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Study Proves Benefits of Gap Year Programs

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Study Proves Benefits of Gap Year Programs

Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB) is proud to announce the outcomes of the first comprehensive impact assessment of our gap year programs. We’ve worked hard to create innovative programs, and we are thrilled to illustrate the exceptional impact they’ve had on our students. We’re publishing these findings to highlight best practices and contribute to the conversations around both international education and the college transition.

Why This Study Matters

There are two groups of people who will find this series useful: 1) those seeking a solution to the current crisis in higher education; 2) those seeking to educate a new generation of leaders who will work for equity and justice.

Higher education is facing a significant value crisis. While many define the root of the crisis as college tuition being too expensive, we believe the issue is that students aren’t gaining enough educational value from their investment in college. Over the past 5 years, as educators and students seek innovations to wring more value from college, the popularity of the “gap year” has grown significantly. The education sector (NACAC, IECA, Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week) and the mainstream media (NY Times, Time Magazine, MSNBC, Forbes) have taken notice. Until now, most of the data about the impact of gap years has been anecdotal. While TBB’s program model is not representative of an average gap year, this study will shed light on the potential of study abroad as part of the college transition to improve higher education outcomes by developing a sense of purpose and direction.

Creating social change leaders is a big industry. High schools and universities, community based programs, and summer fellowships all offer training to become a social innovator or entrepreneur. As common and well funded as these programs are, few do more than teach about the “tools” of social change. Thinking Beyond Borders develops the often neglected inner capacities necessary for great social change leadership. Our programs represent an intentional and intensive intervention in the lives of high potential students. The outcomes of this study show exceptional progress in developing these key inner capacities of higher order empathy and powerful learning.

Mission & Theory of Change

TBB’s mission is to empower and inspire students to address critical global issues. We assume that helping students develop a sense of purpose and direction for their higher education and professional careers will ensure they take full advantage of future learning and growth opportunities. Additionally, our theory of change posits that if we develop higher order empathy and a capacity for powerful but humble learning in students during the college transition, they will be exceptionally well prepared to pursue meaningful social impact.

TBB’s Gap Year Programs

Our gap year programs were created by blending best practices from experiential learning, service learning, and study abroad models. The result is an innovative program, curriculum, and pedagogy designed specifically for students transitioning between high school and college. TBB’s model offers a unique combination of homestays, fieldwork, and an academic curriculum across multiple disciplines and multi-country itineraries. Together, these components ensure deep cultural immersion, cross-curricular study, and a rich environment for the development of critical thinking and other key learning skills. Each program group is comprised of 18 gap year students and three Program Leaders who are highly qualified educators with at least a Master’s degree, 3 years experience teaching, and extended periods living and working abroad. This intentional focus on program design, impact, and outcomes makes the TBB experience unique among gap year programs.

The Study

This study was developed by Andrea Canuel (one of the authors here) as a capstone project for her Master’s degree from the International Education program at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She also served as TBB’s Administrative Director for five years, including during the period she completed the initial study. Throughout her work, she consulted closely with her graduate school professors and Robin Pendoley, TBB’s Founder and CEO (the other author here). He drew on his knowledge of educational assessment from his Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To begin, we identified the TBB learning outcomes. To do this, we examined recent academic literature that spanned several areas, including intercultural competence, transformative education, and education for social change. The existing research in each of these areas shaped our thinking about the cognitive, social-emotional, and behavioral growth of our students. We identified 19 learning outcomes that fall under these categories.

In order to test for student progress, we coded the blog posts of twenty-two students who had completed the Global Gap Year program. The blogs are not “academic writing,” and were not required, prompted, or guided by TBB staff. Each blog entry is coded on a 5-point scale to measure the level of engagement with each of the learning outcomes:

  • 3 = Shows above average evidence
  • 2 = Shows good evidence
  • 1 = Shows some evidence
  • 0 = No evidence
  • -1 = Regression in development of the outcomes

Each program was divided into four quarters, and data was compared across each quarter to evaluate progress over time for each outcome. Here is an example of a student’s score sheet. Scores were averaged by outcome. Students are evaluated in their general progress by averaging their scores by time period for each of the 19 learning outcomes. In the coming posts, we’ll share graphs and analyses of those outcomes.

Our Outcomes

We’re excited to share our outcomes over the next two weeks. In coming posts, we’ll share the outcomes for developing students’ Purpose & Direction, Higher Order Empathy, and Capacity as Learners. We’ll provide analysis that illustrates how these outcomes prepare students to access the enormous value colleges offer and create meaningful social impact. Finally, we’ll share remaining questions regarding unexpected and negative outcomes that will shape the next steps in understanding TBB’s impact.

Blog post adapted from Thinking Beyond Borders. This is the first post in a series by Andrea Canuel and Robin Pendoley presenting the outcomes of Thinking Beyond Borders’ impact assessment. The outcomes and analysis presented here are written for a broad audience. For a deeper look into the study, you can download it in its entirety.

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Written by Scott Ingram

Robin Pendoley is the founder of Thinking Beyond Borders. Robin’s blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.

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