Reflection on the Road: How Recent First Year Students Exhibit Reflection During a Short-Term Study Abroad Experience
Study abroad experiences augment college and university curricula and expose students to an international setting with lectures, tours, and cultural activities. These studies raise awareness of professional, social and cultural differences among countries. Students recognize global challenges to the engineering profession when they discover that another country faces similar technical, social, cultural and resource-limiting challenges. They also learn that solutions to similar challenges in the U.S. may, or may not, be suitable in another country. Reflection provides the meaning behind the experience, which leads to our research question: how did first year students exhibit reflection during a two-week study abroad experience?
Our institution offers a second semester international studies course to first year engineering students, followed by a two-week early summer trip abroad. Students keep a travel journal describing their activities, thoughts, and impressions. They are prompted and encouraged to record new information, interesting or exciting experiences, uncomfortable or confusing situations, and key cultural differences found during their international travels. These journals are an instrument to facilitate the formation of meaning through reflection about events, observations and impressions, and their comparison to prior experiences and beliefs.
Under our four-stage model, reflection emerges first as an early attempt to find meaning without comparison to prior experience or potential application, expands to include links to prior experience or external ideas with self-questioning, and culminates in the validation of alternative views and potential transformation of beliefs. However, improvement in reflection may not be continuous, since the nature of particular events and the student’s state of mind can influence their depth of reflection, as well as the details of the daily schedules. Moreover, prior studies with first year students and reflective journal writing have revealed that reflection is often embedded within a largely narrative context. Therefore, instructors need to evaluate what the student expresses through direct or indirect evidence involving feelings as well as logic.
Preliminary results suggest that students will uncover more meaningful impressions with increased practice, especially if and when they adhere to the suggested reflection prompts. Our results will also serve as a formative assessment of the effectiveness of the journal prompts in promoting reflection, as well as feedback about what students found to be the most meaningful aspects of their trip. Finally, the similarities and differences among the technical and cultural challenges faced in both the U.S. and other countries, as revealed through reflection, contribute deeper meaning to student self-awareness and identity within the engineering profession.
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