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Extending the classroom: The use of a study tour and student journal writing in an international economics and finance course

Marilyn Clark-Murphy and Ray Boffey
Edith Cowan University

Study tours and student journals, although popular in other disciplines, do not appear to have been widely used in finance and economics courses. We report on an international study tour offered within a business degree to students majoring in finance and economics. By taking the study tour, visiting a range of countries and institutions, students are given an opportunity to see the application of theory in global markets. Such tours support the internationalisation of the curriculum, giving students a broader context in which to locate their studies. The addition of student journals as a learning tool is discussed. We find that writing a journal encourages and facilitates effective learning by causing participants to reflect immediately on what they learn during the study tour, to crystallise their thoughts and to unite their experiences with classroom theory. While demanding, the study tour has proven a popular learning experience for both staff and students.


Study tours extend the classroom by giving students the opportunity to observe theory being applied in professional practice. Such a tour supports the internationalisation of the curriculum and provides students with an experiential component often lacking in business courses.

The use of experiential education has grown in recent years, Katula and Threnhauser (1999) provide a survey of its role in the undergraduate curriculum. There is an extensive literature discussing the advantages and disadvantages of study tours for business students (Tucker, 1997; Schuster, Zimmerman, Schertzer, & Beamish, 1998; Duke, 2000; Hutchings, Jackson, & McEllister, 2002;). A review suggests that similar principles are applicable to a wide range of disciplines.

This paper discusses a study tour offered to finance and economics students at Edith Cowan University (ECU). We describe the development of the study tour, consider the advantages and disadvantages of this mode of delivery and the elements necessary for good course design. Appropriate assessment methods are discussed, in particular the use of student journals. We provide some of the students' own reflections on the experience and conclude by summarising the significant benefits of using study tours to extend the classroom.

The ECU World Financial Markets Study Tour

The primary benefit students derive from a study tour is the opportunity to see the practical relevance of abstract concepts (Duke, 2000). This enhances the integration of course material and is likely to increase retention (Johnson & Mader, 1992). The study tour offered by ECU can be substituted for a third year unit in international economics and finance for students majoring in finance and/or economics as part of a business degree. Our aim was to construct a study tour that gave students exposure to a variety of international environments relevant to their course, within a reasonable period of time and at reasonable cost. Our students have commented that participation in the study tour had a major impact on them. Some have even said that it was life changing in terms of their careers.

Designing the study tour

The appropriate duration of a study tour and the number of locations to be visited must be considered (Duke, 2000). Time involved in travelling and acclimatising to each new location must be balanced against the desire to give students a wide variety of experience. Our study tour takes just under four weeks, this allows a number of locations to be visited without moving on too frequently while getting students home before the rigours of travel begin to take their toll. We typically visit five or six locations with between two and five nights in each. The itinerary for a recent tour was Perth, Sydney, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, London, Singapore, Perth over 26 days.

Study tours can be divided between those visiting multiple locations and those involving a longer stay in one place. The one location format provides an in depth experience (Brokaw, 1996) and more opportunity to absorb another culture (Hutchings et al., 2002). By contrast a multi-destination tour gives students exposure, albeit brief, to a range of environments (Porth, 1997). Like any course, a study tour must be designed to deliver the intended outcomes. In our case the primary outcome was to experience international finance in operation and to achieve this we believe a multi-destination tour is appropriate.

The choice of study tour content is important. Site visits are an obvious component, students experience corporate operations at first hand and can ask questions of those working in the area (Johnson & Mader, 1992). We organise as many visits as possible to companies, central banks, major exchanges, investment banks, and brokers.

Students embarking on a study tour must have an appropriate level of prior knowledge. The ECU tour originally offered two streams, one for second year students and the other for third years. It became apparent that second year students lacked the theoretical background which many visits required. Third year students were far more comfortable, were able to ask detailed questions and gained greater benefits. Recent tours have been offered to third year students only, serving as a capstone experience for prior study.

The management of international financial risk is an important theme of the international economics and finance unit offered on campus and this was reflected in our study tour. We have been fortunate in gaining the cooperation of a multinational metals mining and processing company. Visits to their Australian and global head offices provide a central focus for our tour. The company is used as a case study and students are encouraged to consider other operations visited in the context of the company's operations. Hence when visiting central banks, derivatives exchanges, stock exchanges, investment banks etc. students consider how the company might interact with such organisations. This focus assists students in putting theory into context and building a conceptual framework of the links in the global economy.

