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The Art and Science of Assessing Intercultural Competence

11 Feb 2019 5:43 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Chris T. Cartwright, MPA, EdD.
Director of Intercultural Assessment,
Intercultural Communication Institute

  • What is the right or best way to assess intercultural competence?
  • Will this assessment process work across all cultures and contexts?

These questions pose a Koan or riddle interculturalists ponder regularly. Whether we are asked to select or prepare an executive for an international assignment, intervene with an agency challenged by unconscious or implicit bias against underrepresenting populations, or demonstrate the impact of an international education sojourn—settling on a definition and assessment plan to meet those needs can be complicated.

Assessing intercultural competence is a complex endeavor in part because this complexity is reflected in the multiple definitions of the construct, as well as the theories these definitions are based upon. Moreover, each model has multiple assessment methods and or tools, some quantitative and others qualitative in their data collection processes. 

But the complexity we face is appropriate. We are appraising how people can learn to effectively engage across a variety cultures and contexts (1). Each element of this definition (people, effective engagement, cultures, and contexts) can send the interculturalist through a myriad of decision-tree options with multiple assessment practices to choose from. People vary greatly in the aspects of their identity most salient for them to embody in different contexts. For example, how is ‘effective engagement framed in this initiative?

  • Leading a culturally complex team?
  • Creating an equitable and inclusive working environment?
  • Demonstrating open mindedness and empathy as a result of an international service-learning project?

Finally, scholars have studied culture and contexts for generations and their work has revealed many contextual and cultural general as well as specific dimensions that can be considered.

The phrase “It depends” is frequently used in the intercultural field when an opportunity or challenge is presented. That phrase opens the door for more exploration … and it buys us time to initiate the decision tree of options.

Where should we start assessing intercultural competence?  Below are three frequent paths for assessing intercultural competence and there can and are variations of them used by many intercultural professionals. Some will assert that we need to initiate an organizational stakeholder analysis and uncover or compose a new shared definition of intercultural competence to fit the culture and context of that campus, company, or agency. Then an assessment process with new or tailored tools is created to fit this unique definition and desired outcome.

Others balk at the time and energy required to harvest such a new definition and its associated measurement practices; they prefer to adopt an existing well-researched definition and its accompanying assessment methods. Sometimes these professionals will start with the cultural specific measure to point out cultural differences the learner should note, and some will start with a cultural general measure to point out a set of competencies, intelligences, sensitivities, and so on, that might be most effective in a new culturally complex context.

Still others will reject even the notion of assessment, preferring a narrative or story gathering process to determine what has occurred, is occurring, or might occur, and thus what might be developed based on personal, professional, or organization goals. Whether or not a formal model or rubric is used in this final narrative process, the intercultural professional is still assessing intercultural competence; it may be in the form of an appraisal of readiness, sensitivity, humility, intelligence, or another term that best fits their practice.

It is important to note that ‘competency’ as a construct in itself, is the interplay of cognition (knowledge), behaviors (skills), and beliefs (attitudes). So, in the intercultural realm we seek measures that can give us a perspective in all three domains. It is impossible to assess intercultural competence with a single measure and at a single moment of time; there is simply too much at play in the equation to capture this level of complexity with a single snapshot or even a brief ‘video shoot’ practice. This is why most assessment professionals recommend multiple measures over time, so they can observe and record the dynamic interaction of the headset, handset, and heartset required to navigate intercultural exchanges.

When focusing on the learner, client, or organizational need for the type of assessment practice that is adopted, the way the data is reported is exceedingly important. For some learners, the data should be acute and direct; for others is should be more expansive and indirect. Since our assessment practice can help the learner connect their head, hands, and heart, compounding multiple types of evidence is recommended—weighting and sequencing the forms of data based on their culturally and contextually preferred orientation.

None of these definitions, methods or assessment tools answers the two questions facing interculturalists posed above neatly or comprehensively. In every case, ‘It depends’. Fortunately, we have a rich buffet of models and methods available for the inquiry.


(1)  Author’s own abbreviated definition of Intercultural Competence based on the hundreds he’s read.

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