by Amanda Sturgill

We have wrapped up the second summer meeting of the Center’s research seminar on Integrating Global Learning with the University Experience: Higher-Impact Study Abroad and Off-Campus Domestic Study. Five teams are making progress towards answering questions about the relationship of institution-level, faculty-level and student-level issues in global learning. So far, one of the trickiest issues has been defining exactly what global learning is.

In terms of an omnibus definition, several teams are using the definition provided by the American Association of Colleges & Universities: “Global learning is 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.” This definition has the advantage of being created with a collaborative process and, as a result, having wide agreement. The general nature of the definition becomes more challenging when trying to operationalize it for research – how do you know it when you see it? The AAC&U provides some guidance in this area, as well, with a rubric suggesting that you can score global learning, perspective taking, personal and social responsibility, understanding global systems and applying knowledge in contemporary global contexts. When it comes to the specific context of study abroad and domestic off-campus study, different courses and programs may not hit all of these goals.

In the off campus study context, intercultural competence is a common goal. There are multiple definitions of this construct. AAC&U uses a definition from Bennett (2008) that it is “a set of cognitive, affective and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts.” The association’s rubric assesses dimensions of cultural self-awareness, knowledge of cultural worldview frameworks, empathy, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, curiosity and openness. There are several popular standardized instruments for pre-post administration to assess student change. The University of Michigan provides an annotated list of popular measures.

As seminar groups are designing and carrying out studies with global learning as an outcome, one sticking point has been the difference between accepted definitions of global learning and working definitions held by both students who have global experiences and the faculty who teach them. If you ask faculty to answer opinion questions about their students’ learning, it is important to understand how those faculty are defining that learning. If you ask students what they have learned, do you discount responses that don’t fit with an existing definition? Work in the seminar is investigating the definitions of global learning held by students, faculty and institutions as a whole.

Bennett, J. M. 2008. Transformative training: Designing programs for culture learning. In Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Understanding and utilizing cultural diversity to build successful organizations, ed. M. A. Moodian, 95-110. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Amanda Sturgill (@DrSturg) is Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University.  She has professional experience in newspaper journalism and marketing communications, and her research focuses on the intersection of education and community-based work, the relationship of region and media, and on new technologies and the news. Amanda routinely teaches study abroad courses and has published on methods of reflection in service-learning abroad.

How to cite this post:

Sturgill, Amanda. 2016, August 2. Understanding global learning: Definitions matter. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from