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This study examines intercultural sensitivity development from a diversity curriculum in two university general education courses. The results indicate that instructional strategies addressing complex levels of student engagement elicited movement from an ethnocentric to an ethnorelative worldview as described in Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. The results represent a significant step regarding instructional techniques used in general education courses for teaching intercultural sensitivity, the advancement of multicultural education theory, and the use of deductive research techniques for assessing intercultural sensitivity skills.

Introduction and Review of the Literature

The goal of improving students' understanding of cultural difference is vital to the general education of university students. Businesses know that productivity depends on "a work force that is socially and emotionally competent" (Elias, Zins, Weissberg, Frey, Greenberg, Haynes, et al., 1997, p. 6). If students are to become successful in a diverse world, a large part of that success will be the ability to communicate and negotiate among diverse cultures (Banks, 2001). This goal remains a challenge because of the complexities associated with cultural difference. Schroeder (2003) states that national surveys show a high level of student anxiety associated with multicultural issues on campus. This study examines curricular methods for equipping students with skills in intercultural sensitivity, including the management of cultural difference, by focusing from a developmental perspective on the design and assessment of a general education curriculum on diversity.

Exploring the construct of cultural difference is fundamental to learning about other cultures. Literature on the significance of difference is rich (Hall, 1973; Singer, 1987; Stewart, 1972; Whorf, 1956); an understanding of it is needed to undergird curricular interventions designed to enhance student learning. Interventions that minimize difference run the risk of blurring the goals of multicultural education by inadvertently advocating a color-blind ideological agenda. As Lewis (2001) argues, "Color-blindness enables all members of the community to avoid confronting the racial realities that surround them, to avoid facing their own racist presumptions [End Page 311] and understandings, and to avoid dealing with racist events (by deracializing them)" (p. 801). Lewis further explains that ignoring racial differences can "protect the status quo—the current racial formation" (p. 801) because it reinforces the misperception that to consider race makes one a racist. For those outside of the dominant culture the effects of minimizing difference are equally perverse. In educational settings, Fay (1987) suggests that some students who are oppressed resist viewing themselves as such and hence go along with those who subscribe to a hegemonic view of the world. This mindset can manifest itself in behaviors that uphold their marginalized status.

Furthermore when teaching students to communicate with people of diverse cultures, scholars recognize that it is difficult for students to accept the concept of cultural difference. Bennett (1993a) indicates, "Probably one of the most threatening ideas encountered by students is this concept of difference and the implications this concept brings along with it" (p. 181). Cultural difference is a threatening idea because it challenges an individual to reconsider ethnocentric views of the world and negotiate each intercultural encounter with an open mind and as a unique experience. Hence, students need skills for managing the personal and social difficulties posed by a multicultural society in America and an increasingly interdependent world.

This need is recognized in the variety of diversity initiatives in higher education's general education curricula. A survey conducted by Ratcliff, Johnson, La Nasa, and Gaff (2001) found that 67.4% of institutions include cultural diversity as a curricular goal of general education. One initiative advanced by Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, and Stephens (2003) addresses the need in terms of preparing undergraduates for civic responsibility. In partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, these authors argue:

The growing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of the United States and its college students and the increasingly evident globalism of the world present important opportunities, indeed imperatives, for undergraduate education. Educators in all kinds of institutions stress that in a world of multiple and [End Page 312] conflicting perspectives, experiencing and learning from differences is a crucial part of the educational process.

(pp. 43-44)

The task is challenging, particularly at the level of first-year students, because a curriculum that simply provides information about diverse cultures suffers from reductivism and overlooks the complex developmental perceptions of these students. The traditional curriculum that bombards students with information about other cultures can also inadequately prepare students for real-life interaction with others different from themselves. Schuster (1989) supports this point: "The possession of information cannot be the defining characteristic of cultural literacy. If it were, computers would be more literate than people" (p. 540). The magic bullet idea that the presentation of content will elicit the development of multicultural sensitivity and competence is insufficient. Pruegger and Rogers (1994) repudiate the strategy of merely presenting information for developing "cross-cultural sensitivity" (p. 370) because it overlooks the affective goal required for such learning. Falk (1999) argues that intercultural literacy involves affectivity that can be developed through empathy, the attempt to understand the perspective of another individual. Moreover, Hoopes (2000) explains that "The critical element in the expansion of intercultural learning is not the fullness with which one knows each culture, but the degree to which the process of cross-cultural learning, communication, and human relations [has] been mastered" (p. 20).

