Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of Geography and Geology

Degree Type

Master of Science


One of the major debates regarding studying abroad concerns criticism that it lacks measurable and demonstrable learning outcomes and is usually viewed as less rigorous than other university courses (McKeown 2009). As one Western Kentucky University (WKU) faculty member noted when responding to the Faculty Attitudes Survey deployed for this project, all too often “too many study abroad experiences [are] little more than glorified fieldtrips.....” (Anonymous WKU Faculty Member, 2009, Appendix IV). While this may be the case, upon their return to the United States, students often say their study abroad experience proved life changing. The primary purpose of this study is to analyze students’ acquisition of geographic knowledge as a result of their engagement in a study abroad course regardless of their major academic discipline, with a secondary objective of creating baseline data for future research on the effects of study abroad for students at WKU. The analysis summarizes what geographic literacy (geo-literacy) is and how it relates to study abroad. The research also presents trends about education abroad on a national, state, and university level. Additionally, general attitudes about study abroad from University Experience (generally first-year) students at WKU are discussed. Also analyzed is the geographic knowledge gained by students, using the National Geography Standards of 1994, with evidence of attitudes and literacy collected using surveys, focus groups, and a cultural assessment tool called the Global Competence Aptitude Assessment – Young Adult version (GCAA-YA).

Throughout the study, students showed signs of being geographically informed measured against the National Geography Standards of 1994; however, as illustrated by the GCAA-YA, both students who had studied abroad and those who had not, scored in the underdeveloped or developing range of global competence (with students who had studied abroad scoring higher in all components of the assessment). Students who participated in various research projects for this thesis had completed their education abroad course within 12 months or less before participating in any of the research.

It is generally accepted that study abroad can improve students’ geo-literacy. Concrete evidence of immediate improvement in geographic literacy was not obtained from this research, suggesting that the short-term implications of a study abroad experience could not be precisely articulated by the students or captured by the researcher. Further, the research suggests that improvements are only marginal and cannot really be measured successfully until many years after students’ graduation. What was discovered is that students who studied abroad, almost without exception, exhibited that their minds were opened to the world around them and that a desire for further learning was clear. The results suggest that further research on the effects of education abroad is needed, using the baseline data collected during the 2009-2010 academic year at WKU.


Bilingual, Multilingual, and Multicultural Education | International and Comparative Education | Physical and Environmental Geography