Do study abroad experiences promote learning? One could assume so, but it's nice to know for sure, and Varela's (2017) meta-analysis of 72 study abroad investigations offers the most definitive answer we have to date. The study looks at learning in three areas: (1) cognitive or language acquisition, (2) affective or multicultural attitudes, and (3) behavioral or intercultural adaptation.
Do study abroad experiences promote learning? One could assume so, but it's nice to know for sure, and Varela's (2017) meta-analysis of 72 study abroad investigations offers the most definitive answer we have to date. The study looks at learning in three areas: (1) cognitive or language acquisition, (2) affective or multicultural attitudes, and (3) behavioral or intercultural adaptation. To contrast with findings about study abroad, Varela conducted a second meta-analysis on learning at home. It involved 19 studies that looked at affective and behavioral outcomes and considered an already published meta-analysis on language acquisition. Varela posed two questions: “Does learning advance from exposing participants to international settings? And if so, can this practice yield superior results to efforts at home that pursue similar learning outcomes?” (p. 546)
It's a complicated analysis with nuanced findings, but “in general, results alleviate concerns with respect to the notion that investments in studying abroad yield suspicious results. Rather, findings indicate that these efforts can lead to sizeable learning outcomes” (Varela 2017, p. 547).
However, as Varela points out, learning from study abroad does not happen automatically. It's not just a matter of sending students to a different country and assuming that they'll learn there. As data in the meta-analysis reveal, almost half the interventions around intercultural competence yielded “questionable results” (p. 548). In other words, the design of the program influences what and how well students learn.
In a section on the practical implications of this research, Varela identifies two implications for program designers. One of them deals with ensuring that students experience meaningful interactions: “Participants should interact with locals, a feature that should be a priority for program designers” (p. 554). If students have internships or are living with families, they will be more directly confronted with how their attitudes and behaviors are different from those common in the host country, and that's the kind of confrontation that promotes learning. Study results also point to the need for orientation prior to traveling so that students have accurate expectations about the experience and frequently associated emotions. Varela also recommends coaching throughout the experience. He cites research that notes significant differences in learning between students who were coached and those who were not.
Study abroad is still experienced by a small percentage of the student population. The slightly over 300,000 US participants in the 2013–14 academic year represent 1.5 percent of the total US college student population. Given the value of the experience documented by this analysis, there are reasons to explore how study abroad could be made available to more students.
Varela, O. (2017). Learning outcomes of study-abroad programs: A meta-analysis. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 16(4), 531–561.