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date: 26 June 2017

Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education

Summary and Keywords

Interdisciplinary curricula provide students the opportunity to work with knowledge drawn from multiple disciplines. Following suit, interdisciplinary learning requires interaction of knowledge from different disciplines; integration of knowledge from different disciplines; and an overarching topic, theme, or problem that shapes the learning experience. Since the university curriculum is commonly structured by academic disciplines, and faculty are socialized to their respective disciplinary norms, interdisciplinarity is a complex endeavor for colleges and universities. These endeavors include developing interdisciplinary courses, sustaining interdisciplinary initiatives, and financing interdisciplinary programs.

Given the multiple challenges facing 21st-century society, the question of interdisciplinarity is urgent. How knowledge is defined and disseminated; how and what students learn; and how higher education can be responsive to its external environment are crucial issues facing educators. Responding to these issues does not diminish the role of the discipline in education, but rather acknowledges that knowledge is unbounded and potential discoveries lie outside compartmentalized structures.

Keywords: interdisciplinarity, integration, curriculum, learning, higher education, discipline

Disciplines provide the organizational foundation for academic departments in higher education, as well as the curricular foundation for major fields of study and the dominant basis of preparing future faculty. Upon completion of their doctoral degrees, most faculty assume positions that perpetuate the division of knowledge, reinforcing a cycle of disciplines as normative and irrevocable. The disciplinary structure stems from a greater diversification and specialization of labor that occurred over the last two centuries.1 As bodies of knowledge grew and new areas developed, institutions focused human, financial, and social resources on segmented organizational units. These units have changed over time, however. Disciplines expand, integrate, and scale down—for example, the trajectory of home economics (now family and consumer sciences) or the birth of physical education (drawing from psychology and anatomy, among others). While disciplines may change, the dominant structure of higher education has not. The structure provides numerous advantages, including the ability to concentrate resources in specific areas, the opportunity for a scholarly community to flourish around a particular set of problems or topics, and a strong connection between student education and industry.2

However, the limitations of the disciplinary foundation are evident when we consider interdisciplinary curricula. Interdisciplinary curricula result from efforts of colleges and universities to engage in knowledge activities that cross disciplinary boundaries, structuring in turn the learning experiences of students.3 Understanding the challenge of interdisciplinarity requires acknowledging that knowledge does not always advance in a linear fashion, nor does knowledge flourish solely through accruing progressively deeper and more complex disciplinary insights. Knowledge is defined and compartmentalized based on social and institutional decisions. When knowledge is kept strictly defined in disciplinary compartments, making potentially rich connections between various epistemological ideas that cross these various areas is difficult. So too is the ability to solve complex problems that require more than one area of expertise, such as climate change or poverty. Interdisciplinary curricula provide learning environments that allow students and faculty from different disciplinary backgrounds to engage in scholarly conversations around issues of shared interest and importance, while also exploring connections between their majors and other sources of knowledge and experience. This article summarizes the definition and history of interdisciplinary curricula in higher education before examining the relationship between the disciplines and interdisciplinarity; learning experiences and outcomes associated with interdisciplinary curricula; and the long-term challenges of administering interdisciplinary programs.

Defining Interdisciplinary Curricula

The conversation about interdisciplinary curricula begins with the definition of interdisciplinarity. The term is frequently used in higher education to describe activities that fall outside traditional disciplinary boundaries, but little attention is typically given to what is actually meant by the term. The differences among interdisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary work are important. Significant differences include (1) the degree of interaction individuals have outside a single disciplinary community, (2) the degree of integration between bodies of knowledge associated with the disciplines, and (3) the presence of an overarching problem, topic, or theme that drives interdisciplinary engagement.4

“Crossdisciplinarity” is the most generic of terms, referring to multiple forms of crossing boundaries. One of the most familiar examples is borrowing tools, methods, concepts, or theories to expand understanding of a topic or problem in a given field.5 The contributing discipline is a passive construct rather than an active point of engagement. Crossdisciplinary scholars work within their own disciplinary discourses and norms. As an example, ideas from political science are used to understand political conflict in fictional literature. Crossdisciplinarity has a long history as part of the modern university, especially among disciplines that share boundaries or those with a shared focus. The disciplines of physics and astronomy illustrate this history. Physics studies the laws that govern the universe; these laws extend (to the best of contemporary knowledge) to non-Earthly environments. As a result, physics and astronomy programs are commonly housed in the same academic department, enabling crossdisciplinary engagement.

