How to ... Make the most of study abroad

December 11, 1998

WHAT: The UK has sent students abroad for decades and will need to send more if it hopes to match the numbers of EU students coming here. Jim Coleman reports.

WHY: A stint abroad is a plus on a student's cv for many employers, and universities need to know how best to build an overseas experience into degree courses.

Volkswagen's personnel manager said recently that the company would not consider employing a graduate who had not lived and worked in another country. He was reflecting a growing trend among multinational employers who understand the benefits of stints abroad.

Most university language students are not in modern language departments but in specialist disciplines such as business or European studies, engineering or law.

More than a million of the world's 80-odd million students study or do a work placement abroad.

This year the United Kingdom signed the Sorbonne Declaration, which promises to encourage undergraduates and postgraduates to spend at least a semester abroad and get proper credit for it.

So what makes a good residence abroad programme? The first essential is for staff and students to be clear about the objectives. There are six categories:

* academic - to improve language abilities, follow courses unavailable in the UK or research for a dissertation

* cultural - to gain a fuller understanding of the society

* intercultural - to allow students to appreciate the relativity of behaviour, including their own, and how every culture constructs values through social interaction.

Ideally, students will acquire ethnographic skills that let them observe, without misunderstanding, the interpersonal skills that let them adapt to new ways without abandoning their own. They will also learn to be openminded and objective so that they stop judging everything against what happens at home.

* language - progress can be spectacular, but is not automatic. Less proficient learners tend to advance faster. Students can often return sounding more like native speakers but with grammar and written skills hardly changed.

* personal benefits - added confidence and independence

* professional - employment-related skills enhanced by residence abroad range from the generic (problem-solving, flexibility, adapting to new environments) to the job-specific developed by work placements. Achieving any of these crucially depends on curriculum integration, adequate preparation, support and monitoring while abroad, and accreditation of the residence-abroad experience.

Most obviously, a university needs to make sure that all of its students have the option of properly timetabled, credit-bearing language classes for at least two years before going abroad. A handbook, supported by briefing meetings with exchange students and returners, may be enough on the practical side.

But if students are to make maximum progress in linguistic and intercultural areas, they need to be helped to develop and internalise a whole range of strategies and attitudes - residence abroad is, after all, the ultimate in autonomous learning. To speak better French, for example, you have to spend time with native French speakers.

But while British students at home have ready-made meeting-places - pubs, student union, halls of residence - similar opportunities abroad have to be actively created.

There are plenty of models - A took her trumpet and joined the town brass band, B got a job at the local riding stables, C shared a flat with a local girl, D took up ballroom dancing, E played rugby for his host university - but it is not quick or easy to change ingrained habits.

At a banal level, just by getting up and going to bed at the same times as at home, students will miss out on a wealth of opportunities. Appropriate pre-departure modules can help students develop skills and approaches to optimise their learning.

They can talk through their hopes and fears before leaving and formalise their commitment in a learner contract.

While abroad, a structured log or diary encourages continued effort and reflection and later serves as evidence for assessing tricky areas such as personal growth and transferable skills.

A full debriefing when students return can help them to make sense of the experience and subsequent course units must take into account the linguistic and cultural knowledge they gained. Appropriate assessment and accreditation show that the home university fully values their learning.

Things can and do go wrong, especially at the start when anxiety levels are high. A few students cannot cope and come home early.

Staying on abroad can equally be a failure if the individual is wretched - or indeed if the individual is happy but spends the year in Irish pubs, speaks only English, fails to register and follow classes at the university, and squanders the whole opportunity.

There is a difficult balance between providing support and allowing students to develop self-reliance and confidence by overcoming the inevitable problems.

Residence abroad as part of a degree course is an opportunity all students deserve and the economy needs. A lot of good practice already exists: there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Projects under the Higher Education Funding Council for England's fund for development of teaching and learning scheme will when completed in 2000 provide a full range of practical advice on curriculum planning, preparation, support, assessment and accreditation, as well as guides to best practice, training packs, teaching materials and methodologies building on solid educational research.

Topics from French housing benefit to European accreditation to finding accommodation in Senegal will be covered on websites from next year.

Students will be able to research the target university and town before they leave. Dedicated chatlines and electronic postcards will shortly let departers learn directly from their peers there.

Portsmouth is piloting a "virtual" visit, web-based videoconferencing with staff and students at home and host universities.

Make no mistake: experts recognise that the role of English as a global language is set to shrink, not expand.

Being monolingual in the 21st century will be like being illiterate in the 20th. A graduate engineer, lawyer or economist seeking a job with an international company will be competing with Spaniards, Greeks and Romanians who offer equal subject expertise, fluent English, plus the ability to operate linguistically and culturally.

Jim Coleman is professor of foreign languages learning at the University of Portsmouth.

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