The Length of Study Abroad: Does it Matter?

Jul 28, 2017 11:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.



The size of a work of art is not a reflection of its value: exquisite miniatures [1] can have as much impact as the monumental paintings by which Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) sought to glorify Napoleon. [2].  By the same principle, the length of a book is no measure of its quality or impact. If it were, a Jeffrey Archer novel (not recommended) would be better than a poem by Emily Dickinson (recommended). [3]

Photo: public domain

By way of comparison, the gold standard in study abroad used to be based upon spending an academic year devoted to the study of the language of a foreign country. This is no longer the case.  A number of factors have combined to expose the redundancy of that notion. A focus on language studies has been eroded by diversification of locations to include minority-language environments. There are obviously valid reasons to study in Hungary, Poland, or the Czech Republic, but learning those languages is only a priority for students with very specialized interests. Another development has seen a growth in theme-driven, discipline-specific, intensive studies in which language learning is of secondary importance (if of any importance at all). There are also regions of the world, Africa in particular, where very few programs prioritize the acquisition of local languages. Broadly, a focus on what might be learned within the environment, rather than on the languages spoken there, aligns with institutional objectives and reflects the fact that fewer universities now require second-language acquisition as a condition of graduation. Familiarity with French, German, Italian or Spanish also endowed the speaker with the appearance of sophisticated cosmopolitanism: a seductive identity to be sought when the cities of Western Europe were more exotic and further away than they are in these internet times.

We have also learned to reconcile two conflicting imperatives: overseas studies are rooted in the local but also direct student attention beyond the parochial, towards a global or transnational context. The significance of language learning inevitably becomes less of a priority when “abroad” is both a specific place and, simultaneously, an idea that transcends nations.

Linguists, with good reason, bemoan the declining focus on learning languages. We might share that unease but we will also recognize that the objectives of study abroad have diversified. This is not evidence of decline (though there are those for whom this signifies the inexorable decline of Western Civilization).  These variables demonstrate that the objectives of study in a foreign place have become more diverse and broader to meet the evolving realities with which students need to engage.

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Their concerns and ours necessarily go beyond the frontiers of nations; they include issues of transnational, regional and global significance. The impact of globalization makes those concerns valid and urgent but exploration and analysis of these topics will not involve the study of a particular language. The implications for study abroad are, simply, that the twin criteria by which we defined the gold standard – duration and language learning – can no longer be used as the sole measure of quality.

The crucial determinants are what you do with your time and the objectives that motivate the course of study. It is perfectly possible to learn next to nothing in a year (or indeed in a lifetime). In some other contexts, longer is not positive (a toothache, prison sentence, flight delay, or any work by Wagner, for example). In the context of study abroad, the assumption that length is a signifier of quality is based on conservative nostalgia.


That said, in any form of education time is not irrelevant. The core learning in study abroad derives from a combination of classroom study and experiential education. The acquisition of insight is, of course, rarely an event except in the blessed context of mystic epiphany or in the case of the great blues singer Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) who, in return for becoming a great guitar player, reputedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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For lesser mortals, process is critical. We learn progressively to be active learners in unfamiliar environments. The more familiar the location becomes, the more effective the learning process is likely to be. In short, the more time students can spend analyzing and exploring new ideas in new locations, the more likely they are to become informed participant-observers. Greater time may not ensure anything much but it will enhance the potential for creative reflection beyond the tourist gaze.

We have to accept the obvious. While by no means inevitable, the longer the duration, the greater likelihood of personal and intellectual enrichment.

Lessons from elsewhere

The economics of higher education have inevitably led to pressures to accelerate learning and, therefore, to reduce the costs to students and, critically, to national budgets.

One consequence of the European Bologna reform (though not the first intention) has been, in theory at least, to reduce the time it takes students in Europe to gain a first degree – in many countries to three years rather than four (or, in the case of Germany, an endless epoch stretching towards infinity). In England, always ready to embrace the logical absurdity of any proposition, the idea of accelerated degrees of two–year’s duration has become popular with governments, although they are not widely offered outside of the relatively small and undistinguished private sector.

