Teaching Strategies

Intercultural Competence

In this resource, instructors can learn about the concept of ‘intercultural competence’ and explore strategies for teaching both with and for intercultural competence.

What is intercultural competence?

Intercultural competence is defined as “…the capability to shift one’s cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities” (Hammer, 2015, p. 483). Cultural dimensions can include race, ethnicity, language, national origin, tribal affiliation, geographic region, socioeconomic class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion/spiritual tradition, and (dis)ability, among others. It is helpful to have developed awareness of your own cultural identity when reflecting on your interactions with others from divergent cultural backgrounds.

Some intercultural competence frameworks take a developmental approach in which individuals can work with intention and reflection to deepen their awareness of cultural differences and similarities and to adjust their thinking and behavior in response to varied intercultural contexts. Other frameworks adopt a more diagnostic approach to understanding intercultural issues.

While it can be important to gather culture-specific knowledge to better prepare yourself for cross-cultural interactions, it is also essential to cultivate general attributes for the development of intercultural competence including: curiosity, knowledge-seeking, open-mindedness, empathy, flexibility, and tolerance of ambiguity.

Teaching with intercultural competence

Research has shown that students learn more when their faculty are able to access their own intercultural competencies in creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment. Instructors have found that adopting an intercultural competence approach in their teaching can help them address varied classroom challenges such as navigating their own cultural identities; better understanding their students’ cultural identities and experiences; building community in the classroom; and facilitating difficult classroom conversations.

Faculty across disciplines have found a variety of strategies useful in better understanding and relating to their culturally diverse students:

  • ‘Story of my name’ ice breaker: instructors can invite students (with advance notice recommended) to share a story or insight about their name as a way of signaling that the instructor is interested in students’ backgrounds
  • Cultural identity mapping: instructors can raise awareness of their own cultural identities by writing down the more, and less, visible dimensions of their cultural selves
  • Critical incident journaling: instructors can record and reflect upon their cross-cultural teaching experiences using a framework such as ‘Describe-Analyze-Evaluate’ or the Individual Cross-Cultural Interactions framework (developed by the CTE’s Matthew Goode)

Teaching for intercultural competence

Some of the strategies listed above can also be useful ways to invite students to develop their own intercultural competence. For example, students can benefit from doing their own cultural identity mapping and critical incident journaling. Other strategies to build students’ competence include:

  • Cultural value exploration: instructors can share the ‘cultural iceberg’ image with students to demonstrate that each of us has a set of cultural values that informs our observable behavior and to give students an opportunity to consider that their initial interpretations of their classmates’ and instructors’ behavior might not have taken these deeper influences into account
  • Cross-cultural teams: instructors can assign teams for group projects such that students have the opportunity to develop their intercultural competence as they work together with culturally diverse peers to accomplish a common goal

For more information

For questions about intercultural competence in your teaching, please contact centerforteaching@bc.edu.

Further reading

Berardo, K., & Deardorff, D. K. (Eds.) (2012). Building cultural competence: Innovative activities and models. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Dimitrov, N., & Haque, A. (2016). Intercultural teaching competence in the disciplines. In G. M. G. Pérez & C. Rojas-Primus (Eds.), Promoting intercultural communication competencies in higher education (pp. 89-119). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Hammer, M. R. (2015). Intercultural competence development. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of intercultural competence (pp. 483-486). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, Inc.

Harvey, T. A. (2017). Design and pedagogy for transformative intercultural learning. In B. Kappler Mikk & I. Steglitz (Eds.), Learning across cultures: Locally and globally (pp. 109-138). Washington, D.C.: NAFSA: Association of International Educators/Stylus.

Longerbeam, S. D. & Chávez, A. F. (Eds.) (2016). Going inward: The role of cultural introspection in college teaching. New York: Peter Lang.