Diversity and Democracy

Building Knowledge, Growing Capacity: Global Learning Courses Show Promise

AAC&U's Shared Futures: General Education for Global Learning project challenges colleges and universities to more robustly infuse into curricular designs and practices real-world global questions--with all their complexity, multiple levels of interconnection and interdependence, and inherent moral and ethical implications. Participating campus teams are designing general education courses and curricula that provide clear pathways along which students develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to effectively and creatively address real-world challenges and opportunities. Campuses sometimes refer to these bundles of learning outcomes as educating for "global citizenship."

Dickinson College
Dickinson College

To effectively educate for global citizenship, one needs to emphasize the ways that identity is shaped by varied relations to power and privilege, both within a multicultural U.S. democracy and within an interconnected and unequal world. In other words, global learning can engage all students--in all their multiple diversities--with the critical questions: What does it mean to be a responsible citizen in today's global context? And how should one act in the face of large unsolved global problems? As students engage with these and other questions, measures of student identity and development are useful tools for making curricular decisions to maximize learning outcomes.

To measure how global learning opportunities might change the ways students think about civic and social responsibility in a global context, we worked with Shared Futures campus team leaders to adapt a survey used in an earlier AAC&U project, Liberal Education and Global Citizenship: The Arts of Democracy. The Global Learning Survey includes pre- and post-course surveys to gather five types of data: demographic information, information about precollege experiences, social cognitive measures, citizenship/democracy measures, and global/science connections measures. The surveys assess whether students enrolled in seventy project courses at fourteen institutions changed over the course of a semester.

Student Learning Outcomes

Students enrolled in project courses showed a number of promising changes across a range of indicators. These included:

  • Attributional complexity: a psychological construct that describes the degree to which an individual is interested in understanding the causes of others' behavior and the ability to consider different possible causes (Fletcher et al. 1986). Students at ten of the fourteen institutions had positive increases in this measure; changes at six institutions were statistically significant.
  • Multicultural competency awareness: the amount of knowledge that one reports possessing about one's own culture and the cultures of others, as well as general racial awareness. Students across all institutions exhibited statistically significant increases in multicultural competency awareness.
  • Pluralistic orientation: the extent to which students approach the world willing to engage and learn about diversity (Engberg, Meader, and Hurtado 2003). Students across institutions showed mixed results on the pluralistic orientation measure, although all students taken together showed increases in pluralistic orientation.
  • Social self-confidence: the extent to which students believe that they possess leadership skills and the ability to negotiate effectively and work cooperatively with others. Students across all institutions showed a statistically significant increase in social self-confidence.
  • Social awareness: the extent to which students believe it is important to be socially and culturally aware. Students across all institutions showed a statistically significant positive increase in social awareness.
  • Valuing social action: the extent to which individuals appreciate the need to engage in public action. Students across all institutions exhibited statistically significant increases in valuing social action.
  • Low self-efficacy for social change: the view that an individual is able to do little to make a difference in society. Seven campuses showed decreases on this measure, suggesting that students believe that they can make a difference in society, although these decreases were not all significant. Four institutions, however, showed positive statistically significant changes, suggesting that after the course, students believed there was less they could do to change society.
  • Civic engagement: students' self-reported civic behaviors since the course began. This change was positively statistically significant across all students and at six institutions.
  • Speaking up and acting out: students' political and social behaviors since the course began. The measure of change was statistically significant across all institutions with mixed results. Some institutions showed slight positive increases; others showed slight decreases.

Student Perceptions of the Course

In addition to measuring change since the course began, the post-course survey also measured students' perceptions of the course's impact on eleven further outcomes. Our analysis combined these outcomes into three distinct constructs.

Openness to Engagement included items such as willingness to talk with diverse others, openness to different views, and ability to see different perspectives. Students were very likely to report that these behaviors had changed since the course began. The mean student response to this measure was 3.05 on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).

Interest in Current/Global Issues included such items as "pay more attention to global issues" and "show greater interest in global affairs as a result of learning in the course." Students were likely to report that they agreed with these items. The mean student response to this measure was 3.02 on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).

Making Science Connections included measures such as "intend to learn more about science and/or math so that I can work more effectively for social change" and "have a greater understanding of how science can have global implications." Students were not likely to report that these behaviors changed as a result of the course. The mean student response to this measure was 2.46 on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). (Not all courses had science components.)


What does it mean to be a 
responsible global citizen?

Students can wrestle with this question in a wide variety of courses and contexts. The seventy courses surveyed included:

  • Human Nature and the Christian Tradition (Otterbein College)
  • Cultural Diversity in U.S. Fiction
    (Wheaton College)
  • AIDS and Other Human Diseases
    (Whittier College)
  • The Uses and Abuses of Haiti 
    (Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Study Abroad and Global Philadelphia 
    (Arcadia University)
  • Fundamental Organic Chemistry 
    (Chandler-Gilbert Community College)

Previous research suggests that student experience with diverse others sets the stage for a host of social, cognitive, and democratic outcomes (Engberg, Meader, and Hurtado 2003). The work described here suggests that a similar process can occur in courses designed to engage students with complex questions of global identity and responsibility. Students participating in the redesigned courses reported statistically significant gains in active learning, multicultural competence, social self-confidence, civic engagement, and active political awareness—all within the context of one semester. These findings are encouraging evidence that courses featuring questions of global interdependence and engagement have some effect on students' attitudes and dispositions. The study also suggests that connections exist between students' social self-confidence, their desire to be politically and civically active, their view of their own multicultural awareness, and whether they view themselves as critical thinkers.

While evidence derived from these student surveys is encouraging, it remains only suggestive of a deeper picture of student learning in need of illumination. Shared Futures institutions are also building assessments into their general education designs and embedding them within course assignments. In this way, they are creating milestone assessments across the curriculum so that students can learn "to gauge their progress against high expectations for their most advanced work" and best examples of global learning (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2004, 11). Examples of assignments and student work will be made available in early 2009 on the Shared Futures AAC&U Web site.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2004. Our students' best work. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Engberg, M., E. Meader, and S. Hurtado. 2003. Developing a pluralistic orientation: A comparison of ethnic minority and white college students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Fletcher, G. J. O., P. Danilovics, G. Fernandez, D. Peterson, and G. D. Reeder. 1986. Attributional complexity: An individual differences measure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51: 875-884.

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