Internationalization in Action: Internationalizing the Curriculum, Part 3 - Degree Programs


​​​By Robin Matross Helms, Senior Research Specialist at ACE, and Malika Tukibayeva, Graduate Research Associate at ACE

While an internationalized curriculum will look different on different campuses based on institution type and mission, student population, availability of resources, and other factors, there are 4 “levels” of the curriculum that require attention in order to create a comprehensively internationalized student learning experience: individual courses, academic program components (majors, minors, and certificates), degree programs, and disciplines as a whole. 

The previous 2 installments of Internationalization in Action focused on individual courses and program components.  This installment addresses the third level of curriculum internationalization: degree programs.

​​At the degree level, the “building blocks” of curriculum internationalization (individual courses and program components) are woven together to create a cohesive whole. Globalized student learning outcomes at the institution level guide course and program content, and bring students, faculty, and administrators onto the same page in terms of desired focus and outcomes. Internationalized general education and foreign language requirements provide a framework to ensure that all students, regardless of their academic specialization, are exposed to international perspectives and can achieve the student learning outcomes set forth.

Read on for more information, examples, and institutional strategies!

Student Learning Outcomes

As student learning outcomes (SLOs) have gained traction in recent years as a way to help institutions define academic goals and provide a roadmap for student progress, colleges and universities engaged in internationalization have incorporated global competencies into their SLO statements. As discussed in the first Internationalization in Action installment on curriculum, faculty can do this at the individual course level as they embed international content and perspectives into their teaching. 

Globally-focused SLOs at the institution level can serve as a “unifying principle” for such course-level efforts.  SLOs at this level are necessarily broad, which allows for interpretation by students, faculty, and departments as they plan courses, majors, and individual programs of study. While allowing for appropriate variation, however, institution-wide SLOs define global learning as a campus-wide priority and provide guidance on what knowledge and competencies stakeholders have determined to be most critical for graduates. 

As illustrated in the chart below, data from ACE’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses study indicate that more institutions of all types are implementing globally-focused student learning outcomes as part of their internationalization strategies.

​​In implementing institution-wide globally-focused student learning outcomes, context and process are important. First, the timing needs to be right; SLOs are not the place to start institutional internationalization efforts.  Institution leaders, administrators, board members, faculty, and students should already be well versed in the importance of global learning. Institutional mission statements and strategic planning documents should identify internationalization as a priority. If efforts to internationalize have already taken root and are “bubbling up” around campus, then the unifying framework provided by globally-focused SLOs is most likely to be well received, and can provide additional direction and focus.

Second, as with most issues on campus, stakeholder buy-in and engagement are critical. It often makes sense for a Chief Academic Officer, in close collaboration with a Senior International Officer, to coordinate the process of implementing globally-focused SLOs. However, it is faculty who are most directly responsible for delivering the content students need to attain SLOs, and students themselves who are responsible for actually doing so. Faculty and students from a wide variety of disciplines should be deeply involved in formulating SLOs, and should be consulted throughout the implementation process and on an on-going basis about successes and challenges that arise. And as the experience of the University of Kentucky, highlighted below illustrates, teaching and learning experts – such as faculty and staff who work in a “center for teaching and learning” or similar unit on campus – can be an important resource as well.

ACE and Student Learning Outcomes 

Through our programs and previous publications, ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement endeavors to help institutions:

  • Develop learning outcomes that are unique to their institution and its mission
  • Design tools for assessing learning outcomes
  • Integrate the development of learning outcomes into broader strategies for internationalization

Of particular note, ACE’s 2006 publication, A Handbook for Advancing Comprehensive Internationalization guides institutions through the process of articulating global learning outcomes, beginning with conceptualization and leading to curriculum integration. Sample models, rubrics, surveys, and assessments are provided.

