Student accommodation

If academic coursework is at the core of an education abroad experience, other factors like housing are instrumental in facilitating students’ ability to attain learning outcomes. Studies have long explored the role of a student’s homestay experience on their language learning and to some extent cultural awareness development. Challenging the logic that living with a family inevitably promotes better language skills, scholars have observed that such gains are not always guaranteed (Frank, 1997; Rivers, 1998; Wilkinson, 2002; Segalowitz & Freed, 2004; Schmidt-Rinehart & Knight, 2004; DuFon & Churchill, 2006). In comparing students living with Russian host families with those living in a residence hall, Rivers (1998) was one of the first to conclude that homestays may be at times a negative predictor for second language gains in speaking skills and have no effect on listening skills (see also Engle & Engle, 2012).

Helping to explain the findings of Rivers and others, scholars note that homestays are not pure immersive environments. In a study of homestay meal practices in Japan, lino (2006) noticed for instance that Japanese families tended to be overly accommodating and nice, while using “foreigner talk.” and speaking in a more stilted, formal Japanese with students. Some students reported that they were being treated as “pets” (see also Pelligrino 2005) or expected to play the part of a non-threatening and clownish gaijin (foreigner), making it difficult for them to be accepted as full members of the family. In another mealtime study in China, Lee, Wu, Di, and Kinginger (2017) observed that one student’s table etiquette was viewed as so unfitting that the host mother separated his meals from the rest of the family.

To maximize a student’s success in a homestay, it is recommended that program leaders set clear expectations for students so that they know what to anticipate once they reach a homestay (Schmidt-Rinehart & Knight 2004, p. 257). It may help to provide knowledge about the various models of the education abroad adjustment process (Storti, 1990), as well as training in strategies for intercultural communication. Efforts can also be made to reach out to families, so that they too understand their role in facilitating students’ learning (Lee et al., 2017).

While much has been written on homestays, little has been researched and written on other types of housing like residence halls and private apartments. A few notable exceptions include inquiries evaluating language learning in homestays versus residence halls (Rivers, 1998), friendship patterns among international and domestic students (Nesdale & Todd, 2000; Kudo, Volet, & Whitsed, 2018), overseas students’ psychological and sociocultural adjustment (Ward, Okura, Kennedy, & Kojima, 1998), and students’ social networks abroad (Van Mol & Michielsen, 2015). While the findings vary greatly, these studies as a whole highlight the complexity of social relationships, the fact that language proficiency does not necessarily increase with one form of housing or another, and that much comes down to an individual student’s psychological disposition.

Extra- and co-curricular learning

Along with housing, activities that may be classified as “co-curricular” - including visits to museums, historical and cultural sites; concerts and theatre performances; meals and food tastings; and visits to local organizations and companies - are expected to enhance the learning that takes place in a classroom. There is a sense that if program participants, “can see, taste, feel, hear, and touch the objects or items in the study tour environment, then learning will have a greater and deeper meaning for [them]” (Gomez-Lanier 2017, p. 140). Within co-curricular offerings, instructors may opt to combine teaching with an excursion, e.g. an art history lecture delivered at a museum, while in other cases extracurricular activities may be entirely outside of teaching, designed to introduce students to the culture and history of a location.

A handful of scholarly works note the merits of supplemental activities, particularly in programs that have a specific disciplinary or pre-professional focus. Bai, Larimer, and Riner, for instance, describe the usefulness of visits to hospitals for a social work program set in Beijing (2016, p. 77). Similarly, Duke points out the relevance of tours to companies for marketing students that highlight both good and bad marketing practices, connecting onsite observations to what students have learned in the classroom (2000, p. 159). Gomez-Lanier (2017) goes a step further in examining student development in two interior design study tours, one in New York City and the other in China, with the finding that students learned in both places yet perceived their learning experiences as more meaningful and positive in China due to greater cultural differences (p. 140).

While progress has been made, few studies isolate activities from the rest of the program components in their research design or analysis, leading to questions of what students gain from participating. Admittedly, such isolation is challenging because it potentially takes away expected services from one group of students. Nonetheless, it is imperative to understand which curricular and extracurricular activities complement classroom learning, to ensure that all program components are meaningful and worthy of an investment.

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