Saturday, February 14, 2009

Student Expectations of Abroad Experiences

Colleges and universities should do more to examine the quality of study-abroad experiences, say two Emory University researchers who think social learning theory may be a key to understanding whether students benefit from their time out of the country.

Mark McLeod and Phillip Wainwright argue in a piece to be published in the March edition of the Journal of Studies in International Education (subscription required) that many institutions are assessing their global programs solely on the basis of participant numbers.

But McLeod and Wainwright say few schools pay attention to whether their students are having positive experiences while abroad.

To address this, McLeod, a clinical psychologist, and Wainwright, director of Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad, conducted focus groups with Emory students near the end of their study-abroad experiences in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Paris. They found that a key measure of how students rated their abroad studies was how well the perceived realities of the experience measured up to what they thought they would be.

Psychologists call these measures “expectancies,” and they’re a key component of the much larger psychological concept of social learning. One of the most important expectancies, according to the researchers, is locus of control — the connections people see between what they do and what happens to them. Individuals who see greater connections are seen as having internal loci of control; those who see few connections have external loci of control.

McLeod and Wainwright argue that it’s possible that students may flourish differently in study -abroad situations based on their loci of control:
“The overwhelming consensus of findings from studies employing social learning theory is that internally controlled persons do better in unstructured situations where they are left to their own devices to solve problems, in contrast to externally controlled individuals who do well in structured situations where they are told specifically what to do and what to expect.”
Emory students illustrated this general finding in McLeod and Wainwright’s focus groups. Students who struggled abroad frequently had high expectations of their experience before they left home, only to find those expectations deflated by language barriers and cultural differences. One student referred to study abroad as “sheer terror and sheer confusion at first.”

Whether students found their studies abroad to be successful was frequently linked to how well they were able to reshape their expectations to meet their real situations. Those who were able to adapt reported higher levels of self-confidence, changes in self-perception and changes in their perceptions of the world.

Colleges and universities don’t need to limit study abroad only to internally controlled students. But they should do more research on this issue and tailor prep courses and actual experiences to the psychological needs of students, according to McLeod and Wainwright.

Students who have external loci of control may need more structure in their preparations and travels than those who have a greater connection psychological between their actions and the results of their actions. 

In short, institutions may need to do a better job of tailoring their programs to the needs of their students.

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