Diversity and Democracy

Educational Practices That Foster Intercultural Competence

Across virtually every facet of life, college students enter postsecondary education already immersed in an increasingly interconnected global village. Upon college graduation, this generation must be prepared to successfully interact across all kinds of differences, whether in the professional realm of the workplace, the social realm of interpersonal relationships, or the civic realm of democratic engagement and global citizenship. In other words, today's students must be interculturally competent: aware of similarities and differences between groups, and able to adapt their behavior and thinking to interact positively with those from other cultures, domestic or international. For this reason, many colleges and universities have identified intercultural competence as a desired learning outcome.

University of Iowa (Photo by Doug Allaire)
University of Iowa (Photo by Doug Allaire)

Yet surprisingly little is known about which postsecondary educational practices best foster intercultural competence. Many of Chickering and Gamson's educational good practices such as active learning and respect for diverse ways of learning have proven influential in college students' development (1999). Likewise, high-impact activities such as integrative research experiences, living/learning communities, and service-learning projects have been identified as fertile environments for student learning (Kuh 2008). Still, educators and researchers have yet to clearly connect the dots between high-impact activities, educational good practices, and outcomes such as intercultural competence.


Suggestions for Implementing Educational Good Practices

WNSLAE data suggest several ways that faculty can incorporate good practices both inside and outside of high-impact activities to maximize students' development of intercultural competence and improve learning more generally.

Diverse Experiences

  • Engage students in serious discussions with students or staff whose political, social, religious, racial, or ethnic identities or opinions differ from their own.
  • Provide opportunities and incentives (such as course credit) for students to attend lectures on current political and social issues or participate in cultural workshops.

Integrative Learning Experiences

  • Encourage students to identify historical, political, and social connections; identify connections between their intended careers and societal concerns; connect classroom learning with life events; and translate classroom knowledge and understanding into action. 
  • Require students to integrate ideas or information from various sources, construct concepts from ideas learned in different courses, synthesize and organize ideas, and connect class readings with out-of-class experiences.

Clear and Organized Instruction

  • Give clear explanations: provide illustrations and examples to explain difficult concepts, and interpret abstract ideas and theories concretely. 
  • Explain course goals and requirements clearly, and use class time effectively.

--Mark Salisbury and Kathleen Goodman

Examining the Data

To begin connecting these dots, we turned to the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNSLAE). This study of more than 7,500 students at twenty-seven U.S. colleges and universities measures college outcomes typically associated with liberal education, including intercultural competence. The study measures intercultural competence using a fifteen-item survey that establishes one's comfort with and understanding of similarities and differences between oneself and others (Miville et al. 1999). WNSLAE data also includes a wide range of external influences (such as race, gender, and academic ability) and educational practices (types of classes taken, participation in learning communities or first-year seminars, student-faculty contact, and so on) that are commonly associated with college outcomes.

We analyzed WNSLAE data in an attempt to home in on practices that foster intercultural competence while controlling for student background characteristics. We focused our research both on selected high-impact activities--individual research opportunities, first-year seminars, learning communities, and volunteer activities--and on the range of good educational practices suggested by Chickering and Gamson.

Our findings support Kuh's caution regarding high-impact activities: "While high impact practices are appealing, to engage students at high levels, these practices must be done well" (NSSE 2007, 9). Within our sample, when taking into account the external influences of gender, race, academic ability, parents' educational attainment, and precollege intercultural competence scores, participation in the selected high-impact activities did not significantly influence students' intercultural competence. However, when we added to our analysis the degree to which students report experiencing a range of educational good practices, we found three practices that had a significant positive impact on intercultural competence. These were diverse experiences, integrative learning experiences, and clarity and organization of instruction.

Effective Educational Practices

Both within and outside of high-impact activities, the educational good practices found to most significantly improve intercultural competence were:

Diverse Experiences. Not surprisingly, students who engaged in substantive interactions with individuals different from themselves improved their intercultural competence. Given that for most institutions a truly diverse student body is still more an aspiration than a reality, providing students with diverse experiences often requires intentionality. Simply organizing a living/learning community--a process that can produce a fairly homogenous group--may not increase opportunities for interaction with diversity. However, creating experiences within the living/learning community that require sustained interaction across multiple differences combines a high-impact activity with an educational good practice to foster increased intercultural competence.

Integrative Learning Experiences. Interculturally competent students must be able to integrate knowledge and skills acquired in disparate contexts, translating what they learn in school into skills they can use. High-impact activities that combine curricular and cocurricular elements require students to integrate knowledge and experience acquired in different environments. Within these activities, certain exercises--reflective writing, small-group discussion, and experiential learning that applies concepts to real-world experiences--help students connect the educational dots, deepen their learning, and improve their confidence in their ability to interact across difference.

Clear and Organized Instruction. When institutions educate toward liberal learning outcomes like intercultural competence that cut across majors and programs, they need to give students a clear understanding of the nuanced skills they will learn and how these skills will improve their lives. Clear and organized instruction sets the stage for successful learning. It articulates for students the content and scope of intended learning outcomes, the implications of acquiring skills, and the ways to recognize one's growth toward intercultural competence.

More Than Programs

Our analysis illustrates the complex challenges of crafting an educational process that demonstrably improves intercultural skills. Starting and maintaining successful service-learning initiatives, living/learning communities, first-year transition courses, and undergraduate research programs requires substantial investments of time, money, and personnel. It can be tempting to prematurely celebrate the structural addition of high-impact activities and neglect the continuous task of attending to the day-to-day educational experiences and pedagogical methods within those structures. But as the AAC&U monograph Purposeful Pathways articulates, adding programs is only a first step--albeit an important one--toward intentional and assessable education (Leskes and Miller 2006).

The good news is that committed educators can implement educational practices that foster intercultural competence in any class or program without additional resources. There is no "one size fits all" solution to achieving desired college outcomes. Identifying educational practices that improve intercultural competence requires continuous outcomes-based assessments that focus on the daily process of educating.


Chickering, A. W., and Z. F. Gamson. 1999. Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 1999 (80): 75-81.

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Leskes, A., and R. Miller. 2006. Purposeful pathways: Helping students achieve key learning outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Miville, M. L., P. Holloway, C. J. Gelso, R. Pannu, W. Liu, P. Touradji, and J. Fuertes. 1999. Appreciating similarities and valuing differences: The Miville-Guzman universality-diversity scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology 46: 291-307.

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2007. Annual Report.nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2007_Annual_Report/.

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