Developing Intercultural Learning Objectives

Oct 24, 2017

Significant learning is learning that makes a difference in how people live—and the kind of life they are capable of living. We want that which students learn to become part of how they think, what they can and want to do, what they believe is true about life, and what they value—and we want it to increase their capability for living life fully and meaningfully.
— L. Dee Fink

This is the quote that introduces my recent chapter, entitled “Design and pedagogy for transformative intercultural learning,” in the book Learning Across Cultures: Locally and Globally, edited by Barbara Kappler Mikk and Inge Steglitz.

It may seem overly optimistic to some, especially in today’s world, but I choose to believe that I can somehow make a positive difference in this world. Not in a massive, everyone-will-know-my-name kind of way, but more like a stone-producing-ripples-in-a-pond kind of way.

It is with this optimism, balanced but not overtaken by a heavy dose of realism, that I do the work I do, helping educators foster intercultural learning. And it is with both this optimism, and my real understanding that most educators are busy folks who share my desire to promote intercultural learning but could use a hand figuring out how to do so in between committee meetings and grading sessions, that I wrote this chapter.

Below, I share an excerpt from the chapter that focuses specifically on how to develop intercultural learning objectives.

While this excerpt discusses how to develop specific, concrete learning objectives, I think it’s important to emphasize that we should first begin with the big picture objectives. If you run into a student of yours on the street in five or ten years, what do you want them to recall about this particular learning experience and how it has impacted them? As Fink says, what do you hope that “students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the [course, program, etc.] is over?” If you start there and work backward with that in mind, chances are your work will produce significant ripple effects.

The following excerpt is reproduced with permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators from: Harvey, Tara A. 2017. “Design and Pedagogy for Transformative Intercultural Learning.” In Learning Across Cultures: Locally and Globally, Third Edition, eds. Barbara Kappler Mikk and Inge Ellen Steglitz. Washington, D.C.: NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pp. 109-138.

Intercultural experiences have the potential to not only help participants live and work more effectively and appropriately across cultures, but also produce deep, transformative, and significant learning, such as that described in the quote by L. Dee Fink above. This chapter brings together research and literature in the areas of intercultural training, international educational exchange, intercultural communication, and the scholarship of teaching and learning to address how to design effective intercultural curricula that will do just that. “Intercultural curriculum” is broadly defined here as a structure or framework through which educators intentionally facilitate intercultural learning. […]

This chapter begins with a discussion of several pedagogical “best practices” that educators should take into consideration when designing an intercultural curriculum. The bulk of the chapter then describes the steps involved in designing an intercultural curriculum using backward design. Backward design (also known as reverse engineering) simply means beginning with the end in mind, and it is fundamental to designing significant, transformative intercultural learning experiences (Fink 2013; Wiggins and McTighe 2005). […]

In order to effect significant and transformative learning across cultures, the entire intercultural experience, including but not limited to the curriculum, must be designed with the end goal(s) in mind. This is what is often referred to as “backward design” (Fink 2013; Wiggins and McTighe 2005). The process of backward design can be summarized as follows:

"The designer starts the process by imagining a time when the course is over, say one or two years later, and then asking, “What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?” The answer to this question forms the basis of the learning goals. […] (Fink 2013, 71)


While Fink is referring specifically to designing college courses, this process is also applicable when developing other types of learning experiences. Indeed, educators would be well advised to thoughtfully and intentionally apply such design principles to any learning experience, in or outside of the classroom. There are seven key steps in the process of creating an intercultural curriculum using backward design (adapted from Fink’s [2013] Twelve Steps of Integrated Course Design):

  1. Identify important situational factors.
  2. Conduct a needs assessment.
  3. Identify/define key learning objectives.
  4. Decide upon feedback and assessment methods.
  5. Choose the most appropriate teaching and learning activities.
  6. Integrate activities into a coherent whole.
  7. Reflect on the process and identify key learning. […]

Step 3. Identify/Define Key Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are the heart and soul of strong curriculum design. Pusch (1994) notes, “Objectives are nothing more or less than our hopes, dreams, and desires, stated succinctly. They provide the justification for every planning decision, the guiding principles by which we operate, and the foundation for any evaluative process we undertake” (115). How can we design an effective curriculum if we cannot first articulate what we want participants to get out of it?

There are various types of objectives. The first, and most general, has to do with the long-term objectives to be accomplished. Why is this particular curriculum being created? This is something that should have already been identified, most likely during the needs assessment. With the overall goals in mind, the next step is to develop more specific and concrete learning objectives. When doing so, it is important to consider what is known about the context and audience. For example, the learning objectives must be realistic given the length of the program and the participants’ background or previous experience.

Another factor to take into account when developing learning objectives is the desired blend of culture-general and culture-specific learning for the given context and participants. “Culture-general learning” refers to intercultural concepts, theories, and frameworks that can be used to help one learn in, or from, any type of intercultural experience. It is critical to include culture-general learning in any type of intercultural curriculum because it helps build transferrable skills and understanding that can be used in a wide variety of intercultural situations. “Culture-specific learning” involves learning related to a given culture. Students who plan to study in Thailand, for example, will obviously want to gain knowledge, understanding, and skills specific to their experience with Thai cultures. The more that participants interact or will interact with specific cultures, the more culture-specific learning should be woven into the culture-general objectives. The following framework can be useful when creating intercultural learning objectives.