“Multidisciplinary” knowledge lacks the hallmark characteristic of interdisciplinarity–integration. This approach is “encyclopedic.”6 In multidisciplinary studies, knowledge is sequenced in a manner that allows students to experience related disciplinary contributions to a topic, but no effort is made to synthesize these contributions.7 Though students are exposed to content from various disciplines, they do not learn to question extant disciplinary structures. Thus, multidisciplinarity is characterized by disciplinary juxtaposition rather than disciplinary integration, the hallmark of interdisciplinarity. While juxtaposing disciplines allows for wide access to an array of related knowledge, each discipline retains its individual identity. For example, geopolitical conflict may be studied from social, economic, and religious perspectives, with no effort to integrate the different points of view. An academic seminar focused on veterans may bring faculty from such disciplines as social work, education, economics, cognitive science, psychology, and public health, each providing a distinct perspective on the veteran experience.

The concept of “transdisciplinarity” has expanded over time. In the first typology of terms, the concept referred to a common system of axioms that transcends disciplinary worldviews through an overarching synthesis, such as anthropology conceived as a science of humans. As the trajectory of knowledge production evolved, the term became associated with a variety of overarching frameworks, including general systems theory, feminist theory, cultural critique, and sustainability. In addition, a new connotation arose in the late 20th century: co-production of knowledge with stakeholders in society. Scientifically reliable knowledge is still important, but “socially robust knowledge” is responsive to the public and private spheres.8 The Mode 2 theory of knowledge production is one of the most frequently cited models.9 In contrast to linear, discipline-based approaches, transdisciplinarity is associated with complexity, nonlinearity, and heterogeneity. Learning Labs exemplify transdisciplinarity. They operate as community science centers and are supported by nonprofit organizations, higher education, and industry.

As for “interdisciplinarity,” the term refers to integration of knowledge from multiple disciplines in pursuit of an outcome that is not possible from a single disciplinary approach. Interdisciplinary integration can occur through blending and linking different epistemological forms. Accordingly, interdisciplinary curricula “critically draw upon two or more disciplines and lead to an integration of disciplinary insights.”10 Campbell11 famously proposed a fish-scale model of interdisciplinarity, comparable to overlapping scales on a fish’s body. The ethnocentric nature of disciplines results in clusters of knowledge in the gaps between them. Campbell’s model suggests a critique of graduate education and institutional structures. Scholars are trained increasingly within interdisciplinary clusters, but they are often simply added to the existing structure, leaving epistemological gaps unexplored. When applied to knowledge activities, this model would favor “novel specialties, novel ranges of competence, and new administrative structures that facilitate communication across disciplines.”12

While different curricula share the “interdisciplinary” label, a variety of approaches have appeared. Lattuca’s13 typology illustrates the multiple forms interdisciplinary curricula can assume. These forms are defined by interaction and integration that occur between academic disciplines and are shaped by the type of question being asked. Synthetic questions bridge disciplines and so cannot be completely answered by a single discipline. Transdisciplinary questions apply across disciplines; they do not conform to a single disciplinary identity. Because conceptual questions have no disciplinary basis, they are not restricted by any disciplinary frame. Lattuca argued for four kinds of interdisciplinary curricula. (1) With Informed Disciplinarity, instructors concentrate on a single discipline but bring in other disciplinary ideas to enhance course content. Examples include the use of statistical data to show how poverty impacts public health outcomes or when economic theories expand sociological analyses of voting behavior. (2) Synthetic Interdisciplinarity combines theories, concepts, and research methods, although boundaries between different disciplines remain clear. This curriculum would be especially evident in team-taught courses where instructors from different disciplines individually developed and delivered a portion of the class. (3) Transdisciplinarity applies across fields, where students engage with real-world practices through a variety of prescribed tasks. (4) Finally, Conceptual Interdisciplinarity has no disciplinary focus. For example, frameworks of inquiry such as poststructuralism or postmodernism do not belong within a single discipline. First-year seminars focused on questions of leadership or civic engagement require students to understand, evaluate, and critique knowledge from multiple disciplines.

