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Study Abroad

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Reflective Writing on Study Abroad.mp4

In this video Frank Christianson, BYU, talks about the reflection- and lifelong-learning-based study abroad program he designed.

Study Abroad GE Videos (click here for all)
These four videos demonstrate various aspects of creating a reflection-based, GE, study abroad program: Designing a Study Abroad GE Program, Experiential Learning Competencies, Structured and Guided Reflection, and Anticipation.


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Good study abroad educators mentor students on how to frame, reflect on, and integrate their traveling experience. Guided experience and reflection on that experience distinguishes an educative study abroad experience from mere tourism. The key to a transformative experience is reflective writing.

Theoretical Background 

Study abroad programs often use journals to help students reflect, and many experiential educators also have students write a culminating reflective or personal essay. In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate (1995), one of the foremost personal essayists in the world, describes the personal essay’s ability to observe the “contractions and expansions of the self” (xxvii). The same is true of any kind of reflective writing about experience. Many essays anthologized in his book emphasize that essayistic or reflective thinking is like physical wandering, which makes travel an ideal context for reflective journaling and essaying.

Study abroad students often form close bonds to those they travel with. Making meaning is both an individual and a social act. In Art as Experience, John Dewey (1934) says that “an experience” (as distinct from general, continuous experience) occurs when someone finishes with an act, separates it, marks it, and gives it shape. Everyone shapes and recreates their experience by telling its story to themselves and others; those who write in a journal may create these stories more efficiently and effectively. In “Life as Narrative,” narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner writes that telling and conceptualizing can become “so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future” (pp. 31). In other words, students plan their futures based on their narrative identity. Bruner adds that “a life as led is inseparable from a life as told . . . a life is not ‘how it was’ but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold” (pp. 31). As students converse and write about their experiences abroad, they weave narrative and reflection into meaningful essays.

Basics of Practice


With continuous reflection, a study abroad program is genuine learning from an exotic experience; without reflection, it becomes tourism, just an expensive trip. A study abroad program may embed student in the culture (perhaps living with native speakers); other programs explore abroad in a guided group. For both types of programs, students need to be mentored in writing reflectively about their experience through journal entries, which record materials for longer essays. This is more difficult when the mentor or educator is not living with the students, but students can still send via email or some other medium regular responses to pertinent questions about their experiences. The mentor should also respond to those written reflections and help the students build toward a culminating writing experience that records experiences and reflection on experiences.

A great experiential mentor will also train students in lifelong learning habits, helping students practice framing and monitoring their own new experiences. Students should also learn how to conceptualize and experiment—all in a recursive manner, one that doesn’t dogmatically follow a step-by-step order. The mentor trains the student in reflective culture, giving them an enduring personal gift.

One of the major impediments to having students write is a program design that is so packed with destinations and experiences that students don’t have time to write and reflect. Add an hour or at least a half hour to every venue. The group may visit fewer venues, but they will remember and treasure the sites and experiences they spent time reflecting on. A common phrase among tourists is to say, “I’ve done Paris, or Canterbury, or Stonehenge.” That is not what will help students learn about other cultures, appreciate accomplishments of civilizations, or learn about themselves.

Learning about self can be the primary goal of study abroad. Seeing self in new contexts helps students learn about both the country and their own nature.


  • Decide what you want students to learn from reflective writing. Consider which of your program outcomes will be served best by writing. (See Experiential Writing and Program Outcomes)
  • In any preparatory meetings, give the journal assignment for a specified number of pages. Because journals are often all different sizes, grading the volume of writing requires a standard, possibly an 8 1/2 by 11 notebook size. Let the students know that you expect considerable writing—two or three pages a day. Writing on phones may work, but sketching makes students slow down and observe closely, which consequently makes them better observers and writers. (See Journals and Model Study Abroad Journal)
  • Make time in your study abroad itinerary for writing and conversation. Writing is solo, but conversation about writing can occur with the whole group, smaller groups, or one-on-one (interview). 
  • Include reading from the journal as a part of the class and the daily itinerary, so students know that almost daily they will be writing about their experiences. This helps them begin to mentally frame their experience as text. 
  • Don’t drift toward lecture. Have the students sit in a circle if possible, but gather wherever you can right after an activity—the courtyard of a museum, a meeting room in a hotel or hostel. Discuss what students have observed and written. 
  • Have students read out loud from their journals rather than tell or summarize what they wrote. We live in a largely verbal (as opposed to a written) culture, and making them read from their journals shows the value the teacher puts on their writing. 
  • Faculty or leaders participate by writing in their own journals and reading their own writing out loud, further communicating the value of written reflection.
  • Work to create a discourse community. (See Creating Discourse Communities)
  • Progressively help the students see the ways they improve as observers and reflective writers and as they pass through the stages of study abroad experience (everything is novel, to “everything is too different” and “I’m homesick,” to integration and true cultural learning).
  • Use an itinerary, calendar, and/or map to help students see the scope of their travels; this gives shape to their idea of the trip and helps them use geography in their writing, including information as broad as the nature of the landscape or as specific as  the names of places.
  • Assign sustained reflective pieces such as a draft of a personal/travel essay or a synthesis final. (See Personal Essay and Synthesis Final).

