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Studying abroad: the role of college students' goals on the development of cross-cultural skills and global understanding.
Cross-cultural orientation (Research)
College students (International aspects)
International education (Research)
Kitsantas, Anastasia
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Sept, 2004 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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This study examined the broader impact that study abroad programs have on students' cross-cultural skills and global understanding and the role that students' goals for participating in study abroad programs play on the development of these outcomes. Two hundred and thirty two (N=232) study-abroad college students were queried regarding their cross-cultural skills prior to and at completion of the program. A factor analysis of the Study Abroad Goals Scale (SAGS) revealed three factors that students report for joining study abroad programs (1) to enhance their cross-cultural skills, (2) to become more proficient in the subject matter and (3) to socialize. The results showed that overall students' cross-cultural skills and global understanding improved; but students' goals to study abroad influenced the magnitude of these outcomes. Namely, only the first factor (cross-cultural competence) significantly predicted students' global understanding and cross-cultural skills. Based on these findings, specific recommendations are provided to university officials and policy makers involved in study abroad programs.


Study abroad programs, defined as all educational programs that take place outside the geographical boundaries of the country of origin, have increasingly gained popularity and interest in the last few years (Carlson, Bum, Useem & Yachimowicz, 1991; NAFSA, Association of International Educators). In fact, over the past four years enrollment has increased by 45 percent. According to the Association of International Educators, in 1999-2000 academic year, 129,770 students from the United States studied abroad. This sizable and increasing involvement leads to questions of impact. What are the effects of studying abroad? Does studying abroad enhance students' global understanding and cross-cultural skills? In attempting to answer these questions, numerous research studies, have reported that overall study abroad programs contribute to students' cross-cultural development (Carlson & Widman, 1988; Sell, 1983). However, no studies have examined whether mediating factors such as student's goals for attending a study abroad program contribute to the enhancement of their cross-cultural skills. This study, therefore, examines the influence of students' goals on these expected outcomes of the study abroad programs.

Several studies focusing on study abroad outcomes have provided evidence that study abroad programs enhance students' worldview (Carlson & Widman, 1988), global perspective (McCabe, 1994), cross-cultural effectiveness (Kitsantas & Meyers, 2002), interest in travel, art., foreign languages, history, and architecture (Carsello & Creaser, 1976), and increase reflective thought, self reliance, self confidence and personal well being (Kuh & Kaufman, 1984). For example, a study by Carlson and Widaman (1988) queried 450 students participating in a study abroad program regarding their perspective on global issues and cross-cultural understanding at the onset and at the conclusion of their study abroad experience. Using a questionnaire, the students were asked to think retrospectively and indicate their positions. The students were then asked to respond to a parallel set of items with their current perspective. This method allowed the researchers to assess the students' change in global perspective and worldview. The researchers found that participation in study abroad programs provided student sojourners with an opportunity to view the world from completely new and different perspectives. This experience resulted in higher levels of international political concern, cross-cultural interest and cross-cultural cosmopolitanism compared to similar groups of students who did not participate in a study abroad program.

In addition to measurement of study abroad program outcomes (e.g., changes in students' global perspective, worldview, and cross-cultural skills), maximization of positive outcomes is also a major concern for researchers and educators. Rapid global development and a growing demand for cross-cultural adaptability in employees puts pressure on study abroad programs to provide high quality outcomes for their growing enrollment. Although the majority of study abroad programs offer brief orientations to prepare and help students get the most out of their exposure to study abroad experiences, researchers have suggested that cross-cultural training prior to departure (e.g., formal workshops) is needed to introduce sojourners to the importance of culture, and to the inevitable stresses that occur as people attempt to adjust to their new setting (Brislin & Kim, 2003). Cross-cultural training usually includes awareness of culture and cultural differences, factual knowledge necessary for adjustment, challenges to people's emotional balance that intercultural experiences unavoidably bring, and opportunities to practice skills and behaviors that can assist people's adjustment. Research evidence indicates that these types of cross-cultural training programs build awareness of culture shock, develop interpersonal skills, facilitate cross-cultural effectiveness and increase cultural empathy (Gao & Gudykunst, 1990; Paige, 1986).

