Your Brain on Off-Campus Study–Chronicle of Higher Education

Very interesting article at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the ways in which study abroad stimulates new patterns of thinking. 

Ask anyone who has ever studied abroad about the experience, and they’ll say it changed their life. Turns out, international study actually changes students’ brains.

Going overseas, said Yuliya Kartoshkina, a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota, “rewires the brain.”

Kartoshkina claims that certain repeated and patterned experiences, such as growing up in a particular culture, establish networks of neurons in the brain. Study abroad apparently helps to establish new patterns of learning and new networks of neurons.

Study abroad upsets those set patterns of learning, and it’s especially potent because it affects multiple senses.

“Our brain is wired to recognize patterns, including certain elements of culture,” Ms. Kartoshkina said. “By growing up in one culture, our brain is wired in a certain way.”

Kartoshkina also explains “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” in this way.

In neurological terms, culture shock is the brain trying to use old neuron patterns to interpret a new environment. The more time a student spends in a new environment, the more the brain adapts and creates new neuron patterns.

“Reverse culture shock,” often experienced by students as they return to home or to their usual campus environment, is the process of returning to old patterns of thinking and to exercising old networks of neurons, after adding new patterns and networks in a new culture.

These observations might have implications for how study abroad programs send students, guide them through their experience, and help them with reentry to their campus environment.

Holding workshops for students before they go overseas can “lay foundations for new neural networks” by talking about cultural differences they might encounter or brainstorming ways to deal with unexpected situations, Ms. Kartoshkina said. Once students are abroad, engagement with the local community can hasten the process of building new neuron patterns. And having students write or blog about their experience can help them make connections with their existing ways of thinking and learning. While colleges and study-abroad programs already do much to help students adjust to going overseas, Ms. Kartoshkina said they needed to pay as much attention to ways of easing students’ return home. That’s because new neural networks have formed, and transitioning back to old patterns of thinking can be bumpy. The key, Ms. Kartoshkina said, is to find ways to preserve and integrate the old and new patterns of thinking. For example, she said, one student who returned from overseas tried to look at her home culture as if it was a fresh culture, bridging the experience abroad and back on the campus. 

The article is a very interesting precis of what may prove to be an important study. I have a few concerns and questions, though:

I wonder, if the neuroscientific approach can really capture all the “rewiring” that goes on during study abroad. Might it be a bit reductionist?

I wonder if Kartoshkina’s study suggests anything about the length of a study abroad experience. How long does it have to be to have this “rewiring” effect?

I also wonder if this suggests anything about the environments in which we learn any given thing best. Might some content be learned better in a new context, even if the same course in could be provided to students in their usual campus context? In other words, is it the change of context that matters most? Or is something gained by a closer fit between content and context?

One concern I have is that we may be looking too narrowly at “study abroad.” If study abroad experiences give us new patterns of learning in the manner that Kartoshkina suggests, then it would seem that a host of off-campus study experiences might achieve many of the same effects. The students in the semester-long, urban, experiential program I have directed since 2006 would probably resonate with the ideas that they’ve had their brains rewired and have established new patterns of thinking. (They don’t need to learn a new language, which Kartoshkina suggests really rewires the brain, but then again, neither do many students in overseas programs.)

Finally, this seems to me to reinforce that we should be getting younger students into off-campus study programs. Some research seems to suggest that early off-campus study experiences make students into better learners and, therefore, that younger students should have more off-campus study opportunities. Some institutions have begun to strongly encourage all students who can to have off-campus experiences before coming to campus. If Kartoshkina is right, we might now have some better ideas about why younger students should be in off-campus programs.

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