Though ACE's view is that student learning outcomes must be institution-specific in order to succeed, the following examples highlight key themes and competencies drawn from ACE’s previous work with institutions in this area:


  • Knowledge of world geography, conditions, issues, and events.
  • Awareness of the complexity and interdependency of world issues and events.
  • Understanding of historical forces that have shaped the current world system.
  • Knowledge of one’s own culture and history.
  • Knowledge of effective communication, including knowledge of a foreign language, intercultural communication concepts, and international professional etiquette.
  • Understanding of the diversity of values, beliefs, ideas, and worldviews.


  • Openness to learning and a positive orientation to new opportunities, ideas, and ways of thinking. Tolerance for ambiguity and unfamiliarity.
  • Respect for and appreciation of personal and cultural differences.
  • Empathy and the ability to see multiple perspectives.
  • Self-awareness and self-esteem about one’s own identity and culture.


  • Technical skills to enhance students’ ability to learn about the world (e.g., research skills).
  • Critical and comparative thinking skills, including the ability to think creatively and integrate knowledge, rather than accepting knowledge in a noncritical way.
  • Communication skills, including the ability to use another language effectively and interact with people from other cultures.
  • Coping and resiliency skills in unfamiliar and challenging situations.

Internationally-Focused Student Learning Outcomes

Bringing the Right People to the Table:
Developing Learning Outcomes at the University of Kentucky

One of the goals set forth in the University of Kentucky’s (UK) 2009 Strategic Plan for Internationalization was to develop institution-wide global learning outcomes (GLOs).  According to Dr. Susan Carvalho, Associate Provost for Internationalization, the institution’s first attempt to do so, which was led by a subcommittee of the University’s Task Force on Internationalization, was unsuccessful. Dr. Carvalho observes:

"We gathered a lot of examples of global learning outcomes from a lot of different sources, including other institutions. But they all seemed tautological, and the process of articulating them seemed to involve a lot of wordsmithing. We didn’t see the point of writing up values that everyone would simply nod and agree with, and that wouldn’t have any impact."

Although the subcommittee formulated a set of GLOs based on the models they analyzed, the resulting document was not widely publicized and had minimal impact on teaching, the curriculum, or campus programs.

In 2013, Dr. Carvalho renewed the GLO effort through the Curriculum Subcommittee of UK’s International Advisory Council. Mired again in wordsmithing, she realized that instead of working with the subcommittee, which consisted of faculty from international programs – experts on global and international topics – she would make more progress by working with the experts from UK’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT).  She notes:

"I finally wrapped my mind around this – I had the wrong people at the table.  I didn’t need global experts first; I needed learning-outcome experts."

After attending a workshop on developing GLOs at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Dr. Carvalho and the director of the CELT adopted a different approach to formulating UK’s new GLOs. The CELT experts were able to ask the right questions, and were able to step back from the subject matter of the disciplines in formulating the institution-level GLOs.

Dr. Carvalho and the CELT director, Dr. Kathi Kern, also realized that they needed GLOs that grew directly out of the character and identity of their particular institution. With 16 very different colleges, including a medical school and an array of graduate, professional, and pre-professional programs, the GLOs needed to be rooted in knowledge defined as “workplace skills.” According to Dr. Carvalho:

"The new GLOs are remarkably not just value-based—relating to respect and understanding—but instead they point directly to the workplace. The problem with the examples we had gathered before was that they rested on the assumption of the students’ first exposure to the world and the base of zero. They were also very value-laden, whereas ours ended up being less about “soft skills” and more about putting one’s profession in a global context. We also wanted to abstain from appearing to impose a certain ideology on faculty’s teaching, since that can be a flash point at an institution as diverse as ours."

In September 2013 the new GLOs were published on the university website. The next step was to disseminate them throughout the campus and academic programs. Dr. Carvalho explains:

"We’d like every department to reflect the new GLOs in their strategic plans, and not just for the courses that have the name of a country in the title, but also, for example, calculus. The real challenge isn’t how to have more courses about the world, but to have more about the world in all the courses."

To promote the awareness of the newly developed GLOs and to facilitate discussion, the International Center printed them on bookmarks. Each department was asked to examine its curriculum in light of the GLOs and assess its level of curriculum internationalization.

