5 Facilitating student intercultural development

A key component of interculturalizing the curriculum is guiding students through the process of their own intercultural development.

King and Baxter Magolda (2005) assert that supporting student intercultural development strategies requires a holistic approach that considers students’ development. This is particularly significant for young adult students, whose growth in cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal domains may impact their level of ability in some key intercultural tasks. For example, students whose cognitive development is rooted in dualistic thinking, as is common for younger students at the beginning of their postsecondary studies, may struggle more than more mature adults to display traits such as ambiguity tolerance and exploring multiple perspectives. This is one reason why considering an integrated and progressive approach to student interculturality development across a full program of study may be useful.

What do We Want Students to Achieve?

Building curricular structures that support the development and assessment of interculturality requires a return to the question of “what is interculturality”?  Intercultural development is not simply the acquisition of information about other contexts or groups, but rather the development of a set of attitudinal dispositions, ways of thinking about similarity and difference, and ways of relating. Breidenbach & Nyíri (2009) highlight that interculturality includes both sensitivity to local contexts, beliefs, and ways of being, and a critical awareness that can question claims made about other cultures and that can analyze the power dynamics at play in intercultural situations.  While the traditional curricular categories of knowledge, skills, and attitudes can support the creation of outcomes for intercultural development, relational and social outcomes acknowledge that interculturality can only be expressed in the presence of others, and requires an ability to identify and challenge the ways cultural difference is used to justify unjust and inequitable practices.

This chapter defines five intercultural development domains:

  1. Affective (attitudes and emotions that support interculturality)
  2. Cognitive (ways of thinking interculturally)
  3. Intrapersonal (internal reflective intercultural development)
  4. Relational (intercultural development expressed in relationship to others), and
  5. Social (intercultural understanding that supports equity and justice).

Creating Space for Intercultural Development

In-Class Intercultural Development

The existence of a multicultural classroom space does not guarantee that students will develop interculturally during the course. Without structured and supported learning opportunities, many students will move through the course interacting only with those who are most like themselves (Arkoudis et al., 2013). A first step to fostering intercultural development in class is creating structures that support frequent, purposeful, and increasingly rich interactions between students. These can begin with lower stakes activities that allow students to get to know one another, before moving towards more complex assignments that require more focused effort and skill in intercultural communication.  Classroom practices can include:

  • Including icebreaker activities in the first class. For example, students can converse with a classmate for five minutes, seeking to discover three interesting facts to share with the whole class.
  • Incorporating at least one short peer learning activity in each class.  For example, at the start of class, students may be asked to work together to solve a problem type introduced in the previous week, or to create quiz questions based on the pre-class reading.
  • Regularly asking students to sit with or work with a student they have not yet worked with in class.
  • Intentionally forming diverse peer learning groups for in-class active learning activities (Arkoudis et al., 2010)

Arkoudis et al. (2010) identify four primary in-class environments for intercultural learning:

  • Project-based learning that embeds interaction within the curriculum.
  • Project-based learning where intercultural content is in focus (e.g., developing a marketing strategy in a country other than the students’ own, and interviewing students from that country as a part of the project requirements).
  • Laboratory work where students are specifically assigned to intercultural teams.
  • Teamwork in diverse teams, which may combine in-class team learning with larger projects.

The Interaction for Learning Framework (Arkoudis et al., 2010, 2013) outlines a model for supporting intercultural learning through peer interactions in classroom contexts.  The framework suggests that intercultural peer learning is best supported with intentional, structured steps.

  1. Planning for interaction:  Which of the course learning outcomes can be achieved through learning alongside peers?
  2. Creating environments for interaction: How can the class environment support students’ interaction with each other? How can the classroom community form in a way that promotes safety and fosters students’ willingness to move out of their usual “comfort zone” in building relationships?
  3. Supporting interaction: What do students need to know about interculturality to successfully engage with one another?  How can knowledge, skills and attitudes about intercultural communication be explicitly built within the course?
  4. Engaging with subject knowledge: How can students’ lived experience from their own contexts be included in the process of engaging with the course content?
  5. Developing reflexive processes: What opportunities do students have to reflect on their intercultural experiences within the course? How are students encouraged to build reflection into their ongoing growth and development?
  6. Fostering communities of learners: How do students move beyond the initial scaffolds and structures provided in the course to continue their intercultural engagement?

