Assessing Intercultural Competency – Part II – by Trudy Milburn

Guest PostsAssessing Intercultural Competency – Part II
by Trudy Milburn

What’s your name?
Where did you go to school?

If your student produced this as evidence of a cultural practice, how would it rate on this AAC&U Intercultural rubric criterion?

“Demonstrates sophisticated understanding of the complexity of elements important to members of another culture in relation to its history, values, politics, communication styles, economy, or beliefs and practices.”

At first blush, the interaction sequence might seem part of any typical introduction between two people who are meeting one another for the first time. Therefore, a student who produces this might appear to be “developing” on the low end of a graduated scale with a “target” level on the higher end. An instructor may evaluate the statement as evidence of a student’s initial awareness of an interactional pattern, but as lacking a nuanced understanding that its production may indicate a culturally significant pattern. However, perhaps there is more going on with this interactional sequence than one may initially assume.

If we heed Yep’s (2000) suggestion and consider both personal and broader social histories and how these intersect, we might re-consider the produced interaction from different subject positions. Consider these additional contextual features.

While traveling with students in Northern Ireland, we heard tour guides describe a greeting ritual that included the following parts: first asking, “What’s your name?” and then, “where did you go to school?” The guide explained that learning as much as you could about your interlocutors during introductions was very important throughout the tensest moments of the Conflict. It was considered vitally important to be able to quickly position a newcomer within an appropriate category, as Catholic or Protestant. Knowing relevant category could produce fear or solidarity. One guide described that he believed people with saint names were denied access to jobs. Therefore, upon meeting someone, if one heard (or did not hear) a saint name, the follow up question was used to ascertain if the individual attended a Catholic School or not. It was this practice that led one to know on which side of the Conflict the new person was most likely to be. It may have also led to further discriminatory practices.

Coming back to the notion of assessing intercultural competence, how, then does one evaluate a student who attempts to demonstrate intercultural competence by producing such an interactional sequence? While the rubric criterion above includes many features that are valuable to consider, including the social, historical and political contexts of various communicative practices, it leads us into the same trap that Yep (2000) warns about, creating cultural “others.” Even if one notices the interaction sequence from the vantage points of the interlocutors who enact it, where does the student stand in relation to this sequence? One suggestion is that as instructors, we can help students to reflect on how noticeable practices might illustrate a belief within the student’s own culture. It may be that this interaction sequence may be so typical within one’s own culture as to initially go unnoticed. In fact, as instructors who are conducting intercultural assessment, perhaps we should consider our own potential biases towards such practices and consider how our cultural beliefs influence both how we instruct as well as how we assess intercultural competency.

In my next post, I will consider the types of methods used for assessing intercultural competence as well as the role of assessors in this work.

Yep, G. A. (2000). Encounters with the ‘other’: Personal notes for a reconceptualization of intercultural communication competence. CATESOL Journal, 12(1), 117-144.

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How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

Guest PostsHow conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures.
By Trudy Milburn

As the new academic year gets underway, I’ve been thinking about the intersection between learning outcomes and assessment. In several posts, I will use examples from intercultural communication to illustrate some basic assumptions about culture and learning, and suggest ways to proceed.

First, consider the case of study abroad. Typically, instructors create basic goals for students engaged in this experience: to experience diverse cultures by engaging in observations, conversations and reflection. When I accompanied a group of students to Helsinki, Finland, my co-instructor and I provided a basic framework for students, suggesting how to learn about their upcoming adventure. For instance, we supplied them with Dell Hymes’ SPEAKING framework, to help them become more aware of practices that might be noticeable as culturally distinct. Consider a conversational exchange that occurred during our travels:

During a visit to a Finnish elementary school, we heard a U.S. student exclaim, “they’re wearing slippers to class!” Some jumped to immediate evaluations, “how lucky!” or “this must be a very lenient environment.” Others remained curious, “I wonder why they are allowed to do that?”

As instructors we noticed that the Hymes framework helped students to make initial observations about a way of acting (A). Upon reflection, I now recognize that they needed another way to articulate how this one observation fit into a larger cultural context before moving to evaluate if the observed behavior was good or bad. Carbaugh (2007) provides one such framework. To abbreviate [and change the steps slightly], he advocates that learning about other cultures begins with observations that lead to descriptions: what do you notice? After detailing the observation, one can compare the observation to other cultural practices that are known (often one’s own culture can serve as an initial basis for comparison). Following the comparison, one can start to inquire about the broader context within which the noticed behavior is a part. The social and cultural context that frames any one particular behavior helps us to understand how any given behavior can make sense, or be interpreted from the perspective of the people enacting that behavior. Finally, one can evaluate whether that behavior is valued or not within the given culture, as well as how it might be interpreted and valued or not within the comparative culture.

Let’s apply this to the slipper example above. First, U.S. study abroad students notice that Finnish elementary students wear slippers in class. They may notice this initially due to a comparison with their own experience: when they were in elementary school in the U.S. they did not wear slippers. Rather than jumping to the evaluation from the perspective of the comparative culture (that it is better or worse to wear slippers to class), they need to learn about the larger cultural context. Of which environmental and social factors is this behavior a part? In this case, the heavy winters and the value of playing outside for recess suggest reasons associated with the place where they are living as relevant to the interpretation of this practice. Because outdoor shoes would carry snow and slush into classrooms, they provide an area to stow outdoor winter-wear and don alternate indoor footwear, such as slippers and lighter articles of clothing. Recognizing these circumstances, the students would then dismiss any initial hypothesis that the teachers are more lenient than those in the U.S.

This example of intercultural discovery can serve as an analogy for outcomes assessment. When we are constructing a course, we may have a number of outcomes we hope students will achieve by the end of the course. In order to get to those outcomes, it might be useful for a student to recognize how those outcomes are different from current practice. The practices students bring with them to the classroom are based within particular cultural contexts. In order to demonstrate a new practice that is highly valued by the instructor, a student needs to begin to recognize the larger context within which this new practice is a part and within which it makes sense to engage in this new behavior.

In the next post, I will describe more about ways to create outcomes and assessments for intercultural communication.


Carbaugh, D. (2007). Cultural discourse analysis: Communication practices and intercultural encounters. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 36(3), 167-182. Available from:

Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

For further reading, please see:

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