“See the World, Serve the World” – Transformative Learning and Short-Term Study Abroad

Written by Jarrett Jobe, PhD, Executive Director, Leadership Central — 

One of the positive impacts of globalization over the past 25 years has been the tremendous growth of international study abroad programs and experiences in higher education. During this time, colleges and universities have expanded their international study opportunities to students, which include multi-disciplinary academic programs at new global destinations not previously offered to students.  These programs have also expanded their learning outcomes from focusing solely on global/cultural competencies to service learning, leadership, and business/entrepreneurship. Students return from these experiences with new perspectives and an understanding of a diverse world, a deeper appreciation of varied cultural practices and beliefs, and expanded knowledge of their place in their own communities. NAFSA finds that study abroad and its impacts on students are significant in the following learning outcomes: improved grades, retention, graduation rates, language learning, intercultural understanding, enlightened nationalism, and employability.[1] NAFSA recommends more research on the topic, but emerging evidence is clear on the benefits of these experiences for students’ growth and development. Yet these results have focused primarily on long term (6 months or more) international experiences and there is a growing number of higher education experiences that fit into the short-term (less than a month) description. The small amount of research that has been conducted has been positive, reporting results consistent with longer programs, but also continues to call for additional research.[2]

Students on a study tour with UCO

Short-term programs have been developed to solve two primary challenges related to international education. The first is the cost of semester or yearlong programs. Many students have neither the ability to save the amount of money necessary nor the option to take on additional student loans for these longer programs. The second challenge is separation anxiety from peers and family. Students are cautious about missing key events at home and their ability to navigate a foreign country/community for extended periods of time.[3] Short term programs can help to mitigate these two concerns for students wishing to participate. .

UCO’s Leadership Central, in partnership with the Leadership Minor and Academic Affairs, developed short-term programs that combined global/cultural emphasis with leadership and service learning in 2013. Leadership Central recently completed the 8th Global Service and Leadership Study Tour totaling 80 student participants in these programs.  Destinations for these programs included Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, South Africa, Costa Rica, and Uganda; they focused primarily on affordable housing, literacy, and sustainability. As these programs were developed, attention to the unique assessment challenges of short-term study abroad was needed to determine evidence of transformative learning and student growth.

UCO’s Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR) and assessment rubrics provide solutions to these challenges and have supported the creation of consistent, intentional, and thoughtful learning outcomes for short-term international experiences at UCO. The STLR framework, based on AAC&U value rubrics and developed by 20 faculty across campus, provide the foundation to effectively develop course specific learning outcomes that can be integrated into these short-term international courses. These rubrics help to provide three key components to our assessment process:

  1. Consistent set of values to guide assessment. Terminology and language that is shared across multiple disciplines and higher education.
  2. Tiered system to measure a student’s progress after the experience. The exposure, integration, and transformation levels fit well into assessing a student’s growth through an international experience. This is particularly effective across the three topics we include: service learning, leadership and global/cultural competencies.
  3. Learning outcomes that guide course development and material.

Through the implementation of the STLR rubrics and assessment model in our short-term study tours, we have started to develop “best practices” to support quality assessment and course development across any discipline or destination. The practices include the following:

  • Pre- and Post-Test – Capturing students self-reported progress through a pre- and post-test survey is vital to measuring their perception of growth and development. Education research has encouraged this type of assessment for many experiences and should be required for international experiences as well. The development of such an instrument can also help to support intentional learning outcomes that support course development and progress.
  • Multiple methods of reflection – Developing diverse methods of reflection allows for students to process and communicate their experiences in a more dynamic approach. Written, group and individual discussions support multiple opportunities for students to effectively process their interactions and learning.
  • Observations – Distinguishing student actions is critical to recognizing change in attitude and behavior. International experiences typically have fewer students so direct observation is easier to engage and can provide strong validation to a student’s reflections post course. Recorded notes of a student’s attitude and behavior during these short-term programs can prove invaluable in determining their transformation and growth.

The STLR rubrics combined with these best practices  supports a robust and effective assessment process of the Global Service and Leadership Study Tours. STLR was formally introduced on our campus in Fall of 2015 so there are limited results, but early research  supports the value of short-term experiences. Quantitative data is currently limited, but as more students participate in future experiences, research can include more statistical analysis. Qualitative data, to include written reflections, group and individual interviews  presents valuable results. Three examples are included here:

  1. “The first day we struggled to connect with the students as there was a clear language barrier. It was difficult to work with the curriculum and goals of the program. After the first night I challenged our group to learn 50 words of the local language and the change was night and day. Students responded well, listened, and completed the worksheets and activities with no problem. The day before, it was a struggle just to get them to sit down. Building this connection, no matter how small, made our efforts more successful.”
  2. “We learned about the health effects of affordable, quality housing in class but seeing the family, particularly the two children as they prepared to move into a new home, brought everything full circle. Access to housing has economic benefits, I knew that, but recognizing the other impacts it can have on health and positive family outcomes made me realize how important this access is.”
  3. “This experience has changed my life. I now understand privilege, not just economic privilege, but how the location of where I was born has determined a significant amount of my success and opportunity. I need to help to create this opportunity for others.”



[2] See Carley, Susan and Tudor, R. Keith “Assessing the Impact of Short-Term Study Abroad” (2006). Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/jgi/vol1/iss2/5 and Kurt, Mark et al. “Assessing Global Awareness Over a Short-Term Study Abroad Sequence: A Factor Analysis” (2013). Frontier: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad: Vol. XXIII, p. 22-41.

[3] See Walker, Jessica, “Student Perception of Barriers to Study Abroad” (2015). HIM 1990-2015. 1890. http://stars.library.ucf.edu/honorstheses1990-2015/1890.

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