Watch a Video
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.
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.
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
- Writing prompts and assignments
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Template for managing a writing workshop
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—long form
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—short form
- Rubric for Interview on journal
- Template for Lesson Plan--Blank
- Template for Lesson Plan-- Model
- Handout: The difference between a tourist and a student of place and culture
- Literature and Landscape: For many years professors from the English Department at Brigham Young University have taken students on a study abroad program where students read literature, keep a journal and write personal essays, and hike through landscapes where British writers lived. The following materials are from that program:
- The following are materials from an Art and Writing study abroad program in London.
- fall calendar29 August
- Rubric for examining a work of art
- Syllabus for ISA 201R: The London Walks/Study Abroad/ Fall 2011
- Walks: Learning to Read London
- Sample London Walk: Chelsea
- Sample London Walk: Covent Garden to Parliament
- Preparation for the art and writing collaborative assignment: research of historical collaborations
- “The Affect of Interest: Finding the Freedom To Enjoy Learning”: a blog by a study abroad student who moved from feigning interest in visiting museums and other sites and vowed to discover what would excite her to learn.
- "An Interview with Dr. Frank Christianson": a blog about Dr. Christianson's experiential teaching on study abroad.
- Burton, G. (2021). Civilization abroad: Engaging history & the humanities in Europe. Leanpub. https://leanpub.com/civilizationabroad
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