However, other student variables may influence the development of cross-cultural effectiveness that are not currently incorporated into cross-cultural training programs such as students' goals to attend a study abroad program. Goals are defined in the present study as intentions to attain a specific standard of proficiency, usually within a specified time limit (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). According to Locke and Latham (1985; 1990) goal setting influences behavioral functioning by focusing attention and regulating expenditure of one's effort. Researchers studying the impact of goals in the acquisition of skills have found that goal setting significantly enhances the participant's performance (Schunk, 2000) and plays an instrumental role in improving the learner's self-efficacy beliefs (the degree to which a person feels capable of performing a particular task) and intrinsic interest in a given task (Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 1999). For example, in a recent study of writing revision skill acquisition Zimmerman and Kitsantas (1999) showed that learners who were taught to set specific process goals throughout their practice session displayed higher levels of writing skill, higher self-efficacy perceptions, greater satisfaction about their performance, and greater intrinsic interest in the skill than learners who were instructed to do their best or set general outcome goals.

Exploring the effect of students' goals for studying abroad on their cross-cultural skills and global understanding may provide an important insight on who benefits the most from study abroad experiences. Therefore in order to assess the role of goals in students' development of cross-cultural skills, the Study Abroad Goals Scale (SAGS) was developed based on Carlson's and his colleagues research (Carlson et al., 1991; Opper, Teichler, & Carlson, 1990). Carlson et al. (1991) indicated that the most important reasons which study abroad students report for going abroad in order of importance are to improve their cultural understanding; to improve their career prospects; to study the subject matter not offered in their home institution; and to join friends also going. Scale items were formulated according to these motives for participation in study abroad programs.

The present study attempted to (a) determine the extent to which students become cross-culturally competent as a result of participating in these programs (b) validate the Study Abroad Goals Scale (SAGS); and (c) examine the role of goals on the development of students' cross-cultural skills and enrichment of global understanding. It was hypothesized that students who study abroad return to their home country with a better global understanding and cross-cultural skills. Most importantly, it was hypothesized that students reporting that their goals were to develop their cross-cultural skills would report the highest development of cross-cultural skills and global understanding followed by those who reported goals to become more knowledgeable in their subject area. Minimal or no gains in cross-cultural skills or global understanding were expected for students whose goals were generally to socialize. The findings of this study could assist in development of training programs, which may enable students to maximize the positive outcomes of their study abroad experiences.



Two hundred and thirty two (N=232) students enrolled in study abroad courses offered in England, Italy, Greece, France, and Spain in 2002. The response rate in these courses ranged from 40%-100%. Students were attending a variety of courses (e.g., Archaeology, History, Language, Multicultural Health Psychology, Greek Art, etc,). The ethnicities of the 232 participants were 169 white, 30 Black, 16 Hispanic, 5 Asian, and 12 of "other decent". There were 30 freshmen, 112 sophomores, 63 juniors, 25 seniors and 2 were undeclared. Of these students 176 were females and 56 were males. The length of the courses ranged from 3 to 6 weeks. Students could enroll in two courses receiving up to 6 credits.

Description of the Study Abroad Programs: The study abroad programs included in this study offered courses in foreign languages, business, arts, history, and a course in Multicultural Perspectives in Health Psychology. Courses were taught by instructors from the United States along with instructors from local universities. Local and more distant excursions were provided for the students and most study abroad programs allowed a three-day weekend for exploration of nearby ancient ruins.

Pretest Measures

Personal Data Questionnaire: This short questionnaire included questions regarding the student's race, major, year in school, gender, and prior study abroad experiences.

The Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI) (Kelley & Meyers, 1995) was administered to the participants to assess their cross-cultural effectiveness and self-awareness. Kelley and Meyers (1995) developed the CCAI in order to quantify the dimensions known to be associated with cross-cultural effectiveness. This inventory consists of 50 questions that comprise 4 subscales: Emotional Resilience, Flexibility/Openness, Perceptual Acuity and Personal Autonomy. Emotional Resilience measures the degree to which one can bounce back from negative emotions and maintain a positive attitude towards new experiences. It is the largest of the four CCAI scales, containing 18 items. Specifically, it measures coping with stress and ambiguity, rebounding from imperfections and mistakes, trying new experiences, and interacting with people in new or unfamiliar situations. A sample item designed to measure this construct is: "I have ways to deal with the stresses of new situations." Flexibility/Openness consists of 15 items and assesses ones' willingness to be receptive and enjoy different ways of thinking and behaving in a new environment. It measures interest in unfamiliar people and ideas, tolerance toward others and flexibility with regard to new experiences. A sample Flexibility/Openness subscale item is: "I can enjoy relating to all kinds of people". Perceptual Acuity measures ones' interpersonal sensitivity and the ability to perceive accurately cues across cultures. The 10 items of this subscale focus on communication skills, cross-cultural empathy and the accurate interpretation of nonverbal and social cues. A sample question is: "I try to understand peoples' thoughts and feelings when I talk to them." The Personal Autonomy subscale contains 7 items, which measure how one maintains his/her identity and belief system in an unfamiliar environment with different values. Finally, the smallest but most complex scale, Personal Autonomy, deals with personal identity and adherence to a strong set of cross-cultural values as well as respecting the values and traditions of the other culture. An example of an item from this subscale is: "I feel free to maintain my personal values, even among those who do not share them." For all four subscales, participants were asked to answer the questions using the following rating scale: 1 (Definitely not true), 2 (Not true), 3 (Somewhat True), 4 (Tends to be true), and 5 (Definitely true). The CCAI has been widely used and has shown to be a valid and reliable instrument (Kelley & Meyers, 1995).

