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Transformative Learning | Intellectual Growth

We continue our Transformative Learning Series by diving deeper into our goal of Intellectual Growth. These goals, including Intercultural Competence, Global Citizenship, Personal Growth, and Professional Development guide how we develop and facilitate each one of our higher education study abroad programs.

Why do we focus on Intellectual Growth?

Intellectual growth relates particularly to cognition (that is, knowledge production and meaning-making) within the scope of each program’s focus (be it Biology, Nursing and Midwifery, Ecology, etc.). As a goal, it signifies our commitment to upholding study abroad as first and foremost an academic endeavor. 

In recent years, study abroad – and short-term programs in particular – has come under attack for being a veneer for ‘educational tourism’. While we believe in making our programs fun and exciting for students, our focus on intellectual growth ensures that our programs remain academically robust.

How do we encourage Intellectual Growth? 

We encourage intellectual growth in our programs by collaboratively designing programs relating to particular academic themes. These vary according to the nature of the program, and depend on the curricular needs of faculty, but are nearly always centered around specific academic (i.e. discipline-specific) goals. Our Program Designers work closely with faculty to ensure that these disciplinary learning outcomes are met through rigorous and stimulating inclusions in the itinerary – from engaging students with brilliant minds and institutions on the African continent to working alongside innovative community partners and NGOs. 

As with all our goal areas, reflection sessions remain paramount to enhancing intellectual growth. In these curated sessions (which are standard inclusions in all our programs), students’ cognition and critical thinking skills are activated, encouraging them to develop and mature intellectually. 

Our learning outcomes associated with intellectual growth aim for students to demonstrate their abilities to analyze academically challenging content within their field of study; recognize the value of interdisciplinary in their field of study; and recognize the competitive value of knowledge produced on the African continent.

We have run programs relating to a seemingly endless list of disciplines – from Legal Studies to Restoration Ecology, Social Work to STEM – to name but a few. We are increasingly excited at the prospect of programming in new, and even multi/interdisciplinary, areas. Please get in touch with us if you are considering customizing your own Faculty-Led Study Abroad or Virtual Exchange program

What is Intellectual Growth?

For us, intellectual growth (or development) is really about challenging knowledge acquisition while on our programs in Africa, in whichever discipline. As a term or construct, intellectual growth draws from cognitive developmental theory and refers to the development of more complex cognition and/or meaning-making. In Joshua S. McKeown’s study on intellectual development, The First Time Effect, he argues that experiential education (the basis of meaningful study abroad) allows students to improve their “information processing capacity” and “allow for more complex ways of understanding and interpretation”.1 This is supported further by several studies (such as the GLOSSARI and CCC SOAR projects) which have shown that students who study abroad tend to have a higher GPA score than those who did not and stayed on campus.2 

There are stages within intellectual growth that are useful in understanding the concept, and its manifestations, during study abroad more fully. William Perry (1968) outlined four broad categories3 of intellectual development, namely:

  1. Dualism – a dichotomous meaning-making process where an individual can only see right or wrong 
  2. Multiplicity – individuals begin to recognize multiple realities and perspectives 
  3. Relativism – individuals can appreciate multiple perspectives and that there is a process for making claims about knowledge
  4. Commitment in relativism – individuals can make a commitment/action based on evaluating different kinds of knowledge 4 

In order for students to make shifts and/or move to more advanced stages of intellectual growth or development, they need to be confronted with the need to alter their thought processes – that is, to make sense of a new or different concept or experience. As McKeown justly notes, study abroad provides a ripe environment for this process to occur – shaking students out of their comfort zones and “what they know”, and forcing them into cognitive conflict. It is through this disequilibrium – this state of exposure and disorientation – that meaningful intellectual transformation can occur.

Realistically, most students in our programs will not reach the 3rd or 4th categories stated above, but there is a strong likelihood that, at the very least, the shift from dualism to multiplicity will occur. As with growth in all our goals, intellectual growth is neither a smooth” nor “assured” process, but it is a long-term investment – Perry argued that the process of intellectual development is irreversible, and so once a student reaches a more advanced stage, there can only be upward growth (unless, of course, there is stagnation). A concept, it seems, ingrained in an ancient Kiswahili proverb:

Wealth, if you use it, comes to an end; learning, if you use it, increases. 



Dr Heidi Barends, EDU Africa

Heidi Barends, PhD | Academic Director

Heidi holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Cape Town where she was involved in research and teaching from 2014-2018. She was also a faculty member at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology from 2015-2018. Heidi’s work in programming at EDU Africa is an ideal translation of her research interests – she is passionate about ethical exchange between African countries and the rest of the world, and EDU Africa offers her a platform to achieve this.


McKeown, Joshua S. . The First Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on

College Student Intellectual Development. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “Independent Research Measuring the Impact of Study Abroad.” (ND).