For the design of the bookmarks, the International Center adopted the core university brand, “See Blue” in order to demonstrate that the GLOs represent the unique character of UK, and resonate with the core academic culture of the institution. Dr. Carvalho is optimistic that this time, the GLOs will take hold. She notes:

"The GLOs are being discussed, and the timing is fortuitous since we are engaging in strategic planning. We hope to see real impact, even if it did take us 5 years to get here!"


General Education Requirements

Globally-focused courses, internationalized majors and minors, and special tracks or certificates are key vehicles for delivering global competence to students. For the most part, though, they are opt-in’s.  Stopping curriculum internationalization efforts at these levels may result in “preaching to the choir” of students who are internationally-inclined and may already have a high level of global competence compared to their peers. 

Whether globally-focused knowledge and skills are formally incorporated into student learning outcomes or set forth more generally as a goal of internationalization, general education requirements are a key tool for institutions intent on going beyond the self-selectors (who opt in to internationalized courses and/or study abroad) and delivering global competencies to all students

Data from ACE’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses study suggest a mixed picture in terms of the extent to which institutions are incorporating internationally-focused courses into general education requirements. On a positive note, as indicated in the chart below, more institutions across all sectors are requiring undergraduates to take courses that feature global trends and issues (such as global health issues, global environmental issues, and peace studies).

​​​Conversely, however, as illustrated below, fewer institutions are requiring students to take courses that primarily feature perspectives, issues, or events from countries or areas outside the United States.

​Taken together, these data raise the issue of depth versus breadth. Certainly courses that address global issues are important, and their increasing prevalence in general education requirements is a positive development. However, courses that specifically feature non-U.S. perspectives (e.g. “area studies” courses) provide important background and cultural knowledge to contextualize the broader content covered in global issues courses. Requiring students to take courses of both types is likely to afford them the deepest and most nuanced knowledge of key global issues and challenges, as well as insights into their own culture through comparison to others.

The Mapping study also asked institutions that require undergraduates to take courses that primarily feature perspectives, issues, or events from specific countries or areas outside the U.S. how many such courses are required. As indicated in the chart below, a majority require one course of this type.  

​General education requirements are intended to expose students to a wide range of content, so it is perhaps not surprising that requiring one course of this type is the norm.  However, when paired with broader efforts to internationalize courses and program components, that course may serve as a “gateway” for students to other global content options. Thus while more required courses, focusing on both depth and breadth of international understanding, would seem ideal, even a single required course has the potential to expand the choir – rather than just preach to its existing membership.

Internationally-Focused General Education Requirements

While these and other institutions have delineated specific internationally-focused general education requirements, in some cases the international focus is categorized as part of a broader requirement, for example, with an emphasis on diversity. Examples include a “World Cultures and American Diversity” requirement at Western Kentucky University, and Hunter College’s “Pluralism and Diversity” requirement.

ACE has explored the intersection of diversity/multicultural education through the At Home in the World: Educating for Global Connections and Local Commitments initiative. Funded by a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation, ACE worked with a group of 8 institutions to advance new analytical frameworks, enhance pedagogy, and develop innovative ways of fostering collaboration between internationalization and diversity/multicultural education on campus. The project website provides further information, as well as a “Toolkit” with resources for other institutions working in this area.

​AAC&U's "Shared Futures" Initiative

Shared Futures: Global Learning and Social Responsibility” is a multi-project, national initiative of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). According to its website:

"Global learning intentionally wrestles with questions of diversity, identity, citizenship, democracy, power, privilege, sustainability, and ethical action. By building a network of educators dedicated to this integrative work, Shared Futures facilitates curricular change and faculty development on campuses nationwide.

"It is the goal of the Shared Futures initiative that these networks of educators lead to collaboration on course design and pedagogy, shared strategies for curricular renewal and globalization of general education, and a fluid, decentralized exchange of resources that opens new opportunities for partnership and learning."

