Liberal Education

A Glimpse of Global Learning: Assessing Student Experiences and Institutional Commitments

Our rapidly changing world demands that undergraduate students develop global and intercultural competencies and that US colleges and universities embrace internationalization as an institutional priority. And indeed, over the past twenty years, global learning opportunities have become a feature of undergraduate education at an increasing number of institutions. Moreover, the growing number of international students on US campuses has enhanced the global “feel” of undergraduate education. In terms of the goals for institutional internationalization, student learning is now front and center. Many institutions have defined globally focused student learning outcomes, specifying the international and intercultural knowledge and skills that students are expected to acquire through their educational programs.

Amid this global fervor, we must, as Carol Geary Schneider admonished, find ways to ensure that global is being implemented effectively as a framing theme for student learning.1 What do we know about the extent to which institutions are designing international activities, providing students with direct experience of different cultures and courses on global topics, and ensuring that graduates acquire global learning outcomes? To date, little comparable, cross-institutional information has been available about institutional goals and perspectives on internationalization, students’ perceptions of global learning, and the extent to which students participate in activities associated with global learning gains.

To provide this information, the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Center for Postsecondary Research at the Indiana University School of Education collaborated on a study that takes advantage of national surveys administered by each organization. The ACE Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses survey assesses the state of internationalization at colleges and universities, analyzes progress and trends over time, and identifies future priorities. It includes questions about institutional commitment and reasons for internationalizing, curricular and cocurricular international offerings, and global learning outcomes. Administered every five years, the survey is the only comprehensive source of data and analysis on internationalization in US higher education.

The Center for Postsecondary Research’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) provides bachelor’s degree–granting institutions with information about the extent to which first-year and senior students engage in research-based educational practices related to learning and development. Administered annually, NSSE offers institutional participants the option of appending to the core survey one or more topical modules, short sets of questions on specific topics. One such module, the NSSE Global Learning Module, was developed in partnership with ACE to complement the Mapping Internationalization survey and is used to assess student experiences and coursework that emphasize global affairs, world cultures, nationalities, religions, and other international topics.

In this article, we discuss preliminary findings from a study of combined results from the 2016 administration of the ACE Mapping survey and the NSSE Global Learning Module. Taken together, these surveys provide a unique opportunity to examine student and institutional perspectives based on responses to similar questions about global learning. The ACE Mapping survey results include responses from 1,164 institutions. The NSSE data are derived from the sixty-one institutions that opted to include the Global Learning Module. Given that these institutions chose to append the module, and are presumably interested in making efforts to enhance global learning, the results may not be representative of students at institutions that did not opt to include the module. The final NSSE sample includes about fifteen thousand first-year students and twenty thousand seniors. Because some of the content in both surveys is analogous, we consider results from these two surveys in tandem. A final report on the study will include extensive analysis of results from the more than seventy-five institutions with paired data from both surveys.

Student and institutional perspectives on global learning

Approaches to internationalizing the undergraduate curriculum and helping students develop global learning outcomes vary widely across colleges and universities, often involving an increase in the international student population; the addition of global courses and study abroad, internship, and service abroad opportunities; and sponsorship of speakers, events, and other cocurricular activities.2 The results from the ACE Mapping survey indicate that about 56 percent of institutions are engaged in initiatives to internationalize the curriculum. Interestingly, about the same percentage (54 percent) of seniors responding to the NSSE Global Learning Module perceived a strong emphasis (“very much” or “quite a bit”) on global learning in terms of the provision of courses, activities, and experiences focused on global and international topics. These results suggest that students are noticing institutional efforts on internationalization.