Teaching Materials and Resources


Bennion, J. (2018, August). Going a journey with students.” Web. AWP Writer’s Notebook.

Bruner, J (1987). Life as narrative. Social Research 54(1), 11-32.

Dewey (1934, 1997). Art as experience. Touchstone.

Lopate, P. (1995). The art of the personal essay: An anthology from the classical era to the present. Anchor.

Further Reading

Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program. (2005). Global competence and national needs: One million Americans studying abroad . [Google Scholar]

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2010). LEAP and shared futures and initiatives .

Bennion, John. (2007, Fall ) Hiking with students. Humanities at BYU, 6-7.

Bennion, J., Duerden, M., Whitehouse, A. (2016) Global explorers journaling and reflection initiative. Journal of Youth Development, 11:2 (Fall ), 44-51.

Cushner, K. (2009). The role of study abroad in the preparation of globally responsible teachers. In L. Ross (Ed.), Study abroad and the making of global citizens: Higher education and the quest for global citizenship (pp. 151–169). Routledge.

Cushner, K. , & Chang, S. (2015). Developing intercultural competence through overseas student teaching: Checking our assumptions. Intercultural Education, 26(3), 165–178.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Gilliom, M. E. (1993). Mobilizing teacher educators to support global education in preservice programs. Theory into Practice , 32(1), 40–46.

Jaime, A. M. (2014). Tōku Aotearora Haerenga: Strengthening social justice in teacher education through international field experiences. In S. Sharma, J. Phillion, J. Rahatzad, & H. L. Sasser (Eds.), Internationalizing teacher education for social justice: Theory, research and practice (pp. 3–20). Information Age Publishing.

Kozleski, E. B. , & Handy, T. (2017). The cultural work of teacher education. Theory into Practice, 56(3), 205–213.

Ling, L., Burman, E., Cooper, M., & Ling, P. (2006). (A)broad teacher education. Theory into Practice, 45(2), 143–149.

Malewski, S. , Sharma, S., & Phillion , J. (2012). How international field experiences promote cross-cultural awareness in preservice teachers through experiential learning: Findings from a six-year collective case study. Teachers College Record, 118(2), 1–44.

Marx, H. , & Moss, D. (2011). Please mind the culture gap: Intercultural development during a teacher education study abroad program. Journal of Teacher Education, 62(1), 35–47.

Nieto, S. (2010). Language, culture, and teaching: Critical perspectives (2nd ed.). Taylor & Francis.

Schein, C. , & Garii, B. (2011). Cross-cultural interpretations of curricular contextual crossings. Issues in Teacher Education, 20(2), 81–94.

Sharma, Suniti (2020). “A Poststructural Analysis of Study Abroad as Teacher Preparation Pedagogy: Thinking through Theory for Generative Practice.” Theory Into Practice, 59(3), 310-20.

Sharma, S. , Phillion, J. , & Malewski, E. (2011). Examining preservice teachers’ critical reflection for developing multicultural competencies: Findings from a study abroad program to Honduras. Issues in Teacher Education, 20(2), 9–22.

Shiveley, J. , & Misco, T. (2015). Long-term impacts of short term study abroad: Teacher perceptions of preservice study abroad experiences. Frontiers: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 26, 107–120.

Shonia, O. N. , & Stachowski, L. L. (2014). Standing the test of time: Overseas student teaching’s lasting impact on participants’ perspectives and practices. In S.Sharma, J. Phillion, J. Rahatzad, & H. L. Sasser (Eds.), Internationalizing teacher education for social justice: Theory, research and practice (pp. 57–78). Information Age Publishing.

Trahar, S. (2014). ‘This is Malaysia. You have to follow the custom here’: Narratives of the student and academic experience in international higher education in Malaysia. Journal of Education for Teaching , 40(3), 217–231.

Trilokekar, R. D. , & Kizilbash, Z. (2011). Disorienting experiences during study abroad: Reflections of preservice teacher candidates. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(7), 1141–1150.

Vasilopoulos, G. (2016). A critical review of international students’ adjustment research from a Deleuzian perspective. Journal of International Students, 6(1), 283–307.

Villegas, A. M. , & Lucas, T. (2002). Preparing culturally responsive teachers: Rethinking the curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1), 20–32.

Willard-Holt, C. (2001). The impact of a short-term international experience for preservice teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(4), 505–517.

Wilson, A. H. (1993). Conversation partners: Helping students gain a global perspective through cross‐cultural experiences. Theory into Practice, 32(1), 21–26.