Both specialization and interdisciplinary activity vary across the contemporary university landscape.14 This variety can complicate identifying and classifying interdisciplinary curricula, since they assume diverse organizational forms. Interdisciplinary learning experiences typically occur through structures that fit within the traditional organization of higher education, such as autonomous colleges, cluster colleges, interdisciplinary departments, centers, and institutes. Nontraditional settings as learning communities, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and multi-institutional consortia are also common. Interdisciplinarity also occurs in traditional disciplines, schools, and colleges. Consider programs in economics, which can be housed in colleges of business, arts and sciences, agriculture, or education, to name a few. The study of economics can also occur in departments of mathematics, sociology, or political science. Professional schools15 such as law, medicine, engineering, and education often include multiple disciplinary specialties to help students situate themselves within the larger scope of professional practice.16 Disciplinary diversity does not necessarily translate into interdisciplinary learning, however, and many so-called interdisciplinary programs are actually “multidisciplinary.”

A history of interdisciplinary curricula

The curriculum represents a prescribed set of courses designed to shape student learning. Its structure reflects arrangement of knowledge by experts in a way that makes a discipline or field of study accessible.17 However, the curriculum does not result from a neutral process but rather from decisions faculty and institutional leaders make about how knowledge should be packaged and delivered. Members of disciplinary communities codify what counts as knowledge, conferring legitimacy on specific perspectives, ideas, and paradigms. Disciplines are nested within the academic organization of a particular institution as well as the larger higher education system, adding other influences on knowledge production such as local priorities. As a result of tensions between the nature of knowledge and the culture of higher education, the curriculum has been the subject of debate, reform, and change throughout the history of American higher education. Examples include the land grant emphasis on science, engineering, and agriculture beginning in the late 1800s and the introduction of specialist studies programs in the mid-1900s in response to sociocultural concerns.

The Industrial Revolution in the 1800s coincided with the growth of knowledge across science, engineering, and agriculture. This expansion intensified tension between the classical college curriculum—grounded in study of Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and logic—and new areas of knowledge in a growing American economy. A new tension also arose when the undergraduate major was institutionalized in an “elective system,” requiring students to complete a series of courses reflecting areas of specialization with selected electives.18 This system allowed students to make individual choices based on their interests and in ways that complemented their majors. It also enabled faculty to teach courses in their areas of specialty—an important consideration as faculty became more and more professionalized in disciplinary domains during the 20th century in academic departments. The system was not without its critics, especially the perceived sacrifice of general knowledge for the sake of specialization.19

Any analysis of interdisciplinary curricula should acknowledge the influence of general education, especially in U.S. higher education. While many general education programs are based on a multidisciplinary assortment of separate disciplinary courses, some programs allow students to integrate knowledge from multiple areas into an integrative framework that constitutes a common core. In a few cases, cores are institution-wide, though in others they are tailored for particular groups such as honors students. The underlying premise is that students should possess a common body of knowledge, regardless of their majors. Interdisciplinary general education also cultivates integrative skills, including the ability to work with multiple forms of knowledge to understand complex questions, cope with complexity, grapple with problems by drawing on multiple points of view, and understand the role of context. An early model appeared at Yale University20 in 1901, when core areas in social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities were introduced. This model fostered connection-making in ways the elective system did not. In the 1930s, the University of Chicago also consolidated academic departments into four divisions: physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Faculty, in kind, developed a gateway survey course for all students in each division.21 Over time, interdisciplinary general education also became associated with preparing students to be global citizens with an understanding of the world outside their specialties. While general education programs possess the potential for interdisciplinary learning, the most common distribution model remains multidisciplinary and does not give specific attention to issues of integration and interdisciplinary methodology.

In addition to general education and electives, other innovations in curriculum have fostered interdisciplinarity. For instance, the experimental spirit of mid-20th-century American higher education led to founding new academic institutions whose mission highlighted interdisciplinary initiatives and student learning opportunities, including the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay (1965), the University of California, Santa Cruz (1965), and Evergreen State College (1967). Evergreen State drew inspiration from Alexander Meiklejohn, who oversaw the interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum of the University of Wisconsin’s Experimental College in the late 1920s. At Evergreen State, students undertake multidisciplinary studies organized around a theme; share a common reading list; and engage in small learning communities. The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay also retains its interdisciplinary mission, emphasizing interdisciplinary learning focused on problem solving across the undergraduate curriculum. Outside the United States, examples of institutions established in pursuit of interdisciplinary models also appear, including Linköping University (Sweden, established in 1975) and the University of Sussex (England, established in 1961).22 Institutions do not necessarily retain elements of their interdisciplinary foundation. Influences such as state funding, the job market, accountability and assessment, student interests, and knowledge trends can change an institution’s orientation and priorities.

