Liberal Education

Global Learning: Key to Making Excellence Inclusive

Today’s college students must become adept both at interacting, cooperating, and engaging with individuals from diverse backgrounds and at grappling successfully with the kinds of unscripted problems and challenges that characterize life and work in the complex world they will enter upon graduation. Accordingly, global learning is widely recognized as an essential dimension of a liberal education. But what exactly is global learning?

Global learning is a form of learning that prepares students to critically analyze and engage with complex global systems, their implications for the lives of individuals, and the sustainability of the earth.1 It can be fostered through civic engagement at home or abroad, interactive videoconferencing, study abroad, and other practices. Global learning is also a dimension of liberal learning, and it is a powerful pedagogy that requires students to engage across disciplines to solve complex, real-world, global problems. Global learning is also a “high-impact practice”—an educational practice that benefits all students, particularly those from historically underserved groups, through increased engagement.2 And as higher education becomes more equitable, inclusive, and reflective of the American population, it is essential that all students have access to the most powerful forms of learning. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is committed by its mission to make excellence inclusive, to bring the benefits of liberal education to all students.3 Inclusive excellence encompasses what is taught and who is taught, and global learning must be available to all students.

This understanding of global learning has emerged from a growing body of evidence about what students need to be prepared for a future that will be ever more globally interconnected. Over the past twenty years, colleges and universities in the United States have sought to help students develop intercultural competence and a global perspective, promoted international programs of various kinds, launched curricular efforts that focus on the notion of global citizenship, and promoted various other forms of global engagement. Many institutions have incorporated references to global learning into their mission and vision statements. Before examining more closely the relationship between global learning and inclusive excellence, it is helpful to review the various terms associated with global learning.

A review of terms

International education is a term that has been widely used in the United States since the end of World War II. It indicates an international orientation—attitudes, knowledge, learning from individuals in other parts of the world—with a focus, initially, on peace, international understanding, and international cooperation. Peace education, development education, area studies, and international studies also have their origins in this period and have been considered parts of international education. As international education continued to evolve over time, the emphasis shifted to issues related to student and scholar mobility, transfer of educational ideas, and international curricula.

Intercultural competence is a term that focuses on student capabilities and inherently includes both local and international experiences with difference. It has been used by some institutions to ensure that issues related to domestic diversity and issues related to international diversity are given equal attention, and it has been used to promote opportunities for student engagement in local and international contexts. According to Darla Deardorff, intercultural competence involves “the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”4 She argues that intercultural competence cannot be attained through just one experience and that it involves recognition of the interconnectedness of the global system, skills and experiences, and general knowledge of world events.5 For a student to interact in a culturally appropriate manner in any community or work setting, she or he must have background knowledge of that community and its cultural norms, an understanding of how individuals interact with one another, and an ability to bridge the background and preparatory knowledge with the actual interaction.

Global citizenship is a term that focuses on preparation for civic engagement in increasingly diverse and global contexts. Martha Nussbaum argues that higher education needs to build a rich network of human connections in order to shape future democratic citizens who are poised to make decisions based on their understanding of gender, ethnic, racial, sexual, and religious diversity. Students need to develop an understanding of how interconnected today’s world is, and they need to be able to operate with human understanding. Nussbaum identifies capabilities that are essential to global citizenship: critical self-examination and examination of one’s own traditions, thinking as a citizen of the world, and exercising a “narrative imagination” that allows one to see the world through the eyes of others.6

Larry Braskamp has developed the notion of global perspective as a dimension of global learning. In his work, he defines global perspective as the integration of student development and intercultural communication, arguing that students must learn to think and act with those who are different—in terms of background, customs, habits, perspectives, and religious beliefs—on their own campuses in order to prepare for life in a pluralistic world. Braskamp further argues that this global perspective should be fostered throughout the campus and is critical for students, staff, and faculty alike.7 In this issue of Liberal Education, Braskamp and his colleagues further articulate this dimension of global learning through the lens of “belonging.”

Internationalization is a term that gained popularity in the 1980s and has driven most international initiatives on American campuses ever since, serving to frame action at the campus or institutional level. Jane Knight defines internationalization as the “process of integrating an international dimension into the teaching/learning, research, and service functions of the university or college. An international dimension means a perspective, activity or service which introduces or integrates an international/intercultural/global outlook into the major functions of an institution of higher education.”8 This definition has guided many institutions as they implement study abroad programs, recruit international students, deliver educational programs in international locations, launch international partnerships and research projects, and integrate international perspectives and intercultural dimensions into teaching and learning across curricula.