Many colleges and universities claim to be accelerating efforts to infuse global learning–focused courses into the undergraduate curriculum.3 This emphasis also came through in institutional responses to the Mapping survey. For example, the general education requirements at 49 percent of institutions include international or global components. The NSSE Global Learning Module results evince the emphasis on completing global courses: about half of all seniors have completed a course that focuses on global trends or issues (e.g., human rights, international relations, world health, and climate) or that focuses either on religion or cultural groups or on perspectives, issues, or events from countries or regions outside the United States. Although first-year students may not yet have had much time to take globally focused courses, their expectations for completing such courses suggest something about the beliefs of new students as well as institutional transparency about international curricular requirements and opportunities. Results in this regard are a bit dismaying. Although a little over one-third of first-year students “plan to” complete a global course, one in five “do not plan to” do so. These concerning first-year student intentions might suggest a need to be more explicit about global course requirements and opportunities and to communicate the value of such courses more effectively.

Ideally, colleges and universities that have articulated global learning goals at the institutional level should ensure that activities in the cocurriculum align with those goals. Strategies for cocurricular internationalization may vary depending on the size and type of the institution, but they usually include intentional programming to expose students to international perspectives. Cocurricular experiences may provide formal opportunities for students to participate in, or work on, events and activities with a global focus, as well as informal occasions to encounter cultural “others,” discuss global topics, and manage conflict resulting from cultural differences. When compared to the results from the 2011 ACE Mapping survey, the 2016 results show an increase in all types of international cocurricular activities, including international festivals or events, language partner programs, residence hall programs, and the designation of meeting places for students interested in international topics. In 2016, for example, 71 percent of institutions reported hosting international festivals or events, an increase of 19 percentage points over 2011.

Results from the NSSE Global Learning Module affirm that students are aware of the international offerings in the cocurriculum. More than half of all seniors reported a strong emphasis (“very much” or “quite a bit”) on activities and experiences focused on global and international topics. In addition, about 40 percent of seniors reported working on cocurricular events with an international or global focus through campus programming committees and student groups during the current school year. However, a substantial proportion of students have never attended events or activities that promote the understanding of different world cultures, nationalities, or religions. In fact, almost two in five first-year students and nearly half of all seniors have never attended such events. Of course, there are many activities competing for students’ attention during the academic year; yet, a minimal level of participation in international programming should not be unattainable. On a positive note, most students talk with others about international and global topics, with about 85 percent having discussed international topics with others at least “sometimes.”

Participation in transformative, “high-impact” practices such as study abroad, international service or internships, and field study or research abroad is highly desirable. Although study abroad is widely touted as a way to develop a global perspective and improve global learning outcomes,4 the 2016 NSSE results show that the percentage of first-year students who “plan to do” study abroad (40 percent) far exceeds the percentage of seniors who actually do it (14 percent). Although study abroad participation rates are influenced by many factors, including cost and curricular structure, we wondered about the relationship between perception of institutional emphasis on global and international topics and study abroad. As figure 1 shows, greater perceived emphasis is correlated with higher proportions of student participation. In fact, at institutions with the highest levels of student perception of emphasis on global and international topics, nearly one-quarter of all seniors had participated in study abroad. These results point to the power of study abroad as a marker of a globally focused institution. Another factor influencing the likelihood of participation in study abroad and other international experiences concerns whether a student has an encouraging conversation about such an opportunity with a faculty member or advisor. Only about half of the students who responded to the NSSE Global Learning Module had had such a conversation. Taken together, these findings suggest potential influences on study abroad participation rates, and they clearly demonstrate a need for more discussions between students and faculty or advisors about participation in study abroad and other transformative global learning experiences.


The explication of global learning goals and outcomes varies among institutions, ranging from vague references to the importance of exposure to international issues to specific definitions of global citizenship or expected levels of achievement of intercultural competence.5 The top three goals for internationalization reported in the 2016 Mapping survey are (1) to improve student preparedness for a global era; (2) to diversify the students, faculty, and staff at the home campus; and (3) to become more attractive to prospective students at home and overseas. One item on the NSSE Global Learning Module is a reasonable match to the goal related to preparedness for a global era. About 44 percent of seniors perceived that their institutions contributed “substantially” (“very much” or “quite a bit”) to their knowledge, skills, and personal development in preparing for life and work in an increasingly global era. This result, along with other educational gains items, provides useful evidence of students’ educational experiences and offers a broader sense of their perceived global learning gains.