For students to understand difference and develop intercultural sensitivity, they need a curriculum that addresses their cognitive as well as affective needs. One paradigm that can be helpful in guiding students is based on developmental approaches to learning. Sowell (2000) indicates that "learners progress through qualitatively different changes or stages in perception and cognition" (p. 121). Love and Guthrie (1999) explain that Perry's data show that college students developmentally position themselves in a series of stages during their college years "from a right-wrong mentality, to one in which multiple viewpoints are experienced as valid, and finally to one in which evaluations of evidence are made in a relativistic world" (p. 6). [End Page 313]

Given the need for intercultural sensitivity training and the developmental needs of first-year students, one critical question arises regarding diversity and the design and execution of general education curricula. What developmentally appropriate teaching approaches can be used for improving the intercultural skills of students in general education courses?

This study focused on the question by applying Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to assess the curriculum in two first-year general education courses. Bennett's model was chosen for multiple reasons. First, it defines intercultural sensitivity from the perspective of "development," which involves a progressive capacity to "[accommodate] cultural difference" (Bennett, 1993b, p. 24). Second, the model assumes a social construction of identity in which individuals not only negotiate and interpret their identity in relation to others, but also learn through interaction and negotiation with others that cultural difference is not a static concept. Third, Bennett's (1998) definition of culture that undergirds his model addresses the concept from a broad perspective, emphasizing the importance of focusing on subjective culture, "the learned and shared patterns of beliefs, behaviors, and values of groups of interacting people" (p. 3). This definition is contrasted with objective culture, "behavior that has become routinized into a particular form," such as art, music, and so forth, or "social, economic, political, and linguistic systems" (p. 3). Bennett's focus on subjective culture underscores "the psychological features that define a group of people" (p. 3), which is central in learning how to manage culture difference. Fourth, other models such as Banks's Levels of Cross-Cultural Functioning (2001) discuss identity formation primarily in terms of ethnicity, neglecting a focus on the developmental stages of intercultural sensitivity. Perry's (1968) Scheme of Intellectual and Intellectual Development, as well as other models that address adult development, do not address intercultural sensitivity.

Bennett Bennett, and Allen (1999) theorize that cultural difference is experienced by individuals in a series of predictable stages that are described in the following diagram: [End Page 314]

Table 1. Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity
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Table 1.

Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

In this model, the first three stages, denial of difference, defense of difference, and minimization of difference, are identified as ethnocentric stages. The term "ethnocentric," according to Bennett (1993b), "is . . . defined in the simplest possible way as assuming that the worldview of one's own culture is central to all reality" (p. 30). Denial of difference recognizes that "some people have not yet constructed the category of 'cultural difference'" (Bennett, Bennett & Allan, 1999, p. 23). Defense of difference is a "dualistic perception" characterized by recognition of "cultural difference," but this difference is regarded as threatening to one's cultural reality (p. 24). Minimization of difference recognizes surface-level cultural differences while maintaining a perception of "a basic similarity among all human beings" (p. 25).

The latter three stages, acceptance of difference, adaptation to difference, and integration of difference, are defined as ethnorelative stages. Bennett (1993b) explains that ethnorelativism represents a change in perception in that "difference is non-threatening" because "attempts are made to elaborate new categories rather than simply to perceive existing ones" (p. 47). Acceptance of difference is based on a worldview that begins to perceive a range of differences among cultures, including a "respect for value differences" and being "curious about cultural differences" (Bennett, Bennett & Allan, 1999, pp. 25, 26). Adaptation to difference incorporates the ability "to shift cultural frames of reference" and change communicative behavior accordingly (p. 26). Integration of difference operates as a shift in "cultural perspective" such that perceiving oneself as a member of a combination of cultures "becomes a normal part of self" (p. 27). It is important to note that progression through these stages is not fixed, but functions as "a continuum of increasing sophistication in dealing with cultural difference, moving from ethnocentrism through stages of greater recognition and acceptance of difference" (Bennett, 1993b, p. 22). [End Page 315]

In applying Bennett's framework of intercultural sensitivity to the assessment of curriculum development, Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (Sowell, 2000, p. 73) is instructive. From Bloom's perspective, the educational objectives of a curriculum can range from simple to complex levels. A simplistic curriculum on diversity, at best, might address the stage of minimization of difference, the recognition of surface-level difference in a sociocultural context. A complex curriculum on diversity, however, might address the ethnorelative stages of Bennett's model through challenging students to reorganize, evaluate, and act upon their recognition and comprehension of difference in a sociocultural context. Bennett (1993b) indicates that the cognitive domain is primary in developing intercultural sensitivity because development arises from learning and creating explicit distinctions among cultural categories.

