Understanding Cultural Context
The GLOSSARI project, or Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad Research Initiative, was launched in 2000 by researchers seeking to understand the academic and cognitive impact of studying abroad. They drew on the entire University System of Georgia (USG) as their 'laboratory,' giving them access to 283,000 students at 35 public postsecondary institutions. The system offers over 425 study abroad programs of several different types and has been collecting detailed data on USG students abroad since 1999.
In the first phase of the project, GLOSSARI sought to compare generic learning outcomes for study abroad (SA) and non-SA subjects. Because no existing test for SA participants focused on knowledge acquisition, the researchers developed a self-report testing functional knowledge of cultural practices, knowledge of world geography, knowledge of global interdependence, knowledge of intercultural accommodation and knowledge of cultural context.
The researchers found that students who studied abroad showed a greater increase in both functional knowledge and understanding of cultural context after their experience than non-SA students did over the same period of time. Functional knowledge might be demonstrating the ability to get around in a foreign city, or understanding humor in a foreign culture. Knowledge of cultural context may include understanding how cultural settings influence personal experiences and interpersonal interactions, or understanding the significance of linguistic and cultural differences.
No other differences on the learning outcomes test could be attributed to the study abroad experience. In fact, both groups reported a decline in geographical knowledge.
In the second phase, the organization one of the big challenges of assessing the impact of study abroad: What method provides the most reliable measurement of learning outcomes across different types of programs? After comparing several existing tests, they determined that different tests aren't interchangeable. It's therefore crucial that researchers understand precisely what learning outcome they're trying to test, and choose the appropriate tool from there.
For phase three, GLOSSARI researchers analyzed the outcomes of three courses that were taught abroad and at home with identical materials. They found that domestic students tended to acquire more factual detail and understanding of theory than SA students, but that SA students acquired more applied knowledge and a stronger context of realism in interpreting and demonstrating course knowledge. However, the researchers caution that it's difficult to generalize these results from only three case studies.
Improving Graduation Rates and GPA
The fourth phase of the project may be the most interesting to higher education administrators. It examined key academic performance measures, including persistence and graduation rates and GPA. A common problem with past analyses linking academic performance to studying abroad has been the potential for self selection - students who choose to study abroad tend to exhibit many other characteristics linked to good academic performance, and it's difficult to disaggregate the effect of the SA experience. In order to overcome that challenge, GLOSSARI researchers were careful to compare like with like. Members in the control group had persisted in school for the same amount of time as the SA group, came from the same institutions within the university system and demographically matched the study abroad students as closely as possible.
Even after controlling for self selection, the researchers found that studying abroad had a remarkable effect on graduation rates. Students who studied abroad had an almost 10% higher chance of graduating within four years. While the effect appeared to diminish in five and six years, SA students were still about 5% more likely to graduate in six years than their non-SA peers. Theses effects held across gender and race, and were strongest for African-American students.
Studying abroad also appears to have a positive effect on GPA. SA participants had a 0.6 point increase in their mean cumulative GPA after the experience. The control group also improved over the same period of time, but only 0.03 points. This effect was especially pronounced among individuals who had entered college with a lower SAT score. Students with a combined score of 800 on the verbal and math sections who studied abroad ended up with a mean GPA of 3.21, as compared to 3.14 among their non-SA peers.
GLOSSARI research director Don Rubin notes that this is an especially important finding in support of the academic value of study abroad programs. Many educators dismiss them as a 'distraction' that can have a detrimental effect on students who are academically at risk. But the fact that students with low SAT scores exhibited so much improvement after the SA experience, whereas those with perfect SAT scores showed no difference in GPA whether or not they had studied abroad, indicates that studying abroad actually does the most good for struggling students. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Rubin noted, 'This suggests that study abroad can actually be an intervention to enhance the success for college students who are at-risk. Rather than derailing them, rather than diverting them, it actually focuses them.'
Although data collection has ended for GLOSSARI, the organization is making the GLOSSARI database available to other researchers who are interested in pursuing the subject of studying abroad. The richness of the information they collected will hopefully lead to a much more in-depth body of work.
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