Reid and Garson (2017) suggest that group assignments that already exist within a course can be reframed as sources of deep intercultural learning. This process involves strategically organizing students into teams that reflect both individual strengths and cultural diversity. The team process is supported with added class content that discusses characteristics of successful diverse teams, and that raises awareness of differences in values, communication styles, and work styles that can influence teamwork. Additionally, intercultural team projects can be augmented with reflection activities that allow students to consider how their intercultural skills developed through the experience of working in a diverse team.  Peer evaluations provide an additional source of information about students’ contributions to the team that the students themselves could use to reflect on their present strengths and weaknesses.

Experiential Learning

Intercultural learning can be incorporated into many forms of experiential learning. While study abroad and exchange programs remain a valuable part of an internationalized learning experience for many students, many more students will have opportunities to engage in intercultural learning within the context of other experiential or work-integrated learning opportunities.  These include field schools, co-op placements, and service learning. While such opportunities offer students a rich opportunity to engage with a context different from their own and to practice relating interculturally, experiential learning best supports student intercultural development when it is contextualized, supportive, and offers opportunities for reflection. Without grounding in an approach that encourages students to critically examine how intercultural relationships are shaped by factors like bias, racism, or broader power structures, students can maintain an uncritical understanding of interculturality that can maintain an “us-them” way of thinking. For this reason, experiential intercultural learning is best supported with structured course content and learning opportunities that help students to engage critically with interculturality (Bernardes et al., 2019).  Reflective practice is also important for ensuring that students’ intercultural experiences result in ongoing growth and development.

Reflecting on the Intercultural

Breidenbach & Nyíri (2009) formulate a series of key questions for considering the intercultural. These questions are useful for helping students develop a critical and reflexive stance as they process intercultural course content and experiences.  Their questions include:

  • What explicit and implicit statements about identity markers are involved, about which groups? What are the fault lines along which groups are defined and differentiated?
  • Are you overlooking important differences within (or across) these groups?
  • How free are members of the group to change or decline norms?
  • Do they open up or shut down options of dissent (or exit) within the group?
  • Who is making the statements? Why might they be making them?
  • On whose behalf are they speaking, explicitly or implicitly? What lends them authority to do so? Why are they able to voice their opinions?
  • Whose voices are not heard?
  • Are the statements being made empowering or oppressing the groups or individuals involved (which ones)? (pp. 343-345)

 Assessing Student Interculturality

Over 100 frameworks for assessing intercultural development exist, yet the process of assessing developing in interculturality is much more complex that administering an assessment tool.  A critical question to consider is “intercultural competence, according to whom, and based on what cultural context?” (Deardorff, 2016, “Defining Intercultural Competence”). While some common threads include a focus on intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes, reflected in internal development and effective situational behaviour, chosen markers of interculturality within a particular framework also reflect underlying values. For example, less critical approaches to interculturality may place greater emphasis on effectiveness, while critical frameworks may offer more focus on considering positionality, power relationships, and equity as aspects of interculturality.  Some critical questions when considering student assessment is “what are the key ways of knowing, being, and relating that demonstrate interculturality?” and “what norms, perspectives, and values have shaped this definition of interculturality?”.  When measuring student interculturality, it is important for programs, departments, and institutions to consider their own definitions and frameworks (Deardorff, 2006).