Building on the work of fellow intercultural scholars, and influenced by fields such as mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience, Michael Vande Berg (2016) developed a four-phase framework for intercultural learning. It highlights the following four competencies—self-awareness, awareness of others, tuning into and attending to emotions, and cultural bridging—as being critical to the development of intercultural competence, and thus, collectively, they provide a helpful framework for designing intercultural learning objectives.


  • Self-awareness. In order to learn effectively across cultures, learners must come into awareness of their own cultural background and how that impacts their values, beliefs, and assumptions. In addition, self-awareness must extend beyond a biographical understanding of the self to include an awareness of one’s own ways of making meaning, and of one’s judgments, emotions, and physical sensations (see Vande Berg 2016; Schaetti, Ramsey, and Watanabe 2008; M.J. Bennett and Castiglioni 2004).


  • Awareness of others. This competency refers to the importance of understanding and utilizing frameworks that can help make sense of cultural differences and similarities. According to Vande Berg (2016), it also involves coming into awareness of how others may make meaning of the world differently from us.


  • Tuning into and attending to emotions. Perhaps the most overlooked component of intercultural competence, this competency involves noticing and learning from and through the myriad of emotional responses felt in relation to any experience engaging across difference, whether it be in a foreign country or in a classroom on the home campus. Such experiences are rife with emotions that offer a window into ourselves as learners and human beings (see Vande Berg 2016; Schaetti, Ramsey, and Watanabe 2008; Zull 2012; Savicki 2008).


  • Cultural bridging. The ultimate intercultural goal is to be able to bridge cultural differences. This involves bringing together competencies in the first three areas to shift perspectives, attune emotions, and ultimately, act in ways that are both appropriate and effective when living and working with people who are different from us (Vande Berg 2016).


These four competencies offer a framework for developing learning objectives in virtually any type of intercultural learning experience. They build upon one another and are mutually supporting; we must possess the first three competencies, at least to some degree, before we can succeed in achieving the fourth. Without these competencies, it is difficult, if not impossible, to consistently interact in ways that are both appropriate and effective across cultural differences. Taking into account these competencies and their relationship to one another, in conjunction with other factors such as audience needs, length of the training, etc., can help when developing learning objectives. Table 1 offers several examples of program-specific learning objectives related to each of these four competencies.


It is important to recognize that in an international or domestic immersion experience, program logistics also impact learning; these logistics are effectively part of a “meta-curriculum” supplementing the more formal curriculum. If involved with such a program, to the extent possible, the goal should be intentionally designing not just the curriculum, but the entire program, with the learning objectives in mind. John Engle and Lilli Engle (2003) identified seven defining components of cross-border overseas programs and discussed how intentional design in these areas can contribute to student learning. These areas include:

  • Length of student sojourn;
  • Entry target-language competence;
  • Language used in coursework;
  • Context of academic work;
  • Types of student housing;
  • Provisions for guided/structured cultural interaction and experiential learning; and
  • Guided reflection on cultural experience (Engle and Engle 2003, 8).


The Georgetown Consortium Project (Vande Berg, Connor-Linton, and Paige 2009; Paige and Vande Berg 2012) examined how these components impact intercultural learning and suggested that the most effective approach combines immersive program components with intentional intercultural facilitation. Thus, whenever possible, we need to consider how the backward design process might take into account the ways in which all components of a program could be intentionally designed to contribute to the learning objectives. […]

I’d love to hear about how you’re using intercultural learning objectives to help guide your courses and programs and cast your stone into the pond. Please share your successes and challenges in the comments section.

And if you’ve enjoyed this post, check out the full chapter and the rest of the book, which includes fascinating yet practical chapters by experienced and emerging voices in the field that provide a holistic perspective on learning across cultures.


References & Resources

Bennett, Milton J., and Ida Castiglioni. 2004. “Embodied Ethnocentrism and the Feeling of Culture: A Key to Training for Intercultural Competence.” In Handbook of Intercultural Training, 3rd edition, eds. Dan Landis, Janet M. Bennett, and Milton J. Bennett. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Engle, John, and Lilli Engle. 2003. “Study Abroad Levels: Toward a Classification of Program Types.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, IX:1–20.

Fink, L. Dee. n.d. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Online Guide.

Fink, L. Dee. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pusch, Margaret D. 1994. “Cross-Cultural Training.” In Learning Across Cultures, 2nd edition, ed. Gary Althen. Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Schaetti, Barbara F., Sheila J. Ramsey, and Gordon C. Watanabe. 2008. Personal Leadership: Making a World of Difference: A Methodology of Two Principles and Six Practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.

Vande Berg, Michael. 2016. “From the Inside Out: Transformative Teaching and Learning.” Presented at the Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement (WISE) Conference (February 3). Wake Forest University.

Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and R. Michael Paige. 2009. “The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XVIII:1–75.

Vande Berg, Michael, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. 2012. “Student Learning Abroad: Paradigms and Assumptions.” In Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It, eds. Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Wiggins, Grant J., and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd edition. New York, NY: Pearson.

Zull, James E. 2012. “The Brain, Learning, and Study Abroad.” In Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It, eds. Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Savicki, Victor. 2008. “Experiential and Affective Education for International Educators.” In Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research, and Application in International Education, ed. Victor Savicki. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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