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The Value of Intercultural Competency Skills in Education and Today’s Workforce

February 10, 2020  

Population estimates released in December 2019 show that about 7.9 million people immigrated to the United States since the last census conducted in 2010. When moving to a new country to work, study or live, there are unique challenges that come as part of this transition. How we communicate and interact with those around us can be one of the more difficult tasks to undertake.

Our ability to effectively and appropriately communicate and interact in these situations is known as being interculturally, or cross-culturally, competent. While assessments can measure and provide data about our intercultural competence skills, less has been done to effectively help individuals develop these skills and apply them in situations they may face.

Many organizations today struggle to find effective training programs that allow their employees to develop the kinds of soft skills needed to be successful in our global workforce. Effective training programs can allow these employers to skill and up skill their workers in order to better meet the demands and needs of our global economy.

Much of the training that currently exists is focused heavily on theory, which many find difficult to understand. Participants need examples of real-world application and situations that they find relevant for the information and training to prove valuable.

Lydia Liu

That is why scientists in ETS’s Research & Development (R&D) division have expanded their research done through ETS’s own HEIghten® assessment, which measures intercultural competence skills, to develop training materials to assist people in gaining practical intercultural competency skills in both academic and workforce settings.

“Much of the training that currently exists is focused heavily on theory, which many find difficult to understand,” said Lydia Liu, senior research director in R&D. “Participants need examples of real-world application and situations that they find relevant for the information and training to prove valuable.”

These culture-based episodes, or CuBEs, are designed to target cultural awareness and reinforce the development of intercultural competency skills. While the broader goal is to eventually expand the work to cover other cultures, the team first focused on Chinese students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and working professionals in order to gauge user interest and obtain feedback.

Given the increasing presence of Chinese nationals in the United States to both work and study, the team felt that the most wide-ranging and immediate impact could be made by beginning with this population. By also tackling challenges specific to one population, researchers expect to maximize the usefulness of the training over the long-term. The developmental process can serve as a road map for future expansions to other populations and cultures.

The team built a prototype that is comprised of two ”situations” that Chinese nationals may face in school or work settings in the United States. The situations were developed based on multiple rounds of data collection, including interviews with Chinese students and professionals living and working in the United States in order to determine the most common circumstances they may find themselves in and the common responses to these situations.

A situation in the prototype may be about a participant attending their first semester university class where they must choose how they would address a well-known professor teaching the course. The participant, as the student, would select from a set of response choices ranging from informal to formal greetings, after the professor has made their preference in greeting known. Based on their selection, the participant would be provided feedback about which choice is the most common behavior and the reasons people decide to behave that way.

“The training is being designed to promote and reinforce people’s acquisition of practical intercultural competency skills,” said Margarita Olivera-Aguilar, associate research scientist in R&D. “It’s natural for people to come to a new country to have a desire to learn and have a period of adjustment in how their behavior will shift and change over time. They’ll face circumstances in many contexts, so this training is intended to help them better understand what situations they can anticipate so they can prepare to respond.”

Moving forward, the team is focused on developing 10 additional ”situations” to include in the prototype. Expanding data collections will reach key audiences, thus informing and refining the feedback provided through the training.