by Michael Carignan

There is a rare convergence between institutions of higher ed and employers of new graduates who are aligned in their perceptions that, among other things, a college education ought to contribute to students’ intercultural abilities (e.g., British Council 2013, Jones 2013). Even more rare, perhaps, is that there is also a maturing field of research meeting these perceptions and creating an exciting moment for real integration among admin, faculty, and our students’ future employers on the need for developing intercultural competence.

Within this context, intercultural competence (IC)—as a set of concepts related to abilities to interact effectively with different cultures—has emerged as a useful, if sometimes problematic, paradigm that captures many goals pertaining to global learning and internationalization. What follows is a survey of some recent contributions to the vast literature on IC, with a practical eye toward those that focus on IC as a desired outcome in higher education and especially of global education and study abroad. I call that “practical” because one of the goals of this review is to establish a scholarly context for a forthcoming study I am developing to better understand how IC develops in undergraduate participants in study abroad.

In my own distillation, within the broader missions, goals, and learning outcomes of students’ experiences in global learning, IC refers to one’s relative ability to understand how one’s own culture shapes one’s own perceptions and that this developing ability can lead to successful interaction and exchanges in other cultures where one may be learning how that culture may operate and perceive. This version derives heavily from Deardorff (2006), which, in turn, draws from Milton Bennett and Mitchell Hammer (see Bennett 2012 and Hammer 2012 for recent articulations of their paradigmatic conceptions].

IC development, as a broad goal for study abroad, has a decades-old history but has perhaps seen a new phase of that story emerge in the last decade since the work of Deardorff (2006) and others to bring some coherence to the term in a way that pays attention to the various stake-holders—students, teachers, program directors, administrators—in the goal (see Deardorf and Arasarathnam-Smith, 7-8, for a brief history of the definition).  Within this clarifying picture of IC development, the field has self-consciously moved past the old idea that mere immersion in a new culture created intercultural growth (e.g., Vande Berg et al., 2012). Among the important studies that helped us turn this corner were Engle and Engle’s (2003) study of American University participants in a French program in Provence, which found that the two most important factors were time engaged in intercultural experience AND skillful guides in the learning process. Vande Berg and Paige (2012) provide a handy review of several large-scale studies operating in the newer paradigm. Current scholarship takes into account that there are many factors that affect whether and how growth occurs, ranging from the nature of the program, features of the new culture encountered, length of stay, quality and type of intercultural interactions, the quality and type of preparation, the shifting attitudes and perspectives of the subjects, and the nature and quality of interventions by skilled guides (teachers, program leaders).

One feature of the maturing understanding that stretches many educators beyond our traditional training is that IC needs to be seen as an interplay of cognitive activity, personal reflection, and behavior (Deardorff and Arasarathnam-Smith, 9, and Spitzberg and Chagnon, 7). As educators, we want to contribute to growth in at least one, but maybe all, of these areas, which means we want to introduce or enhance concepts pertaining to perspective and positionality, to shift attitudes and personalities toward greater flexibility and openness toward other cultures, and to develop behavioral skills that enable people to operate effectively in different environments.  These goals are obviously informed by psychology, anthropology, and other academic disciplines. But it is interesting to note that within study abroad, intercultural learning has, as Victor Savicki points out, “eclipsed” the traditional importance placed on academic, discipline-based learning in the literature on global education and internationalization (Savicki, 2015).  In an environment where study-abroad administrators, not to mention mission-statement writers of colleges and universities, have a stake in broad, super-disciplinary outcomes pertaining to things like global citizenship and cultural flexibility, we want to both contribute to that growth (so we must learn how to teach it and provide the fertile environments for it) and demonstrate that the experiences we offer to students facilitate that growth (so we must assess it).

Another characteristic of the recent scholarship on IC is the prominence of assessment, which might be seen as a new driver for IC pedagogy. Deardorff, once again, is on the frontlines of thinking about how we can tell students are growing interculturally, and it is in the works she has written and edited that we can see real maturation of IC development theory and practice.  For example, as the academic assessment communities come to see the benefits of multiple measures and evidence types in assessing desired outcomes, Deardorff recognizes that this is especially important for IC outcomes that are holistic and complex (Deardorff 2017), which is in keeping with the new understanding of IC as the interplay of cognition, affect, and behavior.

