“More Is Better: The Impact of Study Abroad Program Duration”
by Mary M. Dwyer via “Institute for International Education of Students“
I n t r o d u c t i o n
Conventional wisdom in the study abroad field has held that more is better; that is,
the longer students study abroad the more significant the academic, cultural development
and personal growth benefits that accrue. The standard assumption is that meaningful
advancement in language learning and other academic disciplines using a
culture-specific pedagogy requires at least a full year of study abroad.
During the past 16 years, due to a variety of academic, social, college policy and
economic reasons, national study abroad enrollment trends have been moving toward
significantly fewer students studying abroad for a full year. Although the aggregate
number of students studying abroad has increased dramatically, a 232% increase from
1985-86 through 2001-02 (IIE, 2002), the data show a steady decline in the number
of students studying abroad for a full academic year. In 1985-86, for example, 17.7 %
of U.S. students studying abroad studied for a full year whereas in 2001-02 this
percentage had declined to 7.8%. Moreover, these same data show that the largest
enrollment growth since 1990 has occurred in programs that are less than one academic
quarter in length, growing from 36% of the total study abroad enrollments in 1985-
86 to 49% of such enrollments in 2001-02. Figure 1 illustrates the sharp decline in
full-year enrollments in Institute for the International Education of Students (IES)
programs across the decades, from 72% of those who studied with IES in the 1950s and
60s to only 20% in the 1990s.
While the benefits of full-year study abroad are strongly embraced by study
abroad professionals, there is a dearth of quantitative research supporting a correlation
with positive outcomes. Resources are available which measure the number of students
who study abroad by term lengths, most notably the Institute for International
Education’s (IIE) Open Doors. Descriptive articles have been written about the benefits of
studying for a full year over shorter term lengths. Numerous studies (i.e.: Barnhart &
Groth, 1987; Carsello & Creaser, 1976; Flack, 1976; Hensley & Sell, 1979; IsabelliGarcia,
2003; James, 1976; Kuh & Kauffman, 1985; Marion, 1980; McEvoy, 1986;
Morgan, 1972, 1975; Pfnister, 1972; Salter & Tefer, 1975; Stauffer, 1973) investigate
the effects of studying abroad on a variety of student values, academic competencies
and interests. None of these studies attempted to measure longitudinal impact; most
had relatively small sample sizes, and reported inconsistent findings. Also, sustainability
of results was not addressed in these studies.
A search of the literature netted nine other empirical studies that correlated
length of study with longitudinal outcome measures (Akande & Slawson, 2000;
Biligmeier & Forman, 1975; Dwyer, 2004, 2004; Dwyer & Peters, 2004; Nash, 1976;
Ruhter McMillan & Opem, 2004; Steinberg, 2002). Six of these nine studies were
conducted by researchers at IES, who sampled from the same alumni population.
S t u d y D e s i g n
This study, conducted by IES in late 2002, was designed to measure the longitudinal
correlations between specific program features—language study, housing choice,
duration of study, enrollment in foreign university courses, participation in an internship or field study, among others—and a variety of student outcomes. A 54-year-old,
not-for-profit, academic consortium, IES regularly conducts formative and summative
evaluations of its programs, surveying students both during and immediately after
their study abroad experiences. This longitudinal study was undertaken with the
intent of comparing end of academic term evaluation results with longitudinal results.
Only through such a retrospective longitudinal study could the sustainability of
results, the effects of program design, and the impact of shifts in student participation
patterns be assessed.
For a variety of reasons, this study presents unique merits. First, the IES alumni
pool provided an opportunity to draw upon 50 years of data. IES estimates that it has
educated over 45,000 students. Second, the size of the pool of study abroad alumni to
survey (17,000: available, current addresses) was much larger than most college or
universities’ study abroad enrollments during the same 50 year period. Third, the
range of types of programs and locations was useful for statistical analyses and comparisons
across educational models and cultures. Throughout the 50 years, IES has offered
25 programs located in 14 countries, in multiple academic study abroad models, from
“island” programs to hybrid to direct enrollment and full immersion. Similarly, the
housing arrangements for students represented the full spectrum of opportunities from
dormitories to home stays to apartments.
The number of years of data, the number of different locations, the variety of
academic models and housing arrangements used, and the size of the alumni pool
allowed IES to isolate and assess the longitudinal impact of specific program components
for large enough sample sizes to make the results statistically valid and reliable.
Few other organizations have the sustained history of programming necessary to replicate
these study features.
In 1997, IES established the IES Model Assessment Program (The IES MAP®), a
set of guidelines for developing and assessing study abroad programs by using these
categories: student learning environment, intercultural development, resources required
for academic and student support, and program administration and development. The
end of term student satisfaction survey, a 2000 pilot survey, as well as the 2002 survey
for this study, were designed using the categories of the IES MAP®.
In 1999, a pilot study was conducted with a limited sampling of 10% (2100)
of the IES alumni population (Akande & Slawson, 2000). This survey achieved a
response rate of 44% (707 respondents), after factoring in the undeliverable surveys
due to outdated addresses. There were many responses to a number of open-ended
questions asking respondents to characterize the impact of study abroad on their lives.
These data were used to expand and refine the questions used in the retrospective
longitudinal 2002 survey.
The 2002 survey consisted of 28 questions, many of which had numerous
sub-questions. The questions were divided into 3 types: basic demographics, impact of
key study abroad elements, and impact of study abroad on select behaviors, attitudes and
specific achievements. The survey results are reported across five areas: general findings,
academic attainment, intercultural development, career impact and personal growth.
Within each category respondents answered between four and seven questions
asking them to rate, on a 5-point Likert scale, the impact of their study abroad experience
on a specific developmental measure. Several other questions asked respondents to
provide information on specific behaviors since studying abroad, such as the frequency
with which they used a foreign language, whether or not they had worked or
volunteered in an international capacity since studying abroad, and the highest academic
degree they had obtained.
The survey was sent to 17,000 alumni who studied with IES for varying term
lengths between the academic years of 1950-51 and 1999-00. More recent alumni
were not surveyed because less time had elapsed since their study abroad experience,
making sustainability of impact difficult to assess.
An overall 25% response rate (3723 of the 14,800 alumni current addresses) was
achieved. The 1980s and 90s produced large response rates of 40% and 41%, respectively.
The survey was disseminated by U.S. mail only once because the response rate and
the sample size were large enough to make generalizations. Conducting the study with
an on-line survey would have been much less expensive and it would have allowed for
repeated requests to be made more easily. However, it was assumed that using an electronic
survey would have resulted in significantly lower response rates from the classes of
alumni who studied abroad between 1950 and 1970. . . .