In addition to academic institutions founded in the 20th century which embraced an interdisciplinary mission, new interdisciplinary fields arose, such as area, gender, and race/ethnic studies. Area studies, for instance, allowed scholars from a range of disciplines to focus on a specific geographical region. The founding of the Association for Asian Studies (1948), the American Studies Association (1950), and the Latin American Studies Association (1966) served the needs of new fields that fostered scholarly connections outside of a single discipline. The Urban Affairs Association (1969), the National Council for Black Studies (1975), the Society for Social Studies of Science (1975), and the National Women’s Studies Association (1977) offered interdisciplinary opportunities in urban, gender, and race/ethnic studies as well as the study of science and technology.

While interdisciplinary programs in these areas are now common at colleges and universities, they assume many different forms. Some are areas of specialization within the academic department. Others may be freestanding, independent departments or schools. Program structures may change over time. Established, autonomous, and respected interdisciplinary studies programs at Wayne State, Appalachian State, San Francisco State, and Miami Universities closed in the early 21st century, eventually replaced with different interdisciplinary initiatives.23 Wealthy, large institutions or those with an emphasis on undergraduate degrees in arts and sciences provide hospitable environments for interdisciplinary areas of study compared to other institutional types.24 Interdisciplinary programs in the humanities and social sciences far outnumber programs in the natural and applied sciences.

The relationship between the disciplines and interdisciplinarity

Academic disciplines, to reiterate, typically take the structural form of programs, departments, and schools or colleges. Beyond these structural forms, other features distinguish disciplines as unique fields. Aldrich25 added that a discipline is defined by a scientific community that engages in peer review, acting as gatekeepers of the quality of research products in a particular subject area.26 Peer review shapes validation of knowledge and, in turn, plays a role in determining curriculum. Within an interdisciplinary field of study, a clearly demarcated, well-structured, and accessible scientific community can be absent. Questions that drive interdisciplinary efforts are not always grounded in an established body of knowledge, and individuals may be spread across different disciplines, institutions, and even continents. A discipline also has a flagship journal, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and a scholarly professional association.27 These components serve as cultural symbols unifying a particular domain of knowledge, while reinforcing its longevity and trajectory.

In contrast, interdisciplinary areas can be in their infancy, or move in and out of different stages, presenting obstacles to shaping the cultural symbols that define disciplines. The question of whether interdisciplinary fields exhibit characteristics of a discipline is a matter of debate. Not all interdisciplinary areas develop on the same trajectory or the same rate. Molecular biology traces its origins to the convergence of physics, genetics, and structural chemistry in the early 1900s and is now commonly recognized as a discipline. Although cognitive science originated a few decades later, the field spreads across multiple academic departments, including psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy. The answer is not easy, even when focusing just on curriculum. Repko and Szostak28 suggest another way of thinking about disciplines, including (1) a constantly evolving epistemological foundation, (2) cognitive discord evidenced by disagreements within the same field, and (3) a tendency to push against boundaries, especially with neighboring fields of study. These characteristics underscore how disciplines themselves are in a constant state of change, and indeed some argue that modern disciplines have become more interdisciplinary. Frank and Gabler29 argue that “forces of change” cut across knowledge domains, with implications throughout what is regarded as “the academic core.” These implications are reflected in rearrangement of academic disciplines, particularly the way they expand or contract in relation to each other. Just as interdisciplinary fields change state, so do disciplines.

Klein30 suggested that the question of interdisciplinarity is also linked with an extended definition of discipline: the notion of “federated” disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and anthropology. They are large in size and include independent subdivisions that exhibit distinct disciplinary features while maintaining loose connections among their subdivisions. For example, anthropology is divided into the subdivisions of physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. Each of these subdivisions, in turn, is further divided into smaller and more niche knowledge domains. Archaeology is further divided into ethnoarchaeology, cultural resource management, and other even smaller fields, as are the other subdivisions. While new students may take a common introductory course, their programs of study diverge along different subdivisions.