Yet a simplistic emphasis on a cognitive curriculum is insufficient, especially for courses intended to change attitudes and behaviors associated with intercultural sensitivity. Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia (1964) address this problem through an examination of the connections between cognitive and affective domains. Indeed, they argue that "the subcategories of the two domains . . . clearly overlap" in the respective cognitive and affective domains of knowledge and receiving, analysis and organization, and evaluation and characterization (pp. 49, 50). For example, in one instance a professor may provide information to students about two cultures to stimulate their interest in those cultures. In another, a professor may ask students to analyze the causes and effects of a cultural clash of values to alter their beliefs about the nature of the conflict. In yet another situation, an instructor might have students evaluate the merits of a controversial social policy from different cultural perspectives to assist them with formulating a judgment about the policy. In each of these instances, the curriculum is primarily cognitive, but operates on cognitive and affective levels.

In this study, Bennett's developmental model guided the investigation of a curriculum on intercultural sensitivity. Two research questions were examined:

  1. 1. To what extent can a curriculum about comprehending cultural difference improve students' intercultural sensitivity levels? [End Page 316]

  2. 2. To what extent can a curriculum about analyzing and evaluating cultural difference improve students' intercultural sensitivity levels?

Research Background

Two curricular approaches were examined in this study. The first approach was embedded in the design of Mentor Seminar I, a required first-semester course for first-year students. In Mentor I, students devoted three weeks to investigating a chapter of readings dealing with issues of diversity. The readings covered racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity. After discussing the readings, students were provided with a choice of essay topics that directed them to formulate a thesis and write an essay drawn from the readings. The second approach was embedded in the design of Mentor Seminar II, a required second-semester course for first-year students. In Mentor II, students devoted three weeks to the topic of racial profiling. Students read and discussed two contrasting articles on the topic during the first week. During the second week, students engaged in classroom activities that allowed them to internalize the effects of racial profiling on individuals and groups through role-playing exercises. During the third week, students were required to conduct research on the topic and bring articles to class for in-depth, small-group discussion.

The two curricular approaches offered in Mentor I and Mentor II can be classified according to Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. From Bloom's perspective, the curriculum in Mentor I, for the most part, operated on simplistic cognitive levels in that students were asked to comprehend and apply information about the readings. The curriculum in Mentor II, for the most part, operated on more complex cognitive levels. Students were asked not only to comprehend and apply information, but also to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.

In this study it was assumed that since the curricular design in Mentor I operated on simplistic levels, students in that course would exhibit less movement on Bennett's Developmental Model [End Page 317] of Intercultural Sensitivity. It was further assumed that since the curricular design of Mentor II operated on complex levels, students in that course would exhibit more movement on Bennett's model.


This study employed a mixed-methods design through the application of content analysis and interviews. Content analysis of student responses to writing prompts administered at various points in time provided quantitative, mathematical, analytic measurement for testing potential student movement on Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. Content analysis of student responses to the writing prompts also provided qualitative, nonmathematical, analytic information for in-depth, nuanced understandings about the nature and quality of student movement on the model. Interviews with students were used for investigating their perceptions of the impact of the instructional techniques in the two courses on their ability to negotiate cultural difference. Collectively, the mixed-methods design provided information for strengthening the reliability and validity of the results.

Students enrolled in the two courses were asked to complete a series of three 10-minute writing responses: a response before the curricular interventions, a response after the first curricular intervention, and a final response after the second curricular intervention. In October, the first writing prompt was administered to all students in Mentor I, before students had begun the chapter on diversity. In November, after students had read, discussed, and written a paper on the diversity chapter, the second 10-minute writing response prompt was administered. After students engaged in classroom activities and researched the topic of racial profiling in Mentor II during February, the third writing response prompt was administered. Each of the writing prompts provided students with a different sociocultural dilemma and a scenario in which they were to assume that they disagreed with a friend or acquaintance of a different cultural background about that dilemma. Students were asked to [End Page 318] describe their potential communication with that person about the disagreement.

A random sample of 48 students was chosen from those who completed all of the writing responses. Out of the 48 students in the sample, 12 students were Asian/Pacific Islander, 1 was African American, 3 were Hispanic, 1 was Native American, 5 were of unknown ethnicity, and 26 were White/Non-Hispanic. Twenty-eight were female and 20 were male.