The Study Abroad Goals Scale (SAGS). This scale was developed based on Opper, Teichler & Carlson's (1990) work, inquiring into students' reasons for participating in studying abroad. Students were asked to answer 15 questions regarding their goals for participating in the study abroad program using a 5-point rating scale ranging from 1 (Not at all Important) to 5 (Very Important). A few sample items are: "Desire to develop my own perspective of the host country of the study abroad program" and/or "Desire to enhance my understanding of the host country of the (Study Abroad Program) (SAP)".

Posttest Measures

The Cross-Intercultural Adaptability Inventory. The same 50-item scale described above was readministered to measure possible change in the students' cross-intercultural skills after they finished the study abroad program.

The Global Perspective Survey (Hanvey, 1982). This 9-item survey examines the students' global perspective understanding. Global perspective involves the process of cross-cultural relativism where one can view one's own culture in relation to other cultures, and suspend judgment and ethnocentrism. Students were asked to select the response that most accurately reflected their global perspective from the following 5-point rating scale: 1(Strongly Agree), 2(Agree), 3(Neutral), 4(Disagree), and 5(Strongly Agree). Survey example questions included: "I gained a greater understanding of the places outside the United States", "I became aware of how our own society might be viewed from the perspective of people in other nations", and "I became aware of factors that have shaped global problems of today and the effects problems have on other world conditions and trends".

Design and Procedures

A repeated measures design was used to assess the effects of the study abroad programs on students' cross-cultural skills and global understanding. All participants signed an informed consent form and responded to the scales online before departure from and upon return to the United States.


To analyze the data, paired t-tests were conducted to assess differences between the pretest and posttest measures (e.g., CCAI and global understanding). In addition, to determine the factorial structure of the SAGS a principal component factor analysis with oblimin rotation was conducted. Finally, correlational and regression analyses were used to determine relationships among the dependent measures.

Initial analyses among the students attending the five study abroad programs, England, France, Greece, Italy, and Spain, revealed no significant differences in the students' reports of their cross-cultural skills and global understanding. Non-significant results indicated that students, regardless of the classes enrolled abroad exhibited the same levels of cross-cultural effectiveness and global understanding before completion of the course. Therefore, further analyses treated the students enrolled in the different study abroad programs as intact groups.

Paired t-tests Analyses

In order to test the hypothesis that there will be significant differences in students' cross-cultural skills, paired t-tests revealed that student's initial scores on all except the perceptual acuity subscale of the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI), including the total CCAI score, were significantly different following completion of the study abroad programs, all ps.= .05 (see Table 1). Specifically, overall students scored higher on the second assessment CCAI, following completion of the program, (M =3.87) than during the first assessment, in the beginning of the program (M =3.62), t (231) = -.7.56, p< .001. Similar results were found for each of the four subscales. For Emotional Resilience subscale students scored higher (M=4.01) at the end of the program compared to their initial scores (M=3.60), t (231) = -.8.17, p< .001. Regarding the Flexibility/Openness subscale students reported higher scores (M=3.61) than during their initial assessment (M=3.20), t (231) = -.9.49, p< .001. For the Perceptual Acuity subscale students scored higher on the posttest but this difference was not significant, (M=3.90 vs. M=3.82). Finally, data for the Personal Autonomy subscale revealed that students reported significantly higher scores (M=3.94) than their initial assessment (M=3.85), respectively, t (231 ) = -.2.10, p< .05.