Although some have managed larger groups (Hutchings et al., 2002), we believe the number of students on a study tour should be relatively small. Large groups can be difficult to accommodate on site visits, limiting access to venues such as trading rooms. They may also be less cohesive and are harder to keep track of while travelling. Gordon and Smith (1992) suggest fifteen as an appropriate number, our own groups have ranged between 20 and 12 with one staff member for every six or seven students. We find the ideal to be 12 to 14 students and two staff, this enables the group to operate as a unit, encourages interaction between the students and allows staff members to share the load.

Study tours are often over subscribed and student selection become necessary. Our first point of selection has been grade averages, a method supported by Hutchings, Jackson and McEllister (2002). Experience suggests more academically able students cope better with the need to assimilate a large volume of material in a short period of time. The student body at ECU is diverse and we seek to reflect this in our study tour groups. In the classroom, different cultural and age groups may tend to stick together but this is impossible on a study tour. We have seen barriers broken down in a way that is beneficial to all.

A study tour can be a double edged sword for accompanying staff (Johnson & Mader, 1992; Porth, 1997). You are on duty 24 hours a day, responsible for students' learning, their welfare and the smooth running of tour arrangements. It is, however, a very rewarding teaching experience. One is able to discuss material with students in depth, to tease out problems over time and to truly facilitate learning. Gordon and Smith (1992) recommend elements of selection and self selection of staff to accompany a study tour. Commitment, organising ability and an ability to relate to students as instructor, leader and co-traveller are among the required qualifications.

Lectures and workshops

Porth (1997) suggests a three phase approach to a study tour; incorporating pre-tour, on tour and post-tour activities. Pre-tour activities allow students to feel comfortable with what to expect, get to know the group members (Gordon & Smith, 1992) and cover some theoretical course content in a traditional classroom setting. While we agree that some pre-tour classroom work is essential, this can conflict with students' other studies and the workload should be moderate.

Some programs incorporate classroom study while travelling (Hutchings et al., 2002), however others consider this does not make good use of the locations visited (Johnson & Mader, 1992). We have tried both approaches and tend to agree that a tour is not the best place to deliver theoretical content. However, students do need an opportunity to discuss and put in context what they are experiencing. We have replaced formal lectures with debriefing sessions, held as soon as is practical after site visits. This allows students to reflect on the visit and to benefit from the observations of others, points of confusion can be discussed and staff members can direct the session to ensure that appropriate theoretical links are made. The elimination of formal lectures, however, means that students must have the required theoretical background prior to departure, either from prior courses, delivered in pre-tour sessions, or undertaken as self directed study.

Student journals

Assessment tasks related to a study tour should encourage students to participate in the activities of the group while travelling, give them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of theory and to reflect on their experiences. We find the best combination of assessment instruments to be participation while on tour (asking questions on site visits, discussion in workshops etc.), a major assignment prepared on return and a journal written while on tour.

The term 'journal' may refer to any writing that requires students to make a connection "between course content and material outside class" (Connor-Greene, 2000, pg. 44), Zacharias (1991) provides a review of the educational merits of student journal writing. Thinking, learning and writing are interrelated and the journal brings them together in a way that encourages students to reflect on the material being presented. During a study tour writing a journal assists students to bring together theory and experience in an environment which may not always be conducive to study.

There are several approaches to the design of a journal writing assignment, Moncrief, Shipp and Lamb (1995) detail two that may be appropriate. One involves providing a student with a list of items or relevant examples to find and comment on, the other simply requires them to make one relevant entry per day. Our design falls between the first, very structured, and the second, very free, approach.

Our students are asked to make one entry in their journal for each site visit made during the tour. They are given a sample entry and guidelines which indicate that the priority is to relate observations on the visit to theoretical concepts in the course. They are also asked to note anything on the visit that was unclear, this is used to guide discussion in the subsequent workshops. Students are encouraged to make entries as soon possible after each visit. The journals are collected and marked once during the tour to ensure they are up to date and provide feedback, we collect journals for the last time on the plane home.

Students have found the task of keeping the journal while travelling something of a burden. However, when asked to reflect after the tour, they commented on the usefulness of the task in cementing their understanding and its value as a long term record of their experience.

One disadvantage of a study tour is the difficulty of delivering sufficient theoretical content. Students found that the journal assisted in overcoming this by encouraging them to relate experience to theory and to ask questions if the links were not apparent. One student commented that the best way of learning something is to explain it to someone else and writing the journal had been an effective equivalent. Another said that the quantity of information gained in a short space of time would have been impossible to assimilate without something that forced regular reflection.

