Residence Abroad for Non-Linguists

Date: 24 November, 2000
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Workshop

Event report

by Ali Dickens

Residence Abroad issues have been addressed over the past three years by three Fund for the Development for Teaching and Learning projects set up to discover and disseminate best practice in this area for the language learning and teaching community. During the course of the projects it was recognised that there were issues and practices that could be of interest to other subject areas where residence abroad forms a major part of the curriculum. Some of these area studies are concerned with linguistic issues, others such as American Studies are not, but the academic, cultural and employment benefits identified by the projects can be equally significant for these areas. Although a fair number of the participants did come from language-related areas, there were participants from Geography, American Studies and Environmental Studies who had concerns that complemented the issues raised by the workshop.

"Seven out of ten language graduates say residence abroad made them more employable"

In the first session Jim Coleman (Residence Abroad Project, University of Portsmouth) considered the question why study abroad and what learning outcomes we should be looking for. He cited recent research by the project which indicates that graduates perceive their period of residence abroad as contributing significantly to their subsequent employability with over 96% or respondents agreeing that it was a worthwhile investment in their future. This suggests that any course which incorporates such study or work opportunities abroad has significant value in the marketplace.

Jim went on to consider learning outcomes and quality assurance issues which impact upon residence abroad. He stressed that the projects were funded as the 95/6 quality assurance exercise indicated that there was a need to better integrate residence abroad into student programmes. To address this issue the project has identified 5 learning outcomes for residence abroad, academic, cultural, intercultural, personal, professional and a sixth, linguistic for students following language programmes.

The grade exchange rate

The second session led by Phillip Davies (American Studies, De Montfort University) tackled one of these outcomes, academic, as the purposes and procedures for accrediting residence abroad were discussed. The session began by looking at the strategies that have been adopted at De Montfort to cope with the translation of US/Canadian grades into ones that will satisfy the British system. For courses with a year abroad it is frequently enough to obtain a transcript of marks which can stand alone alongside the British degree and don't need to count towards it. However, as students are increasingly short of time and money for extended periods abroad some institutions have adopted a system whereby one semester of the degree is completed abroad and the marks need to be counted towards the degree. This has necessitated the drawing up of an exchange rate for marks which has to account for module level as well as grade equivalence. This involves working mainly with partner institutions from whom British university can obtain all the necessary information to set up the exchange rate. Because American marks are generally "lose value" in our system it has not been unknown for the American partner to withdraw from the arrangement. The lack of double-marking and moderation in the US make the exchange rate even more difficult to set and it transpired in the ensuing discussion that universities in other countries, e.g. France pose similar problems (although in France grades would have to be exchanged upwards).

On the subject of accrediting more than the academic outcomes of residence abroad, such as transferable skills, personal development and intercultural learning Uwem Ite (University of Lancaster) described the epilogue that students are asked to complete as a commentary on the dissertation they complete while abroad in Africa or India. In addition they are visited in their host country and have mentors in the host institutions all of which informs the overall picture of the period abroad, academic, cultural and personal. Another strategy for accreditation (Ulster) was to award a diploma in Area Studies to students on the successful completion of their period abroad.

"Whilst many institutions run preparation courses which range greatly in duration and intensity, it is clear that many HE language teacher fail to make the distinction between learning about another country and acquiring intercultural competence."

To address the important but often less tangible issue of intercultural learning during residence abroad the next speaker, Sylvie Toll (Interculture Project, University of Central Lancashire) described a fully integrated course in intercultural learning due to commence in her institution in January 2001. This course takes as its starting point the principle this "distinction between learning about another culture and acquiring intercultural competence". This last, it seems, involves self-reflection on the part of the learner and the acquisition of awareness of the learner's own culture and values. The course, therefore, takes the student through a preparation course which considers cultural identity, attitudes, stereotypes, intercultural incidents, sociolinguistics (for language learners), expectations from residence abroad. The course makes use of student counsellors (trained in the facilitation of self-reflection), a database of "critical incidents" (see put together from student interviews by the Interculture project and (private) diaries that the student can use to inform their (public) analytical account of their period of residence abroad. On their return from the year abroad students will complete a half-module which will enable them to evaluate and consolidate the experience, consider the career implications of residence abroad (key and transferable skills as well as subject-specific knowledge) and to assist in the initial preparation module for students about to undertake residence abroad. We very much look forward to future updates on the progress and outcomes of this course.

The RAM Game

To round off the day Linda Parker (LARA project) introduced us to the RAM (Residence Abroad Matters) Game which through a number of problem scenarios tackles the issue of how make curriculum changes in order to manage provision for residence abroad and improve learning outcomes. Each of three teams were given 250 points to spend on a number of options (some more costly than others) relevant to a language learning, a European studies with optional language or a non-language context.

Some of the options open were learning agreements, a weekend preparation course, a residence abroad fair, independent learning, an ethnography course (see LARA project website careers guidance, staff development, academic briefing. This exercise not only highlighted the wealth of options available to support residence abroad, but the relative cost (in time as well as money) of integrating these activities into the curriculum. Each team showed great ingenuity in their choices, having been told that costings could not be altered, but that contents could be refined, with one team deciding on a two year programme which allowed them to choose a maximum number of different options for the two years that most students have in an institution before going abroad.

Altogether the day provided a comprehensive overview of some of the issues tackled by the FDTL projects and highlighted some of the differences in focus between disciplines when it comes to residence/study abroad. Attendees from outside the languages field helped give a new perspective on priorities for residence abroad where the emphasis can be more academic than cultural, but these approaches were both complementary to those presented by the projects and ensured that the day was a sharing of experience both among and across disciplines.