Factor Analysis of Study Abroad Goals Scale (SAGS)

A principal component factor analysis with oblimin rotation was conducted for the motivation to study abroad scale. The factor loadings and reliability coefficients for each of the three subscales are presented in Table 2. The analysis yielded three factors, which together form 62.58% of the variance. The first factor, which accounted for 28.41% of the variance, was interpreted as a cross-cultural competence factor. It included 5 items such as the "desire to enhance my understanding of the host country of my Study Abroad Program (SAP)." The second factor (explaining 19.51% of the variance) was interpreted as subject interest and competence included 4 items such as "possess personal strength in the subjects covered in the SAP." Finally, factor 3 (14.66% of the variance) was interpreted as a social gathering factor. It consisted of 4 items. For example: "Study abroad program afforded opportunity to establish ties with family/ethnic heritage." The reliability of each subscale ranged from .72 to .82. In the analyses to follow, the three sets of subscales were calculated by summing the items within the three sets. Two of the items were dropped due to poor loadings.

Correlational and Regression Analyses for the Study Abroad Students

Finally, support for the hypothesis that students' goals to study abroad play an important role in the development of global understanding and cross-cultural skills was found. A regression analysis showed that SAGS to study abroad predicted students' global understanding and cross-cultural skills. In fact, results showed that goals accounted for 16% of the variance of the students' global understanding development, [R.sup.2] = .16, F (3,231) = 14.69, p <. 001, and 31% of students' cross-cultural skills, [R.sup.2] = .31, F (3,231) = 34.49, p <. 001. However, only one of the goal subscales, cross-cultural competence, was a significant predictor, [beta]= .39, p < .001, and [beta] = .57, p < .001, for the CCAI and for global understanding respectively, partialling out the other predictors.

Moderate to strong correlations also emerged between the cross-cultural competence and subject competence goals subscales, the students' posttest scores on CCAI and global understanding. No significant correlations emerged between the last subscale and study abroad outcomes. Table 3 depicts these correlations among the variables.


The results of this study provide support for the hypothesis that study abroad programs enhance students' cross-cultural skills and global understanding. Specifically, the findings demonstrated that study abroad programs significantly contribute to the preparation of students to function in a multicultural world and promote international understanding. These findings are consistent with those of McCabe (1994), Carlson & Widaman (1988) and Kitsantas & Meyers, (2002) who found that significant differences in global perspective, and cross-cultural cosmopolitanism respectively emerged in the study abroad students.

Significant differences emerged in almost all CCAI subscales between the initial and the final assessment following the program completion. As expected, study abroad students reported higher levels of emotional resilience, openness and flexibility, perceptual acuity and personal autonomy in the final assessment. Other researchers (e.g., Kitsantas & Meyers, 2002; Carlson & Widaman, 1988; Nash, 1976; Ward & Kennedy, 1993) have reported similar findings. However, paired t tests revealed that there were no significant differences between the study abroad students' initial assessment and final assessment for the perceptual acuity scale. There were, however, numerical differences in the means indicating that students scored higher following completion of the course.

Regarding the second hypothesis that students' goals to study abroad would predict their cross-cultural skill development was also supported. Specifically, 31% of the variance in students' cross-cultural skills was explained by their goals to study abroad. The most potent predictor was students' goal to develop cross-cultural competence. Similarly, 16% of the variance in global understanding was also explained by the students' goals. Correlations also indicated that students who reported they wanted to study abroad in order to improve their cross-cultural competence and because they had or were interested in developing competency in the subject matter taught, were more likely to report higher levels of cross-cultural skills and global understanding than those who did not. Interestingly, no significant correlations emerged between the students' goals to join study abroad programs for social gathering reasons.

Furthermore, research on goal setting clearly indicates that teaching individuals to take personal responsibility of their own learning process is an essential element in the instruction of academic skills (Shunk, 2000; Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 1999). That is, teaching individuals to set goals and subgoals for the particular skill to learn, plan how to go about achieving these goals, self-monitor and evaluate their accomplishments based on their standards and then, change their performance accordingly will motivate them to participate in the activity, and encourage them to adhere to this type of behavior, long enough to achieve the desired outcomes.

Although the correlational nature of the study limits the external validity of the results, its findings may have some important educational implications for administrators, study abroad faculty directors and students. It may be suggested that cross-cultural training programs take into consideration the critical role that goals play on student's development of cross-cultural skills and devise pre departure workshops to (a) assist study abroad students establish goals for their international experience, which primarily include aspiration to learn more about the culture and people in the country in which they will study; (b) reinforce students' goals to become more cross-culturally sensitive and knowledgeable and (c) change students' social goals into goals which focus on gaining cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding. This type of goal-training approach may enable students to enhance their cross-cultural awareness, intercultural sensitivity and personal benefit from the international experience. Moreover, by highlighting the importance of goal setting to cross-cultural effectiveness, students may be able to focus their attention and effort to accomplish their assigned goals, thereby reducing premature departures and disruptive incidents.