A team of five faculty members and one graduate student participated in the content analysis of the student responses. Following procedures discussed by Krippendorff (1980), two readers read and coded the set of responses written by each subject into categories defined by the Bennett Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. Readers were instructed to code units of text independently into one of six categories (stages) of the Bennett model. Units of text consisted of either sentences or paragraphs (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). For quantitative, statistical analysis, each unit of text in a category was assigned a numerical value corresponding to a stage of the Bennett model. The scores given by the two readers were summed and averaged according to the content analysis procedures discussed by Anderson (1987). Interrater reliability was computed using Pearson's r. The coefficients for prompts one, two, and three were 0.87, 0.74, and 0.80, respectively. These coefficients indicate that interrater reliability was acceptable for statistical data analysis (Sprinthall, 1990, p. 208).

Units of text coded by the readers into various stages of the Bennett model were further analyzed by the researchers for qualitative purposes. The researchers employed theory-based sampling for selecting units of text because they represented "important theoretical constructs" (Patton, 2002, p. 238) associated with stages of Bennett's model.

Criterion sampling (Patton, 2002) was used for selecting students to interview. Students were selected because their responses to the essay prompts indicated a development change in their level of intercultural sensitivity. These students provided relevant comments regarding the impact of instructional methods used in the two courses. [End Page 319]

Table 2. Within-Subjects Factor ANOVA
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Table 2.

Within-Subjects Factor ANOVA


To answer the two research questions from a quantitative perspective, a one-way, within-subjects factor ANOVA was conducted on the data produced by the content analysis of the three writing responses. The results of the statistical test are provided in Table 1. The data reveal that there was no statistically significant difference in level of intercultural sensitivity after the first intervention (p = 0.603). Indeed, the mean score for the first writing response was 3.017 while the mean score for the second writing response was 2.922. However, there was a statistically significant difference in the level of intercultural sensitivity after the second intervention (p = 0.000). The mean score for the third writing response was 3.984. Thus, the mean score on the third writing response indicated that the level of intercultural sensitivity increased only after the second curricular intervention. This intervention addressed the levels of analysis and evaluation, rather than comprehension, as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. In terms of Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, the mean scores for the first and second responses indicate that students' abilities to negotiate difference were in the range of minimization, an ethnocentric stage. The mean score for the third response indicated that students' abilities to negotiate difference had moved into the range of acceptance, an ethnorelative stage. Hence, the quantitative results indicate that a curriculum employing analysis and evaluation of cultural difference is more effective in improving students' levels of intercultural sensitivity than a curriculum employing comprehension of cultural difference. [End Page 320]

The qualitative analysis of students' responses to the writing prompts provides a nuanced understanding about the developmental change indicated by the quantitative results of the study. This qualitative reporting of responses illustrates how students verbalized a metacognitive shift from the ethnocentric stage of minimization, prior to the second intervention, to the ethnorelative stage of acceptance, after the second intervention. This shift involves perceptual movement from focusing on basic similarities among people and trivializing difference to recognizing difference as necessary and desirable when interacting with people from various cultures. The following cases illustrate this movement prior to and after the second intervention.

One student wrote prior to the second intervention: "If I were to get in an argument with my friend about racial differences, it would be because I don't agree with racial differences. I don't see how you can classify someone on behalf of their race. I feel race [has] nothing to do with the person you are." After the second intervention this student wrote: "Discussing the issue [with another person who is different] helps to understand why there is a disagreement. Also it helps to see different viewpoints."

A second student wrote before the second intervention: "Although we may be from [a] different ethnicity, we are all educated the same. Thus our ideas and opinions are similar in most cases." After the second intervention, however, this student wrote the following: "I would want to engage in a discussion to explore how this person's background has shaped his/her point of view and to explore a perspective I might not have considered."

A third student expressed the following point of view before the second intervention: "I would really try to find agreement somewhere and to understand his opinion but I would not change my opinion on the whole thing." After the second curricular intervention the student provided this response: "I would want to understand their motivations so as to better adjust my views. You must understand why a person with a different perspective thinks what they do."

A fourth student recorded the following comment prior to the second intervention: "I would try to look at her opinion with an open mind and listen to what she had to say, but I don't know if it would make me change my mind. I would at the same time expect her to [End Page 321] listen to me and take what I had to say with an open mind. I don't think any one of us would change our minds and that would be okay because each person has a right to their own opinion." In responding to the third essay prompt after the second intervention, this student wrote: "If I discussed [this issue with a person from a different culture], they might have more or different information about something that I did not know before. This information might allow me to see another side that I would not have seen before and might change my views slightly. In turn, my information might do this for the other person as well."

