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Studying abroad found to boost creative thinking

Co-researchers: David Therriault, associate professor in educational psychology, and graduate student Christine Lee

When American college students travel overseas to study, they often seek deep cultural immersion, adventures among historic sites, culinary and artistic exploration and a life-changing learning experience.

Now, according to a new study out of the University of Florida’s College of Education, study-abroad students can also expect one more benefit: enhanced creativity.

UF researchers have found evidence for a link between studying abroad and creativity, showing that exposure to other cultures benefits creative-thinking skills. The research team was made up of graduate student Christine Lee, David Therriault, an associate professor of Educational Psychology, and Tracy Linderholm, a dean at Georgia Southern University and a former UF education professor.

In this study, Lee, Therriault, and Linderholm showed that the “cultural experiences from living abroad may have wide-reaching benefits on students’ creativity,” according to their research article, published recently in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

A 2009 study at Northwestern University first identified a potential relationship between multicultural experiences and enhanced creativity. The UF study confirmed the earlier finding by comparing a group of students who were immersed in a foreign country for an extended period of time to existing groups of students who have not studied abroad.

The researchers analyzed the creative mental processes of 135 students from UF, who were recruited by an online participant pool from the College of Education and on-campus International Center.

The volunteers were divided into three groups of 45 students each: those who had studied abroad, those who were planning to study abroad and students who had no plans of studying abroad. Each student completed two measures of creativity to test their general and culture-specific creative thinking.

For example, one of the activities on the general test asked participants to draw pictures using nine identical isosceles triangles and two unfinished figures.

The second task, designed by the UF researchers, tested culture-specific creative ability. Students were asked to answer questions like “What steps can you suggest that would get many more foreign people to come to [America] as tourists?” and “Suppose you had access to any ingredient from all over the world. Describe the dishes you would create using a combination of the most unique and/or exotic ingredients you can think of.”

Results showed that students who had studied abroad outperformed both groups in those tests. Lee said a surprising finding was that the study-abroad students not only performed better on the culture-specific task, but on the general test as well.

“One implication of this finding is that experiences abroad facilitate students’ ability to think in more innovative ways,” Lee said. “The ability to not only master course content but to also creatively apply that knowledge is important for students as they enter the real world.”

The researchers said future studies on the creativity-study abroad link is needed to investigate the influence of other factors such as students’ ethnic backgrounds and the location and length of their study abroad.

“It’s important to understand the complex blend of influences that may explain the link found in this study,” Therriault said.

SOURCE: David Therriault, 352-273-4345, therriault@coe.ufl.edu
WRITER: Alexa Lopez, 352-273-4449, aklopez@coe.ufl.edu
MEDIA RELATIONS: Larry Lansford, 352-273-4137, llansford@coe.ufl.edu