Given the similar ways that knowledge evolves as a part of human contact and interaction, it would be a mistake to assume that disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields of study exist at opposite ends of an epistemological continuum. Klein31 suggested that the goal of interdisciplinary identity fields is to “reconfigure the social and cognitive space of the academy into a new community of pluralities that is both intercultural and interdisciplinary” (p. 8). This goal, though, applies more generally to other fields as well. Interdisciplinarity also explores questions and problems that do not exist within disciplines. Curricula that acknowledge a diversity of perspectives related to a particular topic of study promote inclusion of a range of perspectives while cultivating skills needed for integration and collaboration. At the same time, the motivation for interdisciplinary engagement is not solely to expand epistemological perspectives. It is also driven by overlapping social, cultural, and economic factors. Interdisciplinary studies degrees targeted toward adult or nontraditional students may aim to increase an individual’s earning potential, for example, while interdisciplinary degrees in environmental science underscore challenges related to the environment and sustainability.

Learning experiences and outcomes for interdisciplinary curricula

Klein32 delineated elements of the interdisciplinary learning process, including defining the problem at hand, determining bodies of knowledge relevant to the problem, developing an integrative framework, evaluating relevant epistemological concepts, and integrating them toward an interdisciplinary understanding or outcome. Defining the problem can be a difficult task for students and faculty, as problems tend to be framed by disciplinary terminology and may themselves be disciplinary constructs. What one discipline sees as a problem, for example, may not be evident in another. When the problem is removed from the disciplinary context, scholars may experience difficulty in describing its relevance and import. These challenges extend to determining relevant bodies of knowledge. Disciplines tend to follow unique epistemological trajectories,33 making it difficult to assess knowledge outside of a disciplinary context.

In addition, differences exist between undergraduate and graduate interdisciplinary curricula. Prior learning experiences are one factor. Students in master’s or doctoral coursework bring an undergraduate foundation that provides a depth of knowledge and shapes their perception of an interdisciplinary topic. Undergraduate students likely lack the depth of knowledge graduate students have in a specific field, suggesting they begin their experience in an interdisciplinary course at a different cognitive level. In short, disciplinary foundations shape interdisciplinary learning. Boix Mansilla34 outlined four cognitive processes involved in interdisciplinary work:

  1. 1. Establishing purpose

  2. 2. Weighing disciplinary insights

  3. 3. Building leveraging integrations

  4. 4. Maintaining a critical stance.

Establishing purpose offers a guide to students and faculty. The purpose frames the learning agenda and illustrates why an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. A clear purpose also offers a benchmark for assessing student learning outcomes. Through selecting disciplinary insights, learners highlight those bodies of knowledge relevant to the issue and give shape to the process of inquiry. Leveraging integrations encourages students to produce integrative understandings. Potential integrative devices include complex explanation and a focus on multiple causes for a multifaceted phenomenon. Others such as aesthetic reinterpretation (using music or art) and practical solutions (developing a coherent and viable plan) let students actively integrate knowledge. A critical stance allows students and faculty to measure learning outcomes according to the interdisciplinary purpose, the sources of disciplinary evidence, and the selection of integrative devices. These four cognitive processes are overlapping and reinforcing.

Boix Mansilla and Duraisingh35 offered additional examples of integrative devices, using data collected from an undergraduate interdisciplinary science and humanities program. These examples are typical of epistemic frames used to synthesize knowledge from two or more disciplines.

  • Complex explanations: Students “explained the impact of the nuclear revolution by interweaving their scientific understanding of atomic energy with an analysis of the relevant historical and sociological context.”

  • Aesthetic reinterpretations: Students synthesized “their responses to literary and musical interpretations of the Faust legend ... exploring the role of religious symbolism through an installation or painting.”

  • Practical solutions: Students “borrowed strategically from different disciplines to craft a viable and coherent way to address a defined problem, such as a shortage of donated organs” (p. 226).

Graduate-level interdisciplinary curricula exhibit distinctive traits that reflect student goals and previous student learning experiences, although less research has been given to the issue. Borrego and Newswander36 examined graduate-level interdisciplinary curricula in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Aspects of the curriculum unique to graduate-level studies in STEM fields included an emphasis on teamwork and communication skills. The authors concluded: “Skilled interdisciplinarians explicitly reflect on the challenges and processes of integration, including the limitation of various disciplinary perspectives and the synergistic value of the interdisciplinary approach.” Graduate-level curricula provide these skills by exposing students to multiple disciplines, in both academic coursework and research settings. Using data collected from a survey of NSF-funded IGERT programs, Borrego and Newswander found curricula featuring two or more disciplines in depth were most common. The necessary skill of integration was taught through systems theory or similar devices. The scarcity of research on graduate-level student outcomes in interdisciplinary programs across the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine how widely these findings apply.

