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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

3 thoughts on “Studying abroad found to boost creative thinking

  1. How well I do agree!!!! Our daughter got to study abroad. It was marvelous for her. For myself, I went and taught English in China. This job was secured on my own and it gave me lifelong memories and connections. Even at my age, now 74, and I just recently taught there again, I feel so connected. It was marvelous!! Wish it had been offered when I was in college. I graduated from U of F in 1963. Thank you.

  2. Forgot to mention that I began an “ART BEYOND BORDERS” PROJECT. While in China I presented students with artwork done by students in Florida. They, in turn, gave me lots of their own artwork. Photos have been sent across the oceans of this and each school has shared photos of their artwork in another country on classroom bulletin boards, being appreciated by children of another culture and country. It was marvelous. These days I continue to travel to Asian countries and to South American and elsewhere. Everywhere I go, I now do something like this on my own and make the connection in conjunction with one or more schools in Dade and Broward counties. I now look at it as a personal humanitarian ambassador privilege. I am also the present collector of artwork from children around the wrold and am always glad to share these with students and teachers in many Florida schools. Just contact me. I am also available for presentations on China or Vietnam. Children and teachers seem to love it!! I do too!!

    • Ramona, thank you for your comments and interest in this article. Considering your background and experiences in education abroad, your interest is understandable. Your humanitarian efforts in education “across the oceans” make us proud to call you one of our own–an EduGator alum! — Larry Lansford, Director, News & Communications, UF College of Education

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