A fifth student wrote before the second intervention: "The hypothetical disagreement that I would have with my friend would start out like any other problem that I face with a friend. I would give my point of view, then I would listen to his/hers." After the second intervention this student provided the following response to the third prompt: "Everyone has a different background that shapes who they are. I would like to know what experiences this person had. . . . I know that my background (family, school, friends) all shaped the way that I look at things. Maybe by knowing his/her background it might open my eyes to a point of view I have never seen before."

A sixth student offered this comment prior to the second intervention: "If we did disagree, I would think we would listen to each others' opinions even if we didn't agree. I believe both of us would be willing to listen and change our opinions if we agreed with each others' side of the argument." Following the second intervention, however, this student wrote the following: "I would want to discuss this issue . . . because while their opinion may be completely different from mine, I could see how their past experiences have helped formulate their opinion."

By interpreting the first three cases from the perspective of Bennett's developmental model, the students' responses prior to the second intervention indicate that they seek "to bury difference under the weight of cultural similarities" (Bennett, 1993b, p. 41). Consequently, these responses illustrate the developmental stage of minimization. The next three cases, prior to the second intervention, also indicate the developmental stage of minimization; however, in these responses "cultural difference is trivialized" (p. 41). Taken together, this interpretation of the statements shows that prior to the [End Page 322] second intervention, students exhibited a developmental stance in which they undoubtedly regard themselves as politely sensitive. This level of sensitivity, however, is ethnocentric because of its naive focus on similarities or the tendency to disregard the importance of difference. Hence, this qualitative analysis indicates that the curriculum of Mentor I, which focused primarily on comprehending cultural difference, probably reinforced the developmental stage of minimization in terms of intercultural sensitivity.

The interpretation of the six cases after the second intervention based on Bennett's developmental model shows movement to the acceptance stage. The students' responses at this juncture indicate that they "accept the viability of different cultural ways of thinking" (Bennett, 1998, p. 28). Indeed, these cases illustrate developmental growth in intercultural sensitivity from the stage of minimization to that of acceptance: a desire to engage in a conversation with a person from another culture, to learn about that person's background, and to understand a new point of view. This type of growth in intercultural sensitivity clarifies the results of the quantitative analysis, supporting the conclusion that the curriculum of Mentor II, which focused on analyzing and evaluating cultural difference, improved students' intercultural sensitivity skills.

Data collected from the interviews with students provide insight about their perceptions of the impact of the different curricula used in the two courses on their development of intercultural sensitivity. The students' responses indicate that the curriculum based on comprehension in Mentor I was less effective than the curriculum based on analysis and evaluation in Mentor II.

Regarding the curriculum of Mentor I, the students indicated that this curriculum did not alter their attitudes about diversity. One student noted that Mentor I did not "change" her attitudes toward diversity, but "gave [her] more insight." A second student who was interviewed remarked that she was "not sure" whether the curriculum in Mentor I changed her attitudes toward difference. The student stated, "I became more aware," but "I didn't know the depth of the issues." A third interviewee, when asked about potential attitude changes on diversity associated with Mentor I, responded, "No, not really. I understood in some way why people were biased." A fourth student "did not know" whether the course cultivated more interest [End Page 323] in learning "about other cultures." However, this student noted that the curriculum provided opportunities for classmates to share "their sides on . . . religious issues," perhaps indicating a narrow understanding of culture from the standpoint of religion.

The curriculum of Mentor II asked students to analyze and evaluate a contemporary social issue, racial profiling. Data collected through student interviews show that the curriculum used in the course on this social topic elicited more receptivity than the curriculum of Mentor I. In particular, the students indicated that Mentor II fostered an open climate, empathetic responses, and greater awareness about the gravity of the problem from multiple perspectives. One student stated that the classroom climate during discussions was "very open," with "everyone [wanting] to hear what another person had to say. No one looked down on anyone. [There was] no fear of saying what's on your mind." Two students who were interviewed noted that their sections of Mentor II produced more empathy about members of other cultures. For instance, one student explained that classmates who "didn't understand" initially about the issue of racial profiling were "definitely" more empathetic about other cultures "when they heard about what was going on." Four students commented that the curriculum of Mentor II fostered a deeper understanding of the social issue from the perspective of a variety of cultures. Two of these students specifically mentioned that the research assignment in Mentor II assisted them with developing multiple perspectives. Indeed, one student said, "By researching we uncovered more than we did just in the classroom. It showed us more . . . stories and stats [about the extent of the issue]." Another student remarked, "In somebody's research [he] found that in every single country, one single group is always oppressed in some way. Like in Germany, [Slavs] are looked down upon. . . . Wherever there is a minority, they're treated [poorly]."

