Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Study Abroad Works

Varela, O. E. 2017. “Learning Outcomes of Study Abroad Programs: A Meta-Analysis.” Academy of Management and Learning Education.


The purpose of this project was to provide evidence linking participation in study abroad to learning, defined loosely as “second language development, disposition to interact in cultural settings, and behavioral adaption to local customs” (p. 533). The author provided some theoretical discussion of the learning outcomes and the mechanisms that lead to achievement. Across the number of theorists discussed, the author defined outcomes in three domains: cognitive (i.e., language acquisition and comprehension of information by being exposed to new situations or settings); affective (i.e., “willingness to be exposed and interact with individuals from distinct cultural backgrounds”); and behavioral (i.e., “ability to adapt to local customs and exhibit culturally appropriate behaviors”) (p. 533). Mechanisms for growth were also discussed, including what the author calls “cultural distance”: the dissonance engendered when interacting with people from cultures different than your own.


First, participation in a study abroad program tends to advance second language acquisition, multicultural attitudes, and intercultural behavior capabilities. Second, language acquisition during study abroad is stronger than during at-home instruction. Third, longer study abroad programs tend to produce stronger language acquisition. Fourth, the two most influential moderators included program design and immersion type—both of which carry “the underlying premise that participants would interact with locals, a feature that should be a priority for program designers” (p. 554). Finally, cultural distance—or the dissonance involved with cultural exchange—did not moderate the influence of participation in study abroad on any learning outcome.


As a practice, study abroad works, albeit the author of this study only examined learning outcomes and not those related to persistence, degree attainment, economic gains, or job placement. The author was able to provide evidence about the salient design features of study abroad practices that emerged as most effective. As the author recommends, “the key characteristic of out-of-classroom designs (e.g., internships) or staying with a family is the fact that participants must consciously find ways to fit into a local social unit (i.e., family, business). They must purposely reconsider their attitudes and behaviors to fulfill a social role embedded into a distinct value system” (p. 554). Achieving learning outcomes seems less about the conditions in which the study abroad experience takes place, and more about the values students carry into the situation: the respect they have for other cultures, the enjoyment of the effort taken to engage locally and meaningfully, and their willingness to learn from others through positive and productive interactions.


Otmar E. Varela is a professor of management in the school of business at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.


Bennett, J. M. 2009. “Cultivating Intercultural Competence: A Process Perspective.” In D. K. Deardorff (Ed.), Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Gaw, K. F. 2000. “Reverse Cultural Shock in Students Returning from Overseas.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 241, 83–104.

Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.