Depending on the level of instruction and local institutional context, interdisciplinary curricula promote a range of different student learning outcomes. Several student outcomes are common across these different settings: foremost among them are flexible thinking, enhanced cognitive skills, greater tolerance for ambiguity, ability to synthesize information, and improved critical thinking skills.37 Students engaged in interdisciplinary courses also demonstrate unconventional thinking skills compared to their peers not enrolled in such coursework.38 These gains result from experiences with the task of integration, when students are required to bring together different disciplinary components in novel and sometimes unprecedented ways. They also demonstrate sensitivity to bias (considering interdisciplinary behavior requires examining assumptions that underscore disciplinary knowledge) and enhanced listening skills (as a result of scrutiny required in considering validity of multiple points of view). Students in interdisciplinary courses learn how to evaluate and synthesize new information39 and encounter unique opportunities to connect extant and emergent knowledge.40

Interdisciplinary courses often prompt alternative ways of teaching and assessing outcomes. Extensive empirical evidence is lacking on whether students benefit solely from interdisciplinary context or alternative teaching styles. Some evidence, though, suggests engagement in interdisciplinary learning strengthens critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities are enhanced when students negotiate different disciplinary bodies of knowledge to achieve interdisciplinary outcomes. For instance, Tsui41 demonstrated critical thinking gains for students in interdisciplinary coursework, especially courses utilizing alternative and experimental forms of pedagogy. Full et al. illustrated how undergraduate students in an interdisciplinary science course posted gains in critical thinking through participation in a “discovery-based laboratory.” Students worked in collaborative teams to develop hypotheses and procure evidence.42 Engaging students in authentic tasks related to real-world problems enables easier recall of ideas in future settings. Lattuca, Voight, and Fath43 reported that “tasks associated with the problem replicate the data gathering, analysis, and problem solving that students expect to encounter in everyday life and work.” Hapern and Hagel44 reasoned that varying the conditions in which students learn to simulate unpredictable real-world environments produces better learning outcomes. They also noted that learning is enhanced when knowledge is acquired in one setting and applied in another. Interacting with challenging problems offers students opportunities to develop unique epistemological approaches. King and Kitchener45 also argued that ill-structured problems inherent to interdisciplinarity require nuanced and reflective thinking.

Beyond problem orientation, interdisciplinary courses also tend to promote structural knowledge, including ways information is related and organized.46 Knowledge structure plays a crucial role in memory and information recall. De Jong and Ferguson-Hessler47 documented how experts accrue knowledge not by having a superior memory, but rather by organizing knowledge in meaningful units that have relationships to other units. Knowledge structures are enhanced by a depth of knowledge; the processing of deep knowledge allows learners to construct stronger and more elaborate structures. Students in interdisciplinary courses develop structural knowledge from different domains. By developing a critical assessment of the relationship between different knowledge domains, students are able to more deeply analyze the interdisciplinary problem, topic, or theme.48

This emphasis occurs in part because interdisciplinary courses are typically constructed around a particular focus, similar to ways traditional disciplinary courses allocate subject matter. As students work through selected disciplinary material, their goal is to understand the content of disciplinary contributions and their underlying logic. Integration occurs when students see a problem or topic as more than the simple sum of its disciplinary parts. Yet, the question of curriculum persists. Course designers must determine what basic skills or knowledge students need before enrolling in a particular course. They must also consider at which stage students should be exposed to more advanced concepts.

The sequence of disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses impacts student learning experiences. Newell49 suggested introducing students to interdisciplinary coursework during their first year of college, encouraging openness to new thinking styles before students are socialized into a particular disciplinary major. However, because successful interdisciplinary outcomes require disciplinary contributions, allowing courses to build on the strengths of other disciplines may provide the best outcome. Students can utilize newly acquired disciplinary cognitive tools, while identifying their strengths and weaknesses. In a meta-analysis of research related to interdisciplinary learning, Spelt et al.50 identified skills necessary for positive student learning outcomes in interdisciplinary environments, including knowledge of the disciplines and of disciplinary paradigms. Students draw on their disciplinary knowledge in interdisciplinary environments. The authors further concluded that a balance between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity links curricular content, encouraging a progressively more complex knowledge base and a clear roadmap for learning.