Internationalization is a broad notion, and most campuses are pursuing it in comprehensive ways. In 2011, the American Council on Education conducted an institutional survey and found that internationalization typically focuses on agreements, research projects, numbers of courses with a global focus and number related to student mobility (study abroad students going out, and international students coming in), international partnerships, faculty policies, and language requirements.9 In 2015, however, Jane Knight developed a new working definition: “Internationalization at the national, sector, and institutional levels is defined as the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions, or delivery of postsecondary education.”10 This definition focuses on the process and integrative nature of internationalization. It also keeps the door open to local opportunities for global engagement.

Global learning has emerged as a term that reflects the full scope and substance of engagement with learning in and about the world. By using the term “global,” we deemphasize the nation state and shift attention to a greater focus on issues connecting the United States to the rest of the world. Moreover, in addition to the possibility of engagement with the world through the local community, global learning focuses on issues that can be examined by all disciplines and that affect individuals all over the globe—for example, disease, the environment, food security, healthcare, human rights, migration, and water security. Global learning shifts the focus from a specific location or culture to larger issues that affect many parts of the world in interconnected ways. For example, the transmission of HIV and the realities of living with HIV could be examined in both a sociology course and a biology course. Sociocultural factors such as transmission, stigma, and access to medication, along with the biological aspects of HIV, could be explore locally and in different parts of the world.

An in-depth examination of global learning

Through AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project, teams of faculty and other educational professionals from more than a hundred higher education institutions have developed a set of rubrics for use in assessing the learning outcomes identified as essential by the broader Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.11 In all, sixteen rubrics have been developed; they delineate the most frequently identified characteristics or criteria of demonstrated learning for each of the outcomes. These rubrics have been tested by faculty in hundreds of institutions using samples of authentic student work.

The most recently developed rubric is one for global learning. This rubric defines global learning as “a critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies (such as natural, physical, social, cultural, economic, and political) and their implications for people’s lives and the earth’s sustainability.”12 The rubric suggests that students demonstrate achievement of global learning in six dimensions: self-awareness, perspective-taking, understanding cultural diversity, personal and social responsibility, global systems, and knowledge application. These dimensions clearly indicate the connection between global cultural diversity and domestic cultural diversity—aspects of diversity that are not in competition and, indeed, can inform one another.

Efforts to promote global learning must be intentional and well integrated into the institution. While global learning has its roots in global and international studies, area studies, and globally focused courses that typically touch a self-selected group of students, all students need to experience global learning beyond one required course or experience. Global learning should be integrated into educational goals at all levels—institutional, divisional, departmental, programmatic, course, and campus life. Global learning outcomes should be developed, and opportunities for global learning must be mapped to ensure it is situated at the center of all learning—not just those areas with an explicit or obvious global focus.

Global learning outcomes can be developed through many activities, including engagement with international students and scholars, global service learning, globally focused capstones, internships, international interactive videoconferences, and study abroad. Study abroad has long been the face of global learning, but there are some challenges to its prominence. Study abroad is the most recognized and easily quantifiable global learning activity, and the benefits of a well-structured study abroad program have been clearly articulated; these include enhanced international understanding, cross-cultural communication, intercultural competence, and language skills.

Study abroad participation by American college students has increased significantly, growing from 174,629 students to 289,408 students between 2002 and 2013. Despite the overall increase in participation, however, there are persistent disparities. In 2012–13, of the approximately 10 percent of American undergraduate students who studied abroad, 65.3 percent were female, and 76.3 percent were white.13 Although there have been some empirical studies, much of the information on participation in study abroad programs by students of color and low-income students is anecdotal. Among the factors that likely hinder participation by these students are financial concerns, lack of family support, lack of awareness, desire to complete college quickly, a perception that it is unimportant, lack of program sites of interest, and lack of program leadership by faculty of color. More research needs to be done to examine the factors that contribute to the disparities, and additional opportunities for global learning for the nearly 90 percent of students who do not currently study abroad are urgently needed.

A 2014 survey commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 70 percent of employers regard it as “very important” that college graduates have “the ability to analyze and solve complex problems with people from different backgrounds and cultures.”14 The same percentage of employers describe their companies or organizations as globally connected.15 Given that the outcomes associated with global learning are widely considered to be essential for all students, and since the majority of students do not study abroad, other opportunities for global learning must be developed.