In the USA where, in theory, the four-year degree is the norm, universities are under increasing pressure to increase rates of completion so as to come closer to that objective.

Photo: public domain

Hong Kong Polytechnic has, however, decided to resist this trend and increase the duration of the degrees they offer from three to four years. The motivation is instructive:

The trend in the UK and some other European countries is toward shorter and even “accelerated” degree programmes. But in Hong Kong, extending undergraduate courses to four years is helping to create a new generation of socially responsible citizens.[4]

Timothy Tong, The President of the Polytechnic, argues that the extra year has enabled students to become more “socially responsible” through expanded opportunities for service-learning, and volunteer-study abroad programs. Tong explains the benefits in terms of personal development and social good: “We want to open their minds and we think that this will help with our future.”


The relevance to study abroad is obvious: adding time adds opportunities; it does not guarantee anything but creates conditions in which something more is possible. If all things were equal (and they never are) longer is better. It simply takes time to learn stuff.

The concept is simple and simply irrefutable. You can potentially do more if you have more time. This does not mean that you will do more but that duration is an enabling factor. However, the crucial variables are what you teach, how you build an academic ethos that motivates creative curiosity, and how, or if, you facilitate learning within and beyond the classroom.

Thus, this should not be taken as a critique of short terms programs. Rather it recognizes the obvious: duration matters. Longer may not be intrinsically better. It is perfectly possible to learn nothing in a year a week. However, the optimum conditions in which to acquire insight (perhaps wisdom) are more likely to be longer than shorter.

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For that reason, the idea that short-term programs offer a strategic response to the conundrum of the under-representation of some groups in study abroad has disturbing implications. It may be that this is a realistic mechanism for giving more diverse populations access to study in an international context. However, it also implies that those students should be directed towards a potentially less enriching opportunity. This does not solve the problem of exclusion; it moves the barrier of exclusion. It is probably inevitable that some students will have greater opportunities because they have greater financial resources. These are the realities of the capitalist marketplace. Some of us can afford Bergdorf Goodman while the rest of make do with Walgreens; some of us drive Mercedes, others drive Toyotas; others walk, some others walk without shoes. The world is not an equitable place.

In education abroad, we should not, however, delude ourselves into thinking that we are creating equity through the proliferation of short courses that are more accessible to less-privileged students because they require less time and money. This is a pragmatic response, not a moral solution. It implies, reasonably enough, that some form of international education is better than none at all. It does not alter the essential reality of inequality; it moves the barrier between the privileged and the excluded into a better place. That is not a bad thing but it is not a solution to the fundamental dilemma of inequality of opportunity. Short term study abroad may offer reform but it is not a revolution.

Reaching no conclusion

Duration matters, but it is only one factor. Some topics may be better suited to an intensive focus while others lend themselves more readily to the luxury of extended process. A short course that is well constructed and built around pedagogies that make students active learners may be more beneficial than a longer program that meanders towards incoherence. Time is not an absolute good but, if something is good it is usually better if it lasts longer. That is not just an educational principle. It is a fact of our lives.


[1] Miniaturist portrait painting flourished in Europe (and elsewhere) from the 16th Century until the mid-19th Century. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London contains a very substantial number of examples of this art form. Particularly significant figures include the English father and son Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) and Lawrence Hilliard (c1579 – 1640).  The Huguenot miniaturist, Jean Pitot (1607 – 1691) is widely recognized as one of the great painters of 17th Century France.
[2] The huge painting “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804” can be seen in the Louvre, in Paris.
[3] Jeffrey Archer (1940), Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, is a disgraced English politician who was imprisoned for fraud from 2001 to 2003. He has subsequently transformed himself into a popular writer of thrillers. These are, in my opinion at least, turgid, long-winded and more or less unreadable.  In contrast, Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was an American poet who produced intense, profound, and challenging poetry:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.  

[4] Jack Grove, “Longer Degrees Change Lives,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 13- 19 April 2017, p. 9.

Thanks Mike!

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Topics: Study Abroad