Taken together, the results of the study show that a curriculum rooted in merely comprehending cultural difference yields negligible change in the development of intercultural sensitivity. This type of curriculum may provide students with information about cultural difference, yet may stifle the realization of outcomes associated with a curriculum that seeks to assist students with valuing and negotiating cultural difference. A curriculum that employs analyzing and [End Page 324] evaluating cultural difference, however, yields significant change in the development of intercultural sensitivity. This type of curriculum assists students with probing the significance and implications of cultural difference and allows them to understand and appreciate personal growth that may be associated with intercultural exchanges.


The results of this study have important implications for instructional techniques used in general education courses for teaching intercultural sensitivity, the advancement of multicultural education theory for higher education, and the use of deductive research techniques for assessing intercultural sensitivity skills. Each of these implications is discussed in turn, as well as limitations of the study.

As indicated by the results of this study, a general education curriculum on diversity needs to consider appropriate instructional techniques if that curriculum is concerned with improving students' levels of intercultural sensitivity. Although many colleges and universities tout cultural diversity as a curricular goal of general education (Ratcliff, Johnson, La Nasa & Gaff, 2001), it is less clear how these institutions define cultural diversity and learning outcomes associated with this goal. If an institution is concerned about cultural diversity from the standpoint of helping students develop skills for negotiating cultural difference, this study provides useful ideas for thinking about how traditional cognitive classification systems can be used to evaluate a curriculum and, based on that evaluation, how that institution can formulate a curriculum and instructional techniques that facilitate the development of intercultural sensitivity.

This study employed Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain to describe two general education curricula for first-year students. Through applying Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to measure students' levels of intercultural sensitivity, a critical finding emerged that helps to clarify appropriate curricular methods for managing cultural difference. The study found that a curriculum on diversity that employs analysis and evaluation is more likely to be associated with improvements in [End Page 325] students' levels of intercultural sensitivity than a curriculum that simply employs comprehension of information.

Literature on instructional techniques also suggests that the curriculum of Mentor II was better suited for the development of intercultural sensitivity than the instructional methods of Mentor I. Indeed, the curriculum of Mentor II employed role-playing, research, and small-group discussion, techniques identified in the literature as effective intervention strategies. Sylvester (1994) argues that the use of role-playing provides an affective connection to situations in which learned skills can be used. A study conducted by Walkner and Finney (1999) found that intervention strategies such as student research projects, small-group problem-solving exercises, and oral presentations of research findings facilitate the development of critical thinking and self-awareness that, in turn, fosters "open-mindedness" and "different ways of looking at things" (pp. 543, 544). Banks (2003) acknowledges that group work fosters messages about equal-status roles of diverse students among the groups. Slavin (2001), Cohen (1994), and Jackson (1999) also emphasize the importance of cooperative groups in developing positive intergroup and interracial attitudes. In addition, Bennett (1993b) recognizes the value of "discussion, exercises, and other [inductive] methods of discovery" in moving students beyond the "'paradigmatic barrier'" of ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism (p. 45). This study contributes to this body of literature by showing that these instructional techniques, when used intentionally within a diversity curriculum, are effective intervention strategies for promoting intercultural sensitivity.

The distinctive shift in the students' written communications that emerged from the qualitative analysis of their responses to the prompts also has implications for instructional techniques that facilitate the development of intercultural sensitivity. In the stage of minimization, the students' written responses described a communication strategy that could be characterized as politely listening, whereas in the stage of acceptance, the students' written responses described a communication strategy that could be characterized as engaging in a genuine conversation. It further appeared that the students' perceptions regarding the context of the social encounters changed as well. In the stage of minimization, the students viewed the situation as a social obligation, an encounter in which they would value similarities [End Page 326] or devalue differences. However, in the stage of acceptance, the students viewed the situation as an opportunity, an encounter in which they could probe the worldview of a person from a different culture and, in the process, expand their personal reality. These juxtaposed perceptions reflect a different orientation about intercultural exchanges. In the former case, the desire for growth is absent, whereas in the latter case, the desire for growth is present.