Some tours have used a non-assessable journal (Hutchings et al., 2002), however, the task requires considerable effort from the student and it is appropriate that this be rewarded by assessment. Overall, we have found that student journal writing is particularly useful in enabling students to maximise the educational benefit from a study tour.

Student assessment of the study tour

Sixty percent of the marks for our tour are for an assignment written after the students return home. The assignment focuses on a corporate case study; bringing together theory, the experiences of the tour and the operation of a multinational company. As a final part of the assignment, for a small proportion of the marks, students are asked to comment on the study tour as a learning experience, to identify highlights, advantages and disadvantages and to compare it to a classroom experience. The results provide staff with insights from the students' perspective and provide ideas for future improvement. The following is an attempt to synthesise students' comments, often in their own words.

There is considerable variation in the visits students have cited as highlights. Many cited visits to the headquarters of a multinational company. The company made senior executives' time generously available and students appreciated the unique insight provided. For some the buzz of the trading floor was dominant:

"From the time I entered the [Chicago Board of Trade] building until the time I left I had goosebumps."

"It was such a spectacle to watch the activity and the build up before the opening bell, I could feel the adrenalin of the [Chicago Mercantile Exchange] trading floor."

For others it was seeing practical application of what had previously seemed academic theory:
"It was ... very encouraging to see that the theory that is being taught at university is actually being used in the industry."

"Having studied basic econometric techniques ... it was particularly interesting to hear from someone who has used this knowledge for a practical purpose"

"Whilst a statistics unit forms part of the ... major, one generally hopes that it may not need to be referred to too often. [This presentation] illustrated that it is beneficial to have a greater understanding ... [and that] being able to understand it can be fun."

This range of views underlines the importance of making site visits as varied as possible so that all students find something to fire their enthusiasm and imagination.

The main advantage recognised by students was the linking of theory and practice.

"... it is not until you see the concept in action, that you can truly grasp its meaning. I see this as the stand out advantage of the tour."

"... visits to globalised operations meant that some of the visits crossed paths and were able to provide information on concepts from both a service provider and a customer point of view."

"Understanding the various concepts is easier and even the boring areas ... like econometrics are simpler to comprehend once their use is seen in a practical sense."

And an interesting comment from a part time student:
"the tour allowed me to focus entirely on the unit ... without having to prioritise work and other commitments."
The benefit of studying closely with a diverse group was recognised:
"The tour was a great lesson in group dynamics that enabled me to ingest information from other members ... with different ages, background and experience."

"... the camaraderie that developed among the group members ... made the learning process much more enjoyable, in spite of some trying conditions at times."

The primary disadvantages compared to on campus study were the reduction of time to assimilate knowledge and the rigours of travel. Many students felt that the former problem could be overcome by more pre-tour activities.
"The major disadvantage of the tour was that it didn't provide the same level of background theory that a conventional unit does."

"I felt a bit rushed when learning new concepts, and learning while on the road made it even more difficult."


Study tours are a relatively unusual component of the finance and economics curriculum however we have found that students gain much from the experience. Preparation and organisation places significant demands on the staff involved and some rotation of staff is needed if a tour is to be run regularly. However, staff can benefit from an intense and varied teaching experience and exposure to the experts encountered.

Student journals appear to be rarely used in economics or finance. On a study tour the regular writing task encourages students to reflect on what they have seen and heard and to relate it directly to theory. The primary difficulty in offering a study tour in place of a classroom unit is ensuring that students do not miss theoretical content. Pre-tour meetings and activities can overcome this but need to be carefully balanced with the students' normal workload.

We have found the study tour to be positive for both staff and students and would recommend extending the classroom in this way. It enables students to link abstract theory to professional practice around the world and is an excellent way of internationalising the curriculum.


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Authors: Marilyn Clark-Murphy, School of Accounting, Finance & Economics, Edith Cowan University

Ray Boffey, School of Accounting, Finance & Economics, Edith Cowan University

Contact person: Marilyn Clark-Murphy, Faculty of Business & Public Management
Edith Cowan University
100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup, Western Australia 6027
Telephone: 08 6304 5565 Fax: 08 6304 5271
Email: m.clarkmurphy@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Clark-Murphy, M. and Boffey, R. (2004). Extending the classroom: The use of a study tour and student journal writing in an international economics and finance course. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/clark-murphy.html

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