Seniors’ perceptions of the extent to which their undergraduate experiences have contributed to their knowledge, skills, and development can also provide insights about the clarity of institutional claims about global learning outcomes. The results from the NSSE Global Learning Module indicate that, among six identified gains for global learning, seniors perceive the most gains in “encouraging a sense of global responsibility,” followed by “being informed about current international and global issues” (see table 1). The smallest gains were associated with “speaking a second language” and “seeking international or global opportunities outside of one’s comfort zone.” These results indicate a rather basic level of achievement of global learning outcomes.


To identify the kinds of experiences that are related to global learning gains, we analyzed their relationship with other items on the module. Results show that all global experience items are positively associated with global gains; however, only one set of items has a moderately positive linear relationship. The measure of global engagement—which includes five items related to discussing international topics, attending global events, and planning programs—has the strongest positive relationship with the composite measure of global gains. This finding suggests the value of global experiences in bolstering students’ perception of educational gains.

Higher levels of global learning gains are positively related to the depth of global learning coursework (with depth measured as zero courses = none, one course = narrow, two courses = medium, and three courses = broad). In other words, the more global courses students complete, the more likely they are to report that their experiences at the institution have contributed to all the global gains items listed in table 1. We were interested in examining the combined effect of the depth of global learning coursework and participation in study abroad. Figure 2 compares the global learning gains of students who participated in study abroad and those who did not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overall gains scores are highest for those students who took several globally focused courses and participated in study abroad. Yet the results also show significant gains for students who did not participate in study abroad but who had more depth of global course work (three courses). The global gains scores for these students were nearly identical to those of students who had participated in study abroad and had at least two global courses.

Click here to enlarge Figure 2 below.


Implications of global learning assessment results

The acceleration toward internationalization in colleges and universities shows no evidence of slowing. In fact, the 2016 results from the ACE Mapping survey demonstrate that efforts have expanded in terms of specifying global learning outcomes, investing in curricular and cocurricular initiatives, and requiring courses with global components. Correspondingly, students are recognizing institutional emphases on global and international topics.

Although students are broadly aware of the international emphasis at the institutional level, first-year students may be getting mixed signals about the value of global learning courses. The results from the NSSE Global Learning Module reveal that first-year students have low expectations with respect to completing a global learning course, which suggests that institutions are not sufficiently explicit with new students regarding curricular options intended to foster global learning. Curricular emphasis may have been more apparent many years ago, when widespread foreign language requirements made it critical for new students to get right into their language coursework.

It is exciting to see greater institutional emphasis on global learning, particularly the increase in cocurricular initiatives that promote understanding other cultures and religions. The NSSE Global Learning Module results show that students are generally interacting more about global issues. However, there remains a gap between informal discussions and formal opportunities to talk with a faculty member or advisor and to work intentionally on out-of-class events and planning committees with a global or international focus. Academic and student affairs educators should increase their collaborative efforts to examine the quality and scope of global programming and devise approaches to deepen student involvement. If students have little prior exposure to global events or cultures, even a one-time festival may take them outside of their comfort zones. To reduce barriers to participation and attract the maximum number of students to international programs, it would be useful to require collaboration between student activities programs and academic departments on events and speakers; hold international events in locations and at times that ensure high visibility; and reorient existing, popular events to include a global dimension.

Study abroad is a high-profile global learning practice, yet only 15 percent of all US students studying for a bachelor’s degree participate.6 It is, therefore, vital that institutions create global opportunities in which all students can participate. Certainly, more students could be encouraged to consider participation in study abroad, and more faculty and advisors should be introducing this opportunity to students early in their educational journeys in order to facilitate participation. However, other options exist for creating global opportunities, such as adding explicit global dimensions to the curriculum and cocurriculum. Our finding about the power of multiple globally focused courses to positively influence global learning gains indicates an effective option for those students for whom an experience abroad is not feasible. This finding could help institutions make the case for crafting global exposure experiences that do not demand international travel, and it could help demonstrate that global learning is not something that only occurs abroad.