Instructional interventions for developing intercultural sensitivity should create a climate that fosters a desire for growth. Vygotsky (1978) describes the use of instructional interventions involving language to "[set] in motion a variety of developmental processes" (p. 90). For these interventions to be appropriate developmentally the instructor needs to consider "the notion of the zone of proximal development," "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (pp. 86, 89). Vygotsky (1992) further explains that instructional techniques to enable development should provide cooperative assistance to facilitate reaching students' potential developmental levels, otherwise "instruction [will be] oriented to the [student's] weakness rather than [the student's] strength" (p. 189). The instructional techniques used by an instructor can "[impel] or [awaken] a whole series of functions that are in a stage of maturation lying in the zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 212).

The instructor is vital in the process of creating a classroom climate to assist students with changing their perceptions about what can be learned from intercultural encounters and how this potential learning can contribute to their interactive and continuous growth. As Vygotsky explains, interventions can be used to guide students toward potential developmental levels. If students' actual intercultural level of development is in the range of minimization, the instructor can consider their potential development level and direct instructional activities toward the acceptance level. The results of this study suggest that instructional techniques involving role-playing, research, and small-group discussion elicit a change in communication behaviors during intercultural exchanges and perceptions about the value of those exchanges. [End Page 327]

The second issue emerging from this study that warrants discussion is the advancement of multicultural curriculum theory for first-year students in higher education through courses that are designed to facilitate students' intercultural sensitivity and management of cultural difference from developmental perspectives. While this study did not assess a curriculum on diversity for first-year students that was designed from an intentional developmental perspective, Bennett's model and the results of this study have implications for designing a general education curriculum on diversity. Bennett's model has been used in a variety of educational contexts, including intercultural communication workshops, student affairs programming, debriefing study abroad experiences, and peace studies (Bennett, 1993b), but it has not been used in the context of designing general education curricula for first-year students.

To advance multicultural education in a general education curriculum for higher education, educators need to address the developmental needs of first-year students. Perry (1981) described a map of college student development; others such as Elkind (1993) promote developmentally appropriate educational practice. Banks (2001) advocates the selection of curricular materials to promote cross-cultural functioning and social reform. Consequently, as a first step, educators must realize the limitations of general education curricula designed to impart cultural knowledge. Traditional multicultural education practice often assumes that mastering information about different ethnic cultures constitutes learning. Banks (2001) addresses these types of practice from "contributions" and "ethnic additive" approaches (pp. 61-62). The first approach overlooks the complexities associated with the study of culture, and both approaches ignore culture from a subjective perspective. Moreover, by design, they both fail to consider the developmental schema that students bring to college.

As a second step, teaching intercultural sensitivity in a general education course requires educators to consider students' developmental levels when designing a curriculum. This involves focusing on cultural difference and the psychological features associated with difference as a central learning objective. Constructivist approaches to curriculum design confront these issues. As Windschitl (2002) indicates, "If [teachers] can get a sense of students' conceptions, [End Page 328] frames of reference, and rules for organizing the world, teachers must then employ a range of facilitative strategies to support students' understandings" (p. 144). Bennett, Bennett, and Allen (1999) discuss verbal behaviors exhibited by students as diagnostic tools for gauging students' levels of intercultural sensitivity. For instance, they explain:

Learners in Minimization are "nice." They make statements such as "we are all one under the sun," and they may be sincerely motivated to include culturally different others into their activities. . . . Older learners in this stage may argue for universal human rights or world capitalism, with reference to how such a position might be perceived by others as a form of cultural imperialism. People of dominant co-cultures may assume that all people have "equal opportunity," failing to perceive that institutions fashioned in their own culture's image may offer them advantages while hindering the achievement of others who are culturally different.

(p. 25)

Based on this type of diagnosis, an instructor would design a curriculum sequenced first at the level of minimization and then gradually incorporate materials and interventions geared toward achieving the level of acceptance.

As a third step, daily lesson objectives can also affect students' levels of intercultural sensitivity through activities, exercises, and assignments. This study found that activities such as role-playing, research, and small-group discussion were effective means of addressing student development of intercultural sensitivity. Multiple intervention activities may be required given the unique backgrounds and experiences of students in a course and the complexity of teaching intercultural sensitivity across cultural contexts. Moreover, assisting students with learning achieved in the classroom for real-world application requires multiple interventions as well. Indeed, students' levels of intercultural sensitivity may be fluid, shifting according to specific situations. In the Bennett model, as with other models such as the Perry scheme, the thinking of individuals does not reside at a single point on a scale, but should be understood as operating between a level of function and a maximum level [End Page 329] (Love & Guthrie, 1999). In other words, since students function within stages of developmental models situationally, the instructor should use multiple interventions so that the classroom operates as an environment for maximizing the development of intercultural sensitivity.