Service-learning and community-based learning experiences can be opportunities for global learning. Most communities have local and global connections—local immigrant communities either newly arrived or longstanding, diverse communities, corporations with global connections, community-based organizations focused on global issues—and so campus-community collaboration can create additional opportunities for students to engage with difference and to engage in global problem-solving in their home communities. When these types of experiences are coupled with intellectual framing and critical reflection, they become strong global learning experiences. Before working with community partners, students should be well prepared. They should learn about the institutional culture; the culture of clients or users of the site; information about the historical, cultural, and economic background; and the connections to global issues.

Moreover, opportunities to engage students who are underrepresented in study abroad and other global learning activities should be built into all global learning initiatives. Students from diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds and income levels, first-generation students, and older students are participating in American higher education today at much higher rates than in the past, and more are expected to gain access in the next twenty years. These students from groups that have been historically excluded or poorly served by higher education will soon comprise the majority of all undergraduates in American higher education, and indeed they already comprise the majority at some colleges and universities. The authors of the recent AAC&U report America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education state that “by 2027, half of the students in US high schools will come from what have long been described as minority groups. Our future as a diverse democracy has arrived. America’s future prosperity, economic and democratic, depends on how we educate our students of color.”16

While the Institute of International Education publishes data on student participation in study abroad programs in its annual Open Doors reports,17 and most institutions have data on their own students’ participation in study abroad, it is more difficult to measure participation in global learning by students who engage other types of experiences. Data on participation in global service learning is often available on campuses that measure service hours, for example, and data on the number of courses with a global title or affiliation with area studies, global/international studies, languages, and/or cultures are also available. But there is no concrete instrument to measure the number of students engaged in integrated global learning experiences.

Inclusive excellence and global learning

To deepen the engagement of “new majority” students—those first-generation or low-income students, students of color, and traditionally underserved students who are emerging as the majority of undergraduates—the five principles for creating equity by design that are outlined in America’s Unmet Promise can also be applied constructively to global learning opportunities:

1. Clarity in language, goals, and measures is vital to effective equitable practices.

2. “Equity-mindedness” should be the guiding paradigm for language and action.

3. Equitable practices and policies are designed to accommodate differences in the contexts of students’ learning—not to treat all students the same.

4. Enacting equity requires a continual process of learning, disaggregating data, and questioning assumptions about relevance and effectiveness.

5. Equity must be enacted as a pervasive institution- and system-wide principle.18

These principles provide guidance in creating equity-minded programs, projects, and courses, and a number of institutions are drawing on them as they create global learning opportunities.

To integrate global learning intentionally across the institution by clearly defining learning goals for all students is one way to ensure that global learning is for all. Florida International University (FIU) is a Miami-based university with a diverse student population. It is a “majority minority” institution with significant international and domestic diversity. As part of FIU’s quality-enhancement plan, all students must take at least two courses that address three global learning outcomes: global awareness, global perspective, and global engagement. There are global learning courses offered in each of FIU’s eleven colleges and schools, and students are assessed using both the Global Perspectives Inventory and a campus-based assessment tool.19

Montgomery College, located north of Washington, DC, is a community college with a highly diverse student population—including students from 169 countries. The college offers an integrated global learning curriculum developed by faculty participants in the Global Humanities Institute, a one-year faculty fellows program that allows faculty members to focus on either the redesign of existing courses or the creation of new courses. The goal is to develop courses with a global focus that are guided by clearly defined learning outcomes.

Study abroad is another area of focus for campuses seeking to increase the participation of new majority students in global learning. Indiana University Bloomington is the flagship campus of the Indiana University system and a research institution with a long history of study abroad and area studies. Approximately 20 percent of the students are students of color, and 19 percent are first-generation students. The student body also includes students from 125 countries. The Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs has created short-term study abroad programs specifically for “new majority” students in its scholars programs in order to increase their participation in study abroad. These short-term programs have provided experiences in Ghana, Jamaica, and India.

Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is quite diverse for a small liberal arts college: the student body is made up of about 30 percent students of color and about 40 percent Pell-eligible students. In addition to offering more traditional study abroad opportunities, Augsburg College maintains permanent centers for global learning in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Namibia. The centers are staffed by a combination of expatriates and local community members. There are deep-rooted connections to the local communities, and the staff members understand the diverse needs of the Augsburg students. For example, Augsburg has arranged culturally appropriate homestay placements for single parents who needed assistance with childcare, safe home environments for LGBTQ students, sober homestays for students in recovery (in addition to connecting students in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs with sponsors), and access to mosques for Muslim students. This commitment to creating environments for student success is a hallmark of Augsburg’s study abroad programs.

