Teaching across disciplines can take many forms, from a single educator incorporating outside material into their own teaching, to invited guest speakers or team-teaching experiences, to total-course collaborations between educators from different fields. Many educators find “teaching at the crossroads” an energizing and creative experience, and multidisciplinary teaching helps students learn how to tackle today’s complex problems.
What’s the research?
Hardy et al. (2021) argue that multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary teaching approaches can generate positive cognitive and emotional outcomes for students, as well as help them develop critical thinking skills and a broad knowledge base that makes them more well-rounded and adaptable. They further propose that learners like this are needed to work on “complex, authentic problems with real-world importance” (Hardy et al., 2021, p. 1126).
To clarify differences among the approaches, Stember (1991) described:
- Multidisciplinary work, in which people from different disciplines work together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge;
- Interdisciplinary work, which integrates knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches; and
- Transdisciplinary work, which involves understanding the unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.
While these differences are important logistically and pedagogically, Hardy et al. refer to multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary teaching collectively as MITT, to differentiate them from single-discipline approaches and emphasize the potential for integrative learning that they all share.
Write a MITT-related learning objective. Explicitly state how you want learners to use material from across disciplines. Some examples adapted from Golding (2009) include:
- Apply different disciplinary perspectives to modern-day events
- Employ multiple ways of knowing in problem-solving discussion
- Critically evaluate knowledge from a range of disciplines
- Synthesize knowledge from multiple disciplines to produce something greater than would be possible from any one disciplinary perspective
Assess for grounding, integration, and self-critique. Mansilla and Daraising (2007) recommend that assessment of student work across disciplines should include assessment of:
- How well pieces of the work are grounded in the discipline(s) upon which they draw;
- How well that work contributes to integrated insights and understandings (for example, conceptual frameworks, graphic representations, models, metaphors, or more comprehensive work); and
- The degree to which the work exhibits “a clear sense of purpose, reflectiveness, and self-critique” (p. 222, emphasis added). Working with many disciplines involves different ways of knowing about something, so it is a natural opportunity to invite the learner to reflect upon the limits of various kinds of knowing—including their own.
Activities to stimulate MITT-related thinking with your students
- Assign a “one minute paper” in which students take one minute to describe the connections, alignments, and divergences they see between material in your course and other courses they have taken. Conversation about these one-minute papers will help students deepen their understanding of your material.
- Assign case studies on current events to student groups. Give groups a few primary sources like news articles, op-eds, or podcasts, and invite them to find more. Ask groups to identify the key problems in the case study—in both technical and human terms—and what research questions would help them understand or address those problems. Help groups find at least one expert to interview before they present to the class on the case, its problems, and their position(s) on its associated issues (Katy Shorey, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Northeastern University).
- Create an assignment in which students explore the importance and relevance of a specific skill in multiple contexts. For example, you can begin by identifying a skill that’s central to your own course. Then ask students to work in groups to identify and research other contexts and disciplines where that skill is also a core skill—as many as they can (e.g., Hutchison, 2016).
- Use student portfolios (or ePortfolios) to create a place for students to organize, reflect upon, and integrate different kinds of work (Peet et al., 2011; Peet, 2010).
- Connect with colleagues from other disciplines interested in working together by joining a CATLR cohort program, teaching an interdisciplinary Honors seminar, leading a Dialogue of Civilizations, or connecting with an interdisciplinary research cluster.
Golding, C. (2009). Integrating the disciplines: Successful interdisciplinary subjects. Melbourne, Australia: Centre for the Study of Higher Education. https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf
Hardy, J. G., Sdepanian, S., Stowell, A. F., Aljohani, A. D., Allen, M. J., Anwar, A., Barton, D., Baum, J. V., Bird, D., Blaney, A., Brewster, L., Cheneler, D., Efremova, O., Entwistle, M., Esfahani, R. N., Firlak, M., Foito, A., Forciniti, L., Geissler, S. A., … Wright, K. L. (2021). Potential for chemistry in multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary teaching activities in higher education. Journal of Chemical Education, 98(4), 1124-1145. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c01363
Hutchison, M. (2016). The empathy project: Using a project-based learning assignment to increase first-year college students’ comfort with interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 10(1), 9. https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1580&context=ijpbl
Mansilla, V. B., & Duraising, E. D. (2007). Targeted assessment of students’ interdisciplinary work: An empirically grounded framework proposed. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(2), 215-237. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2007.11780874
Peet, M. (2010). The integrative knowledge portfolio process: A program guide for educating reflective practitioners and lifelong learners. https://doi.org/10.15766/mep_2374-8265.7892
Peet, M., Lonn, S., Gurin, P., Boyer, K. P., Matney, M., Marra, T., … & Daley, A. (2011). Fostering integrative knowledge through ePortfolios. International Journal of ePortfolio, 1(1), 11-31. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1107600.pdf
Stember, M. (1991). Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise. The Social Science Journal, 28(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/0362-3319(91)90040-B