The third issue warranting discussion from this study relates to the heuristic value of using deductive research techniques for assessing intercultural sensitivity skills. The use of content analysis coding categories defined from the Bennett model provided a framework for culturally sensitive theory-derived deductive analysis in educational research (Patton, 2002). Effective assessment, according to Angelo (1995), involves "systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance [italics added] matches . . . expectations and standards" and "using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance" (p. 7). This study adhered to these principles by using the product of student performance—direct, written responses to prompts—to assess intercultural sensitivity skills. Through the use of content analysis based on categories derived from a developmental model of intercultural sensitivity, it was possible to observe student movement from ethnocentric to ethnorelative stages. Further research can refine the method used in this study and propose alternative ways of applying developmental models to deductive analysis of intercultural sensitivity skills in multicultural educational settings.

Limitations of this investigation should be considered in interpreting and generalizing the results of this study. First, the study did not employ an experimental design for controlling intervening variables. Given that the study assessed two general education courses required for all first-year students, the researchers were unable to place students into experimental and control groups that could have controlled for threats to internal validity. For this reason, a mixed-methods design was employed to increase the strength and rigor of the study.

Two threats to the internal validity of this study are maturation and social desirability. It is plausible that maturation contributed to the change in students' levels of intercultural sensitivity. Although the study took place over a five-month period, it seems unlikely that [End Page 330] the students' movement through the "'paradigmatic barrier'" of ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism (Bennett, 1993b, p. 45) is attributable solely to maturation factors.

Students' susceptibility to giving socially desirable responses is a problematic issue for research with students on diversity. However, in this study it is important to note the students were informed that their written responses to the essay prompts would not be shared with their instructor and would not be factored into their grade. Furthermore, for data analysis the researchers decided to use student responses to essay prompts that asked them to describe their potential communication behavior rather than providing them with a set of closed-ended questionnaire items.

With regard to generalizing the results of the study, two issues will be discussed. First, random sampling was employed in selecting the students' written responses to the three essay prompts. Thus, this threat to external validity was addressed in the design of the study. Second, the results of the study may not be generalizable to other institutions with different student populations enrolled in general education courses devoted to diversity. In this study, all sections of the two required first-year courses were populated with a diverse mix of students based on such factors as ethnicity and choice of major. Other institutions may not be able to achieve this type of diversity in the classroom.


Most educators and researchers realize the importance of educating students who live in an ethnically and culturally diverse society about difference. Banks (2003) explains that the idea behind a "multicultural curriculum is to help students develop cross cultural competency, the abilities, attitudes, and understandings students need to function effectively within the American national culture, within their own ethnic sub societies, and within and across different ethnic sub societies and cultures" (p. 10). However, complex challenges are involved in teaching undergraduate students to accept the concept of cultural difference: students need knowledge about various cultures, as well as skills in understanding how to deal with the social [End Page 331] stratifications and tensions that, Darder (1991) asserts, characterize the system within which these cultures function.

This study explored how curricular interventions in general education courses can influence the development of intercultural sensitivity among students. The study found that a general education curriculum employing analysis and evaluation of cultural difference is more effective in improving students' levels of intercultural sensitivity than a curriculum employing comprehension of cultural difference. This finding argues for the use of constructivist instructional techniques such as role-playing, research, and small-group discussion as part of a developmental curricular design for assisting students with learning to negotiate cultural difference. The study also provides scholars in general education with methodological and theoretical perspectives for thinking about the purpose of multicultural education and its assessment. Such thinking begins to address the developmental needs of college students that higher education must consider if it purports to value intercultural sensitivity not only as a component of general education but also as a vital skill for graduates to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world.

Sandra L. Mahoney

Sandra L. Mahoney is the Assistant Director of Student Academic Support Services, Retention Services at University of the Pacific. She has served on numerous committees related to the first-year experience and general education. Her research interests include assessment of first-year programs, student retention, and cultural diversity in the curriculum.

Jon F. Schamber

Jon F. Schamber is a Professor of Communication and the former Director of General Education at University of the Pacific. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Distinguished Faculty Award and the Faye and Alex G. Spanos Distinguished Teaching Award. His research interests include the assessment of general education curricula and the rhetoric of far-right religious movements.


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