Limitations of this study include the small sample size, and the self-reported measurement. Future research should use larger samples and experimental studies to investigate the same variables. In addition, other methods of data collection should be used such as observations and interviews of the students to confirm the validity of the results. More research is also needed to establish the psychometric properties of the SAGS.


The findings of the present study revealed that study abroad programs enhance students' cross-cultural skills and global understanding. Most importantly, however, students' goals to study abroad significantly predicted development of these skills. As businesses globalize and the demand for employees prepared for international assignments steadily increases, training programs designed to enhance and support students' goals to develop their cross-cultural skills may be useful in maximizing these skills.


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George Mason University
Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations of Pre and Post Change in CCAI
total and Subscale Scores and Global Understanding

Variable                                     t      p
Total CCAT Scores
First Assessment              M            3.62
                              SD            .34
Final Assessment              M    3.87   -7.56   .001
                              SD            .49
Emotional Resilience Scores
First Assessment              M            3.60
                              SD            .50
Final Assessment              M    4.01   -8.17   .001
                              SD            .64
Flexibility/Openness Scores
First Assessment              M            3.20
                              SD            .40
Final Assessment              M    3.61   -9.49   .001
                              SD            .61
Perceptual Acuity Scores
First Assessment              M            3.82
                              SD            .55
Final Assessment              M    3.90   -1.62    .11
                              SD            .67
Personal Autonomy Scores
First Assessment              M            3.85
                              SD            .56
Final Assessment              M    3.94   -2.10    .04
                              SD            .64
Global Understanding          M            3.68
                              SD            .92

Table 2
Item Factor Loadings and Reliability Coefficients of the SAGS

Cross Cultural Competence                 Factor Loadings   Reliability

Desire to live in and make acquaintan-
ces from the host country of the SAP            .60             .82

Desire to enhance my understanding of
the host country of the SAP                     .79

Desire to interact with local people
and learn more about the customs and
traditions of the host country of the
SAP                                             .64

Desire to gain insight into the culture
of the host country of the SAP                  .68

Desire to develop my own perspective of
the host country of the SAP                     .61

Subject Interest and Competence

Desire to learn more about the subject
areas covered in the SAB                        .64             .72

Desire to possess personal strength in
the subjects covered in the SAP                 .65

Desire to use/improve a foreign
language                                        .52

Desire to improve career prospects
Social Gathering                                .63

Desire to establish ties with family/
ethnic heritage                                 .54             .80

Desire to be with other friends that
were participating in the SAP                   .78

Desire to attend the study abroad
program because it was recommended by
previous participants                           .70

Desire to travel to countries near the
host country of the SAP                         .62

Table 3 Correlations among the SAGS Subscales to Study Abroad, CCAI
Total Posttest and Sub-scales, and Global Understanding Scores

Variable                         1        1a        2a

1. CCAI Total Posttest        1.00
   1a. Emotional Resilience    .80 **   1.00
   2a. Flexibility/Openness    .76 **    .58 **   1.00
   3a. Perceptual Acuity       .82 **    .51 **    .48 **
   4a. Personal Autonomy       .70 **    .36 **    .28 **
2. Global Understanding        .49 **    .30 **    .30 **
3. Cross-Cultural              .59 **    .53 **    .41 **
4. Subject Interest            .09       .08      -.00
   and Competency
5. Social Gathering            .09       .14 *     .01

Variable                        3a        4a         2

1. CCAI Total Posttest
   1a. Emotional Resilience
   2a. Flexibility/Openness
   3a. Perceptual Acuity      1.00
   4a. Personal Autonomy       .50 **   1.00
2. Global Understanding        .45 **    .44 **   1.00
3. Cross-Cultural              .44 **    .33 **    .39 **
4. Subject Interest            .13 *     .06       .15 *
   and Competency
5. Social Gathering            .09       .03       .02

Variable                         3        4       5

1. CCAI Total Posttest
   1a. Emotional Resilience
   2a. Flexibility/Openness
   3a. Perceptual Acuity
   4a. Personal Autonomy
2. Global Understanding
3. Cross-Cultural             1.00
4. Subject Interest            .18 **   1.00
   and Competency
5. Social Gathering            .22 **    .14 *   1.00

** p<.01 * p<.05
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