Deardorff (2005) offers a set of questions to consider when developing assessments of student interculturality:

    1. From whose perspective is intercultural competence being assessed? What are the biases of the assessor?
    2. Who is the locus of the evaluation?
    3. What is the context of the intercultural competence assessment?
    4. What is the purpose of the intercultural competence assessment?
    5. How will the assessment results be used? Who will benefit from the assessment?
    6. What is the time frame of the assessment (one time, ongoing, etc.)? In other words, is the assessment formative and not summative?
    7. What is the level of abstraction, or in other words, will the assessment be more general or will it assess more specific components of intercultural competence?
    8. Do the assessment methods match the working definition and stated objectives of intercultural competence?
    9. Have specific indicators been developed for the intercultural assessment?
    10. Is more than one method being used to assess intercultural competence? Do the methods involve more than one evaluator’s perspective?
    11. Are the degrees of intercultural competence being assessed? What is being done with those not meeting the minimal level of intercultural competence?
    12. Does the assessment account for multiple competencies and multiple cultural identities?
    13. Has the impact of situational, social, and historical contexts been analyzed in the assessment of intercultural competence?
    14. How do the assessment methods impact the measurement outcomes? Have the limits of the measurements/outcomes been accounted for?
    15. Have student/participant goals been accounted for when assessing intercultural competence? (p. 31)

Once the underlying framework for interculturality is clear, the next stage is to consider the assessment methods that would assist in measuring student development in interculturality. It is important to note that because of the complexity of intercultural development, a single assessment method is insufficient to gain a robust picture of students’ progress in this area. Possible assessment methods include: learning plans, portfolios, critical reflection, inventories, and direct observation (Deardorff, 2016).

ePortfolios:  Portfolios are a powerful tool for assessing intercultural development, as they offer the flexibility to combine a number of reflective practices into a single flexible space where students can showcase evidence of their growth and development over time.  ePortfolios can be an ideal tool for assessing intercultural development, particularly when integrated across the lifespan of a student’s study within a program, allowing students to integrate curricular and co-curricular learning.  To support ePortfolio development, consider:

  • Outlining key expectations and providing some structure for the portfolio, while maintaining space for flexibility and creativity. Allowing students to analyze examples of successful portfolios can help students who are new to the process grasp the task and criteria for success.
  • Teaching students how to reflect by providing some structured reflection templates, particularly near the beginning of the process.
  • Conferencing with students about their portfolios throughout the process, providing formative feedback and suggestions for ongoing development (Fenwick & Parsons, 2009).

ePortfolios also provide space to integrate evidence of intercultural development with reflection. A strong portfolio framework is likely to integrate several of the assessment strategies described below.

Learning contracts/plans:  Deardorff (2016) suggests creating space for students to develop their own intercultural learning goals and activities. This can help to facilitate a process that is relevant to the learner’s needs, context, and current stage of development.  A learning plan includes a description of what is to be learned, a list of learning activities (e.g., reading, workshops, service, collaborative work), a timeline, and evidence that learning has occurred (an activity/learning log can be useful).  When a learning contract is used, learners should decide how their learning should be assessed, and regular check-ins established to ensure that learners are on-track with their learning activities (Fenwick & Parsons, 2009).

Direct observation: Direct observation provides students with feedback on their ways of relating and intercultural effectiveness as observed in an experiential learning context. This can include observation in work-integrated learning, service learning, classroom assignments (e.g., group projects), and simulations/case studies. Direct observations can help to overcome the persistent difficulty of measuring interculturality via self-report, with its focus on self-perception, rather than the impact of the encounter on all parties (Dervin & Hahl, 2015).  Direct observation can also have its challenges, including observer bias (Fenwick and Parsons, 2009). This observer bias can include implicit cultural bias, where students with one set of culturally-valued behaviours may be assessed as more effective than others. Fenwick and Parsons (2009) suggest that the criteria for direct observation should be made clear to students before the assessment, and that direct observation is best used for repeated formative assessment, rather than a high-stakes summative assessment.

Critical reflection:  One of the challenges of intercultural learning is that time in an intercultural setting, by itself, is insufficient for learning to occur (Bennett, 1986). Without careful thought to processing intercultural experiences with a specific focus on ongoing growth, intercultural development may remain stagnant. Therefore, structured critical reflection is a vital part of intercultural development, and a key component of assessment.

Many students initially struggle with reflective thinking and writing processes, tending to focus on reporting experiences, or conversely, only on their thoughts and feelings. Students can benefit from structured questions that prompt reflection on past practice, and identification of steps for future growth.