The website includes a “Tools for Educators” section with examples of globalized student learning outcomes and related resources from participating institutions, as well as AAC&U’s Global Learning Inventory Framework, which is designed to help institutions formulate their own global learning outcomes.

Information about “General Education for a Global Century," a specific project within the Shared Futures initiative, is also available.

Foreign Language Education

​By many accounts, English is becoming the “lingua franca” of the 21st century. Certainly, it is the language of business and academia, leading some to argue that there is no longer any need for native English speakers to study other languages. This sentiment is reflected in data from ACE’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses study that indicate a steady decline over the last decade in the percentage of institutions that require foreign language study for graduation: 

At those institutions that do have a foreign language study requirement, at nearly half, it is for one year of study or the equivalent. Only 2% of institutions require more than 2 years or the equivalent.​

Like courses that focus on particular countries or regions, foreign language study provides important cultural and contextual knowledge that enables a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of global issues and how they play out in different areas of the world. And while students around the globe study English, the quality of instruction and length of study vary considerably – it cannot be assumed that everyone American graduates will encounter in the future will have attained a high level of English proficiency. Learning a foreign language can help U.S. students meet their non-native English speaking colleagues "half way," and pave the way for more meaningful interactions, successful business transactions, and academic collaborations.   

In making the case for foreign language study, Dr. Suzanne Shipley, President of Shepherd University, states:

"As long as we ignore the need for Americans to become familiar with a foreign language as part of high school or college study, we dilute the cultural experience possible with internationalization. Global learning requires empathy, and that empathy arises from communication. 

"Our students may become familiar with a culture's history, traditions, economy, and political structure, but unless they acquire at the very least minimal familiarity with its language, they will not gain access to the country's true identity. Because as Americans we are no longer exposed to foreign languages, we find it ever more difficult to understand other cultures."

Among those institutions that have maintained a commitment to foreign language study, there are a variety of models for requirements, tracks, and venues. In some cases, the language study requirement is considered part of general education requirements; in others, it stands on its own. ACE’s Mapping data indicate that a large majority (76% in 2011) of institutions allow students to “test out” of taking language courses by demonstrating prior proficiency – models include the use of AP scores and placement tests administered by language departments.

Institution-Wide Foreign Language Requirements

As illustrated in the chart below, Yale University’s language requirement allows students to test into higher level courses, but still requires all students, regardless of prior proficiency, to take at least one foreign language course:


Responding to the needs of its student population, Florida International University (FIU) has developed two separate “tracks” for students who wish to study Spanish to fulfill the institution’s foreign language requirement  – one for “heritage learners” and one for “non-Heritage” learners.  FIU’s Department of Modern Languages website defines heritage learner and outlines the 2 tracks.

​Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC)

The Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) Movement intends to make global competence a reality for students and to create alliances among educators to share practices and find ways to incorporate an international dimension in curricula, and, more generally, to achieve internationalization goals. According to its website, general principles of CLAC include:

  • A focus on communication and content.
  • An emphasis on developing meaningful content-focused language use outside traditional language classes.
  • An approach to language use and cross-cultural skills as means for the achievement of global intellectual synthesis, in which students learn to combine and interpret knowledge produced in other languages and in other cultures. 

The CLAC website provides details about the various forms CLAC can take within the curriculum, a discussion blog, information for faculty and institutions seeking to implement CLAC initiatives, and descriptions of CLAC programs at a number of institutions.

One more level to go!

The next installment of Internationalization in Action will look beyond individual institutions, examining broader efforts to internationalize curriculum at the discipline level. We’ll also take a look at how all this comes together, and how to assess student global learning. Stay tuned!


 Internationalization Toolkit

Looking to jumpstart internationalization? No need to reinvent the wheel. Explore ACE's repository of resources for colleges and universities.

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 Model for Comprehensive Internationalization

ACE's model is a strategic, coordinated process that aligns and integrates policies, programs, and initiatives to position institutions as more globally oriented and internationally connected.
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