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Liberal Education and Study Abroad

Assessing Learning Outcomes to Improve Program Quality

How can a study abroad program promote the goals of a liberal arts education? How can a college assess that a program is, indeed, achieving those goals?

Those were the central questions addressed by Liberal Education and Study Abroad: Assessing Learning Outcomes to Improve Program Quality, a joint project of the ACM, the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), and the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). The project, undertaken in 2006 and 2007, was funded by a two-year $300,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Each consortium established a working group and a lead college for the project. Beloit College took the lead for ACM, with Elizabeth Brewer (Director of International Education) heading the campus effort. Centre College and DePauw University were the lead colleges for ACS and GLCA, respectively.

As part of the project, the three consortia developed the Learning from Study Abroad (LSA) survey instrument to assess both the characteristics of off-campus study programs and the impact of study abroad on the acquisition of key liberal arts learning outcomes. The LSA survey was used by the Study Abroad Learning and Cost Alliance, another project involving ACM funded by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

The Final Report of the Liberal Education and Study Abroad project was presented to the Teagle Foundation in January 2008.

 Liberal Education and Study Abroad

Overview of the Problem and Project Goals

from the Final Report to the Teagle Foundation

Study abroad, as a component of the academic curriculum within higher education, has increased nearly threefold in the past 20 years (Dwyer, 2004). As a result, the types and number of program offerings have also become much more numerous and varied. Programs differ not only in location, but also in length, curricular focus, language of instruction, extra-curricular involvement, academic setting, student accommodations, and in many other ways. In addition, there are many types of providers of study abroad: foreign institutions offering direct enrollment to U.S. students, one-to-one exchange programs between U.S. and foreign institutions, programs run by individual institutions solely for their own students, large institutionally managed programs open to students from any institution, and hundreds of professionally managed programs run by for-profit study-abroad organizations. The ways in which programs differ have become so numerous and varied that it has become difficult for administrators and students to know which programs best suit particular academic or personal goals.

Answering the “which program is best” question requires an understanding of the reasons why students enroll in study-abroad programs. The reasons are legion: from a public policy perspective the rationale can be to better prepare people to compete in a global economy; from an educational perspective it can be to develop particular knowledge (e.g., language competence) or expertise (e.g., regional political dynamics); and from a student perspective it can be to prepare for life after college, develop new knowledge and expertise, and/or have an interesting adventure and break from regular college classes. Regardless of the rationale, study abroad has become a part of undergraduate education that students expect to experience. Additionally, more and more institutions are adopting study-abroad components as a requirement for graduation.

Because students, faculty, and administrators all value study abroad as a vital component of education, and resources expended continue to grow, institutions need effective ways to assess the educational outcomes associated with the programs their students choose. Although institutions routinely administer post-study-abroad evaluation instruments, the methods used are typically student reports of satisfaction with the experience. Little attention is paid to program design and specific learning outcomes; in particular, the relationship between program design and learning outcome is virtually unexplored.

Finally, what has been largely absent is an in-depth consideration of the relationship between liberal arts objectives – the framework for virtually all American higher education and the complete educational context for liberal arts colleges – and the learning that results from specific study-abroad programs.

The primary purpose of this project has been to develop a set of instruments that will allow an empirical analysis of the impact of different program characteristics and types on liberal arts learning goals using assessment methods which include, but are not limited to, student satisfaction and self report. More specifically, it was our goal to develop a process to evaluate the impact of study-abroad program design – the efficacy of specific program characteristics within various programs – by using a learning outcomes assessment instrument in combination with a detailed inventory of program characteristics, and then matching these program characteristics to the liberal education goals of our consortial colleges.


Dwyer, M. M. (2004), Charting the impact of study abroad. International Educator, 13 (1), 14-19.