and former Dean of International Programs at Pepperdine University, and Alexis Greene, Intake Advisor for University of California, San Diego’s International Students & Programs Office, were invited to NAFSA to share their guidance on creating purposeful programming with measurable outcomes.
“Our understanding of how study abroad programs support intercultural learning has changed in the past twenty years,” said Laux, who is also the former Director for Learning Abroad at the U. Laux began researching learning outcomes of study abroad in 2014 at the U and used her findings into improve programs for the U’s Learning Abroad office. Brown joined the office soon after and, together, they worked with their team on developing tools that can demonstrate through data that students understand the world differently before and after their experiences abroad. Even though both are now in new positions, the two have stayed close through this research and their passion for international education.
Central to their approach is the implementation of customized pre- and post-trip testing tools that reveal how students grow during their learning abroad experiences. “We really wanted to show concretely that learning abroad is more than just travel. It’s not a vacation. It’s not just a trip. It’s a deeply academic experience that fits into the university’s larger mission,” said Brown.
U students are now required to complete surveys and reflection exercises to better understand their intercultural skills before and after their international experience. Learning Abroad launched the survey in 2019 and is now on the cusp of gathering enough data to interpret the results.
These outcomes could help students understand just how impactful learning abroad can be and what specific benefits it holds for them. Such insights also carry important lessons for faculty and administration regarding what types of experiences and curriculum delivery are most impactful for students.
“It’s taken a lot of intentional work to get to this point, and it was exciting to present our process to our peers. We wanted to give them the tools to go back and make this happen at their institutions, in a way that makes sense for their unique demographics and goals,” said Brown.
Learning Abroad’s new director Alexandra Wallace is excited to dive into the data to learn how it can shape program offerings going forward.