A reflection based on Gibbs’ (1988) reflective learning cycle might include the following questions:

  1. Think of an intercultural interaction that you participated in.  Describe what happened.
  2. What feelings and perceptions did you have during the experience? How would you explain these to someone else?
  3. What does this experience mean in the context of your intercultural development?
  4. What knowledge about cultures and interculturality can you apply to your understanding of this situation?
  5. What might the other participants in this interaction interpret what happened?
  6. How will this experience impact your present and future actions?

Inventories: Inventories (such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), or the Student Intercultural Development Self-Reflection Guide) below can provide an additional source of information on intercultural development. When considering an inventory, it is important to consider whether it has been validated interculturally (the IDI is an example of a validated inventory), and whether the inventory is susceptible to social desirability bias, where respondents are able to identify and therefore choose the answer that they perceive is wanted, regardless of actual feelings.  It is common for individuals to self-assess their intercultural abilities at a level higher than their actual performance (Hammer, 2020).

Inventories may be useful as a part of a pre/post-test learning design. The advantages of such a design is that it establishes a baseline, and that progress over time can be made visible. However, a pre/post design should not be viewed as an unquestionably objective measure, as other factors can affect both learning and test performance (Fenwick & Parsons, 2009).

When an inventory is more transparent, and perhaps subject to social desirability bias, it is best used as a tool for self-reflection, rather than as an objective measure of development or performance. As a self-reflection tool, an inventory can broaden students’ awareness of the varied aspects of interculturality, and provide a stimulus for self-identifying current strengths and desired areas for development. This type of process is well-paired with additional questions for journalling or critical reflection.

Student Intercultural Development Self-Reflection Guide


Intercultural development is a lifelong journey that shapes ways of thinking, emotional responses, ways of relating to others, and ways of advocating for change in the world.  Intercultural growth occurs through participating in intercultural life experiences, reflecting on how these experiences shape us, and identifying steps for ongoing development.

This self-assessment includes reflection questions in five intercultural domains. Honestly reflect on your current level of development. This process will help you to identify strengths that support you in effective cross-cultural relationships and to set intentions for ongoing development.

Affective (attitudes and emotions that support interculturality)

  • I am curious about other people, other contexts, and other ways of seeing the world.
  • I am open-minded when I explore new situations.
  • I can withhold judgement when I encounter a situation I do not fully understand.

Cognitive (ways of thinking interculturally)

  • I am a lifelong intercultural learner.
  • I can avoid stereotypes when describing the cultural identities and values of others.
  • I can identify multiple culturally-influenced points of view on an issue.
  • I can tolerate an ambiguous situation where the right action/ answer is not immediately clear.

Intrapersonal (internal intercultural development)

  • I can identify the factors that contribute to my identity(ies).
  • I can identify my strengths, abilities, and limitations.
  • I engage in regular self-reflection to support my ongoing journey of growth, change, and development.
  • I can recover from setbacks and mistakes in intercultural relationships, continuing to actively engage with others.

Relational (intercultural development expressed in relating)

  • I can develop relationships with others from a different cultural background than my own.
  • I can adjust my communication style when interacting across a linguistic difference.
  • I can adjust my way of relating to demonstrate sensitivity for someone else’s cultural preferences.
  • I can express empathy in an intercultural situation.
  • I can relate to others from a place of equality, working to eliminate any power imbalances in the relationship.

Social (intercultural understanding that supports equity and justice)

  • I am aware of how my identities influence relationships in my own and in other cultures.
  • I am able to challenge discriminatory ideas.
  • I am able to identify actions to take when I observe a social injustice.
  • I am able to support other communities’ efforts towards equity.


Informed by: King and Baxter Magdola (2005), Deardorff (2006), Dervin (2016) and Foronda et al., (2016).

All assessment of intercultural learning should acknowledge the lifelong nature of intercultural development (Deardorff 2016; Tervalon and Murray-Garcia, 1998), and therefore, by its very nature, intercultural assessment is formative, rather than summative. Because of the complexity of the task, assessments of intercultural development should be authentic, reflective, relevant to the learner’s context and goals, and varied in content and format.


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