Inter-disciplinary Learning

Why is this important?

Complex world problems require the coming together of multiple areas of expertise. As a result interdisciplinary collaborations are increasingly a vital characteristic of excellence in research. Intricate global issues also require a workforce which can combine depth of discipline knowledge with a broad experience of other disciplines’ perspectives and insights.

Summary:

This page considers the definition of interdisciplinarity and considers the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary learning. Examples of interdisciplinary collaborations are offered as food for thought.

Further detail:

Davis and Devlin (2007) explain the differences between:

  • Multidisciplinarity: co-existence of a number of disciplines.This means participants can do their own work and do not need to know about, or take account of, other participants’ work.  A multidisciplinary degree would allow students to    study several disciplines over the course of their programme.
  • Cross-Disciplinarity: ‘A topic normally outside a field of study is investigated with no co-operation from others in the area of study concerned,’ (Davis & Devlin, 2007, p3).
  • Interdisciplinarity: Recongises the obvious and subtle ways academic disciplines overlap. Levels of integration differ; from two or more subjects contributing ‘their particular disciplinary knowledge on a common subject’ (Grosskinsky, 2008, p3); to participant disciplines taking account of, and even modifying their methodologies and contributions, in light of other collaborators' work.

Benefits of interdisciplinary teaching and learning contexts include that:

  • it nurtures critical thinking
  • it encourages perspective taking
  • it increases tolerance for ambiguity
  • it improves sensitivity to varying ethical issues
  • problems being explored maybe particularly relevant and contemporary and therefore of particular interest to students - this can increase students’ motivation
  • opportunities are created for students to use their disciplinary content knowledge and skills in new contexts

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning collaborations present challenges to staff and students:

  • If undergraduate students take modules outside their home discipline they may not have the   necessary foundational knowledge, skills and cognitive frameworks. This may demand extra resources and staff support, as well as impacting content and pace in the classroom.
  • Davis & Devlin (2007, p6) argue that “Becoming an excellent disciplinarian demands undivided focus” - therefore interdisciplinary contexts may be a distraction. However, Holley (2009, p242) suggests that an interdisciplinary curriculum has a broadening as opposed to a diluting effect, on student expertise:

“The goal of an interdisciplinary curriculum is to train future scholars and practitioners who can bridge multiple disciplines in their work. These students not only gain fluency in the ideas and languages of various disciplines, but also in the behaviors (sic) expected of various disciplinary communities”.

  • Establishing interdisciplinary teaching and learning contexts requires collaboration between experts who are traditionally focused on their particular discipline within their School or Department. These collaborations require significant staff time to negotiate the learning outcomes, the teaching methods, and assessment approaches to be. Time must also be given to devising and getting approval for procedural and logistical adjustments which may be required to the administrate the programme.

Examples at Queen’s University

Grosskinsky, (2008, p5) asserts that “interdisciplinarity in education should be focused at the postgraduate and research stage”. Across Queen’s this argument is reflected in interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity being an increasing characteristic of postgraduate programmes and research collaborations.

Queen’s University Research Clusters and Forums

School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering

Institute for a Sustainable World

School of Education

Research Forum for the Child

Centre for Effective Education

School of History and Anthropology

Institute of Cognition and Culture

Institute of Irish Studies - offering an Interdisciplinary MA / Diploma

School of Languages, Literatures and Performing Arts

Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies

Postcolonial Research Forum

School of English

Translation and Cultural Encounter

School of Music and Sonic Arts

SARC

School of Law

Governance Research Cluster

Childhood, Transition and Social Justice Initiative

Cultural Dynamics and Emotions Network

Queen’s University’s recent CETLs

Centre for Excellence in the Creative and Performing Arts

Centre for Excellence in Interprofessional Education

Examples from other Universities

HEA Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group

Available to download from www.llas.ac.uk/projects/2892

    • Canning, J. (ed) (2007) ‘Disciplines in dialogue: Disciplinary perspectives on interdisciplinary teaching and learning’
    • Angelique Chettiparamb (2007) ‘Interdisciplinarity:a literature review’
    • Thew, N. (2007) ‘The impact of the internal economy of higher education institutions on interdisciplinary teaching and learning’

University of Aberdeen has recently engaged in extensive curriculum reform. One outcome has been to offer undergraduates increased choice through multi-disciplinary options throughout their degree programme.http://www.abdn.ac.uk/thedifference/background.php 

University of Melbourne has also undertaken extensive curriculum review leading to the Melbourne Model. Within this model are interdisciplinary opportunities for undergraduate students within the six New Generation degrees.

References

Davis, M. & Devlin, M. (2007) ‘Interdisciplinary higher education: Implications for teaching and learning’, Centre for the Study of Higher education, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Grosskinsky,S. (2008) ‘Interdisciplinarity in higher education: A case study of the Complexity Science DTC at Warwick’, University of Warwick, Coventry.

Holley, K. (2009) ‘The challenge of an interdisciplinary curriculum: a cultural analysis of a doctoral-degree program in neuroscience’, Higher Education, 58, pp 241-255.