The global service experience—a structured, organized service activity through which students address identified community needs, learn directly from interaction and cross-cultural dialogue with community members, and reflect on the experience in order to deepen their understanding of global and intercultural issues20—is another global learning opportunity that’s being made available to all students. Global service experiences occur in local communities and abroad. In domestic global learning programs, for example, students may engage with immigrant community members who have recently arrived in the United States or have been living in the local community for a while. The experience may include some form of community service or service learning associated with coursework related to global learning.

At FIU, students from the Haitian Student Organization developed and led a two-week mentorship program for middle school students of Haitian descent in order to teach them more about Haitian culture, history, and identity. Many of the student mentors also learned more about their own culture, and they have created a model for other student groups. The program will soon be expanded through the academic year and involve pre-service teachers from FIU. At Augsburg College, all students in the first-year experience must complete at least ten hours of service. Many of them work in the local global community within the Minneapolis area. Students have also explored the global aspects of issues such as inequality, race, sustainability, and social justice while engaging in service.


Increased international activity at American institutions of higher education has contributed to the development of global learning—curriculum-based learning that shifts the focus from counting numbers of courses and participants to the examination of global issues from diverse disciplinary perspectives. The global becomes an integral part of a course’s framing due to the adoption of clearly articulated, intentional course outcomes related to global learning. While global learning is a part of campus internationalization, a laser-like focus on student learning has the potential to provide students with perspective-changing, real-world experiences across the curriculum. With more intentional and inclusive course design, more students will have opportunities to engage in global learning at home and away, and this engagement will prepare them for the challenges of today and tomorrow.


1. This definition is adapted from the “Global Learning VALUE Rubric,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed August 13, 2015,

2. See George D. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).

3. The mission of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.

4. Darla Deardorff, “The Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States” (doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2004), 184.

5. See Darla Deardorff, “Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization,” Journal of Studies in International Education 10, no. 3 (2006): 241–66.

6. See Martha Nussbaum, “Education for Citizenship in an Era of Global Connection,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 21, nos. 4–5 (2002): 289–303.

7. See Larry A. Braskamp, “Internationalization in Higher Education: Four Issues to Consider,” Journal of College and Character 10, no. 6 (2009): 2–7, doi: 10.2202/1940-1639.1688.

8. Jane Knight, “Internationalization: Elements and Checkpoints,” Canadian Bureau of International Education Research, no. 7 (1994): 3.

9. See Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, Mapping internationalization on US Campuses: 2012 Edition, (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2012).

10. Jane Knight, “Updating the Definition of Internationalization,” International Higher Education, no. 33 (2015): 2.

11. Launched in 2005 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) is a national public advocacy and campus action initiative designed to champion the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality. Launched in 2007 as part of the LEAP initiative, the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project provides the tools needed to assess students’ own authentic work, produced across diverse learning pathways and institutions, in order to determine whether and how well they are progressing toward graduation-level achievement in learning outcomes that both employers and faculty consider essential. More information about LEAP and VALUE is available online at

12. “Global Learning VALUE Rubric,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed August 13, 2015,

13. Christine A. Farrugia and Rajika Bhandari, Open Doors 2014 Report on International Educational Exchange (New York: Institute of International Education, 2014).

14. Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 5

15. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Connecting College Learning and America’s Global Future,” accessed September 1, 2015,

16. Keith Witham, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon, America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 7.

17. For the latest report, see Farrugia and Bhandari, Open Doors 2014.

18. Witham et al., America’s Unmet Promise, 27.

19. The Global Perspective Inventory is a national survey that measures an undergraduate’s ability to take a global perspective by examining cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal dimensions of this key attribute of global learning. The survey also probes the frequency of students’ engagement in curricular and cocurricular experiences intended to foster global learning, as well as students’ sense of community and the nature of their interactions with faculty. For more detailed information about the survey, see Larry A. Braskamp, David C. Braskamp, and Mark E. Engberg, Global Perspective Inventory (GPI): Its Purpose, Construction, Potential Uses, and Psychometric Characteristics (Chicago: Global Perspective Institute, 2014),

20. See Robert G. Bringle and Julie A. Hatcher, “International Service Learning,” in International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research, ed. Robert G. Bringle, Julie A. Hatcher, and Steven G. Jones, (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2011), 1–28.

Dawn Michele Whitehead is senior director of global learning and curricular change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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