An additional sign of maturity in the field comes from emergent critical perspectives on IC as an operational concept. As some scholars are aware, the term “competence” has connotations that do not align with the growing understanding of IC as a holistic, life-long process. Competence usually implies some base-line skill-level that is, through experience and time, achieved and checked-off some list. Another difficult feature comes from the assessment perspective: how do you assess a life-long process?  Paige et al. tried to address the life-long dimension of the impact of study-abroad in their longitudinal study, but we can now see the limitations in self-reporting surveys that study relies on. Additionally, the existing assessment tools that need to acknowledge levels of intercultural awareness/learning/competence, seem to imply that there is a linear development from incompetence to competence, when most of us recognize that people will behave at various levels in various circumstances.

One fascinating critique is that IC can seem like a western-centered mission to enable mastery of non-western cultures and may be itself a western-centric concept. Steyn and Reygan (2017) illuminate this problem in the context of South African higher ed. They point out what it sounds like to a new generation of black students—with only recent and limited access to higher ed—to adapt behavior to suit another culture. These students may understand that they must bury their own traditions and cultures in order to operate in the other, traditionally white culture of university life.  Helpfully, I think, Steyn and Reygan do not recommend abandoning IC, but use its interest in welcoming multiple voices in a richer understanding of the interplay of cultures.

In my next blog-post, I will explore some of the recent IC scholarship on factor-analysis in study abroad and especially intervention strategies (such as guided reflections and focus-groups), which call upon guides and teachers of study abroad to actively engage IC development.


Bennett, Milton J. 2012. Paradigmatic Assumptions and a Developmental Approach to Intercultural Competence, in Vande Berg et al., Student Learning Abroad, Sterling VA, Stylus, 90-114.

British Council. 2013. “Culture at Work: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace.”, accessed 7/8/19.

Deardorff, Darla K. 2006. “Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization.” Journal of Studies in International Education, 10, 241-66.

Deardorff Darla K. 2015. Demystifying Outcomes Assessment for International Educators: A Practical Approach. Sterling, VA, Stylus.

Deardorff, Darla K. and Lily A. Arasarathnam-Smith, Eds. 2017. Intercultural Competence in Higher Education: An International Approaches, Assessment, and Application. New York, Routledge.

Deardorff Darla K. 2017. “The Big Picture of Intercultural Competence Assessment.” In Deardorff and Arasarathnam-Smith, Intercultural Competence in Higher Education, 124-133.

Engle, L. and J. Engle. 2003. “Study Abroad Levels: Toward a Classification of Progress Types.” The International Journal of Study Abroad 9, 1-20.

Hammer Mitchell R. 2012. “The Intercultural Development Inventory: A New Frontier of Assessment and Development of Intercultural Competence.” In Vande Berg et al., Student Learning Abroad, Sterling, VA, Stylus, 114-136.

Jones, Elspeth 2013. “Internationalization and Employability: the Role of Intercultural Experiences in the Development of Transferable Skills.” Public Money and Management, 33:2., accessed 7/8/19.

Paige, R. Michael and Michael Vande Berg. 2012. “Why Students Are and Are Not Learning Abroad: A Review of Recent Scholarship.” In Vande Berg et al. (eds.), Student Learning Abroad.

Savicki, Victor ed. 2008. Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research, and Application in International Education. Sterling, VA, Stylus.

Savicki, Victor and Elizabeth Brewer Eds. 2015. Assessing Study Abroad: Theory, Tools, and Practice. Sterling, VA, Stylus.

Spitzberg, Brian H. and Gabrielle Chagnon. 2009. “Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence.” In Deardorff, ed., The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Comptence, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage, 2-52.

Steyn, Melissa and Finn Reygan. 2017. “New Competencies for Intercultural Communication: Power, Privilege, and the Decolinisation of Higher Education in South Africa.” In Deardorff and Arasarathnam (eds.), Intercultural Competence in Higher Education.

Vande Berg, Michael, R. Michael Paige and Kris Hemming Lou, Eds. 2012. Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learing, What They Are Not, and What We Can Do About It. Sterling, VA, Stylus.

Michael Carignan, associate professor of history, is the 2019-2020 Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) Senior Scholar. His CEL Senior Scholar project focuses on intercultural competence (IC), with an emphasis on examining guided reflections and focus groups as intervention strategies for supporting development of students’ IC.

How to cite this post:

Carignan, Michael. 2019, July 31. Maturation of Intercultural Competence in Pedagogy and Assessment. [Blog post].