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Rethinking the Bottom Line for Internationalization: What Are Students Learning?

The following is a guest post by Madeleine F. Green, a senior fellow at Nafsa: the Association of International Educators and a senior program consultant at the Teagle Foundation.
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Globe_of_lettersFor many, if not most, institutions, “success” in internationalization is a bit of a numbers game. It is defined by the number of students going abroad, the number of international students and the amount of revenue they generate, and the number of campuses abroad or courses offered with an international focus.

But what do these numbers mean for student learning? Although many colleges and universities cite producing “global citizens” as a goal, few have a clear set of learning outcomes associated with this label, a map of the learning experiences that will produce this learning, or an assessment plan in place to determine what students are actually learning and what that means for curricular improvement. Clearly, institutional performance and the student-learning perspectives can be related to each other, but one cannot assume causality in either direction. As anyone who has tried to assess student learning knows, a given set of institutional activities or the participation rates in various courses or programs does not tell you anything about what knowledge students are obtaining.

Consider the example of study abroad. It is no longer deemed acceptable to cite the “it changed my life” argument as the self-evident truth of its impact. Education-abroad professionals, researchers, and faculty members are looking seriously at outcomes, especially in light of the rapid growth of short-term overseas programs. What are realistic learning goals for these short experiences, and how do they compare to longer-term experiences? In a word, there is wide agreement that “being there” does not automatically result in learning, let alone “transformation.”

To further complicate matters, education abroad is only one approach to learning about the world. And as Mark Salisbury points out in his recent opinion article, U.S. higher education can’t put all its eggs in the study-abroad basket, no matter how wonderful it is. Although it is difficult to estimate the proportion of students who study abroad for credit sometime during their undergraduate careers, data from the International Institute of Education tell us that only 274,000 students out of more than 20 million enrolled in postsecondary education studied abroad in 2010-11.

Thus, the key question for higher-education institutions is how the overwhelming majority of students who do not go abroad will learn about the world and develop the intercultural skills they will need as citizens and workers. To address this question, institutions will need to be very clear about what  knowledge, attitude, and skills students must learn, where and how they will acquire them, and what constitutes evidence of such learning.

The crucial first step is to articulate a series of agreed-upon global-learning outcomes. As is often the case in academe, the process is as important as the product. Having an inclusive process will enable a wide variety of people to relate the exercise to their own work. Global learning should belong to everyone. Here, there is help available. For Nafsa: the Association of International Educators, I wrote “Measuring and Assessing Internationalization,” which includes sample learning outcomes developed by a variety of institutions and guidance on how to develop a process that focuses on global-student learning.

The next step is identifying which courses and programs deal with these learning outcomes. Having a global or international requirement as part of the general education program is one common way to ensure that every student gets at least a small dose of global learning. Such a requirement is a good foundation, but does not go far enough.  Institutions also need to look at majors, programs, and individual courses, as well as campus life and education abroad. In a word, global learning is not a one-time event.

The third step involves assessment. Assessment enables institutions to find out whether they are really producing “globally competent” graduates. This is indeed tricky business, for some institutions are much more serious about assessment than others, and capacity varies tremendously. Many faculty members find the language and trappings of assessment annoying and trivializing, and consider it a creation of the bureaucrats that distracts them from their real work. Yet, if you ask faculty members “how do you know what your students are learning?,” that can lead to some interesting and serious conversations. Successful assessment requires ownership by faculty, an investment in faculty development, and a process that is both manageable and continually focused on improving student learning.

And finally, institutions must apply what they learned from assessment to improving curriculum and teaching. This loops the conversation back to whether the goals are the appropriate ones (they need not be cast in stone), and what modifications could be made in content or pedagogy to improve student learning.

As internationalization becomes more central to U.S. higher education, it will be important to shine the spotlight on students. Although internationalization, alas, is increasingly a matter of numbers, profile, and branding, the real measure of success should be how well students are equipped to live and work in a rapidly changing global environment.

[Wikimedia graphic by Seahen authorized under the GNU Free Documentation License]

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