Alongside increased global activity in higher education is a growing interest in student attainment of global learning outcomes. Kevin Hovland provides examples of such student learning outcomes, which include a deep comparative knowledge of the world’s peoples and problems, understanding of historical legacies that have created dynamics and tensions in the world, and intercultural competencies that enable one to move across boundaries and unfamiliar territory and see the world from multiple perspectives.7 The specification of outcomes, in turn, creates the need for enhanced institutional assessment practices and resources. Our analysis hints at a need to be more explicit about global learning outcomes as a way to organize globally focused curricular and cocurricular activities and to communicate the value of global experiences to students.

Two recently developed frameworks provide a useful guide for defining and assessing global learning outcomes. The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP)—a framework that specifies what students should be expected to know and be able to do at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels—includes “civic and global learning” as one of five broad categories of learning. The DQP envisions global and domestic settings for civic engagement and outlines proficiencies needed for global inquiry and interaction.8 In terms of assessing global learning outcomes, a set of sixteen rubrics developed through the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) initiative of the Association for American Colleges and Universities includes a rubric specifically designed to assess global learning outcomes. The Global Learning VALUE Rubric specifies that the outcomes are fostered through meaningful opportunities to analyze and explore complex global challenges; collaborate respectfully with diverse others; apply learning to take responsible action in contemporary global contexts; and evaluate the goals, methods, and consequences of that action.9 These two learning outcomes frameworks help articulate a vision of the global learner and emphasize the importance of assessing the extent to which students are experiencing, and colleges and universities are enacting, global learning.

Concluding thoughts

Colleges and universities must ensure that graduates are equipped to succeed in the global workforce. Our findings suggest that colleges and universities still have some way to go in terms of internationalizing the curriculum and ensuring students become global learners. Although no regional accreditor has yet emphasized expectations for global learning outcomes, institutions implementing globally focused curricular and cocurricular experiences need indicators of the extent to which their efforts are taking hold. Assessments conducted at the course and institutional levels, along with measures of intercultural competence, are important. Moreover, assessments of student exposure to global experiences are valuable for guiding institutional efforts to make global experiences more widespread and for ensuring that these experiences result in student learning gains.

Institutional strategy regarding internationalization and global learning can also be furthered by a comparison of institutional goals to broader trends related to internationalization in higher education. Most importantly, institutions must act on assessment data to address the gaps in students’ participation in desirable global learning experiences—including study abroad, global learning courses, and cocurricular experiences—and demonstrate that global learning is assured.


1. Carol Geary Schneider, “Flying Blind into America’s Global Headwinds?,” Liberal Education 101, no. 3 (2015): 2–3.

2. See Kristin Wobbe and Richard Vaz, “Engaging Students with Global Challenges across the Curriculum,” Diversity and Democracy 18, no. 3 (2015): 15–17.

3. See American Council on Education, Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses: 2012 Edition (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2012).

4. See, for example, Institute of International Education, Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (New York: Institute of International Education, 2016).

5. See Dawn M. Whitehead, “Global Learning: Key to Making Excellence Inclusive,” Liberal Education 101, no. 3 (2015): 6–13.

6. Institute of International Education, Open Doors.

7. Kevin Hovland, Global Learning: Defining, Designing, Demonstrating (Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators and American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2014).

8. The full text of the DQP and related resources are available online at

9. The Global Learning VALUE Rubric is available online at

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the authors’ names on the subject line.

Jillian Kinzie is associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute at Indiana University Bloomington. Robin Matross Helms is director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement. James Cole is research analyst at the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington. This article is adapted from a presentation given by the authors at the 2017 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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