Personalized Learning, Cultural Engagement & Academic Rigor in Study Abroad

Oct 25, 2016 5:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

CAPAStudyAbroad_Sydney_Fall2016_Matthew_Benczkowski_Square_Profile.jpgMatthew Benczkowski is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A molecular biology major at the University of Pittsburgh, he is studying abroad in Sydney this semester.

In this week's post, Matthew takes a look at CAPA's core values and how they fit into practice during the study abroad experience.


“CAPA’s core values are personalized learning, cultural engagement and academic rigor.”

As I have blogged about before, studying abroad is not a breeze: a common misconception in today’s society. I am taking five classes currently, and balancing the workload is pretty easy for me, only because I am a biological science major back home, and am used to a heavy schedule. However, unlike back at Pitt, the classes here are small, personalized, and reliant on participation – something very unfamiliar to me, regarding my own classes. The projects are all due close to each other: when it rains, it pours.

Personalized Learning:

Small class sizes and personalized learning is something I am very familiar with, as throughout high school and grade school my class sizes were quite small. In a transition to my freshman year of college, having 350 people in a lecture feels natural because it is like that in just about every class. After a while, you just get used to being surrounded by 100s of people. However, at CAPA I am taken back to my high school days, where the classes are small, the teachers care, and participation is critical. I have experienced this personalized learning while aboard because my smallest class has only seven people, and my biggest has maybe 22. Regardless, the teachers know your name, and you are able to constantly be in contact with them.

What CAPA does is go further into personalized learning. If you do not understand a topic, supplemental reading will be supplied, or a field trip will be taken, or a guest speaker will be brought in. These are so unusual because we are learning a broad range of material, yet the professors still make time to focus on the details, not just general topics. Another thing is that the teachers are willing to work with you. I recently got very ill and was unable to attend classes, but the teachers had been more than understanding, allowing me to catch up on my rest and actually gave me extensions on assignments when I had not even asked! The professors, I have learned, are just about as involved with your schoolwork as you are. What I mean by that is, when you send a rough draft, the teacher gets involved and starts searching for ways on how you can improve and solidify your paper, whether it be finding additional resources, or scouring the internet for books to help you understand, or breaking down the flaws and explaining how to rectify the situation. 

Photo courtesy of CAPA student Kelly Mills

Cultural Engagement:

One of the most unique aspects of CAPA is Globally Networked Learning. What this means is that some of the classes I am taking in Sydney are being taught in other parts of the world, incorporating that city’s history and the students studying abroad in other CAPA cities. Globally Networked Learning allows each student to view, analyze and perceive different aspects of the city they are in.

Cultural engagement is prevalent in every class, and it is what makes each class so interesting. For example, in my class that analyzes Sydney as a global city, we look at the different cultural aspects: multiculturalism, ethnicity, food, sexuality, sports. In Aboriginal History, we take trips to immerse ourselves in the culture of Sydneysiders, past and present. In Policy Analysis, we review cultural treatment and behaviors, as well as how culture has shaped government. In Cinema, we view the aspects of culture that have made Australia stand out, and are working with students in Florence to create a multicultural film. And in Literature, we examine the languages and identities of not only Australian works, but indigenous works, Asian and Pacific works as well. Culture surrounds us in the city, and embracing it is part of the learning experience. Without culture, the classes we take would be repetitive and boring! 



Academic Rigor:

It is a common misconception that study abroad programs are easy and are full of joke classes, but in reality, the workload piles up if you don’t take responsibility and stay on top of your academics. One of the most off-putting aspects of studying in Australia is that papers are much more prevalent than tests, and there is no such thing as a perfect paper or a perfect presentation, meaning that A+s don’t exist. Also, the word counts are strict, unlike in America where it is almost encouraged to write as much as you can, but when the word limit is 1,000 in Australia, there is a strict +/- 10% rule. Once you go over that, points will start being deducted.

Active participation is an essential component of academics through CAPA, especially discussions, in class and online. It is not justabout sharing your stance either; commenting on other people’s posts is imperative. To keep us occupied (maybe busier than we should be??) projects and papers are always assigned, as well as a variety of readings. This week, I have three presentations and two papers due, as well as three online discussions and about 15 articles to read.

Studying abroad is a privilege, and as my grade school principal always said, “With privilege comes responsibility.” Rigor is used to ensure that we are maximizing our learning, as study abroad is often a once in a lifetime opportunity. I know I want to learn as much as possible, but time is flying by, and I only have five weeks left!


CAPA's core values are values that instill education into students. They are necessary and important to understanding the ways and views of a new country, but they also are set in place for the students to be able to maximize learning while stepping into unfamiliar territory. Although the classes are different to me, they are important nonetheless. CAPA is not the average study abroad program, but rather, it goes above and beyond the expectations and caters to the student’s needs and desires to learn.

‘Til next time!

Matt Benczkowski

Thanks Matthew!

Matthew's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned. 

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Topics: Sydney, Australia, Official Bloggers and Vloggers