The following sections discuss writing, team teaching, and pedagogy, each considered crucial to active engagement and learning in interdisciplinary settings.


Writing skills are widely considered an important area of student development in higher education. Through general education, students satisfy writing demands by fulfilling specific discipline-based requirements. Across these courses, students continue to be introduced to argumentative writing, where evidence from external sources is gathered and assessed. A more multidisciplinary approach to writing emerged in the mid-1970s, when the “writing-across-the-curriculum” (WAC) movement sought to address writing overlaps across academic disciplines. In the same way that the general education curriculum reflects interdisciplinary ideals in cross-secting foci, so do WAC programs. McLeod51 described the basic assumptions of the movement: “that writing and thinking are closely allied, that learning to write well involves learning particular discourse conventions, and that, therefore, writing belongs in the entire curriculum, not just a course offered by the English department.”

Advocates of WAC argue that the act of writing is best understood as “writing to learn.” Resnic contended that the act of writing has the potential to be “a cultivator and an enabler of higher order thinking . . . especially if we consider writing as an occasion to think through arguments and to master forms of reasoning and persuasion.” Boix Mansilla et al.52 proposed a framework designed to assess student writing in interdisciplinary settings. It builds on four dimensions of interdisciplinary understanding: purposefulness, disciplinary grounding, integration, and critical awareness. The first dimension–purposefulness–enables objects of study to be presented as viable and multidimensional, requiring interdisciplinary study. The second dimension–disciplinary grounding–illustrates skill in using components of disciplinary knowledge toward a flexible interdisciplinary inquiry. These components are not examined in isolation, however. They are put to use toward an integrative end. The third dimension–successful integration–requires students to employ an integrative device in a way that utilizes disciplinary knowledge and supports an interdisciplinary conclusion, outcome, or result. In the final dimension–critical awareness–students recognize the strengths and weaknesses of disciplinary insights.

Team Teaching

Interdisciplinary efforts also arise from collaborative efforts of faculty from different disciplines. In team-taught courses, individual instructors are responsible for their respective disciplinary contributions, though the group shares instructional design responsibilities.53 This approach moves past reductionist tendencies of disciplines, although faculty may need support as they navigate the course terrain. Shapiro and Dempsey54 reflected on challenges of interdisciplinary team teaching, noting, “Disparate goals related to content, process, identity, and relationship contribute to conflict.” Although instructors can model collaboration and gain knowledge from outside their discipline by co-teaching an interdisciplinary class, student assessment can prove to be a difficult obstacle, as instructors seek techniques that satisfy both the disciplinary and interdisciplinary context.

Davis55 suggested several criteria for determining the degree of collaboration in interdisciplinary team teaching. The first, planning, considers how involved faculty are in planning the course and whether collaborative decision making occurs when determining learning outcomes. Content integration, the second criterion, assesses the representation of different disciplinary perspectives, especially if and how the perspectives are integrated as part of the course structure. The third criterion focuses on teaching. Who is responsible for teaching in the course? What teaching strategies are prioritized? How are these decisions made? Finally, testing and evaluation offers insight into what learning outcomes will be measured and how; how course faculty are involved in the process; and what mechanisms students may use to provide course feedback. Despite obstacles, team teaching is acknowledged as a best practice for interdisciplinary courses.56 Successful team teaching experiences require instructors to have common beliefs about the roles of teachers and students. Shared beliefs provide an important foundation as instructors negotiate different disciplinary perspectives. Interdisciplinary partnerships enable instructors to conceptualize the curriculum in innovative ways, seeking depth rather than breadth. In the same way that differences between epistemological ideas can produce generative tensions leading to knowledge advances, so can differences in teaching styles and content produce positive classroom interactions.

In order to prepare for interdisciplinary team teaching, Lattuca57 suggested that instructors begin by reading outside their discipline and participating in conversation with scholars from other fields of study. This requirement demands that faculty engage in different, and perhaps more extensive, forms of preparation than teaching a course in their home disciplines. Collaboration is also a necessary element for some interdisciplinary courses, as instructors can bring a range of epistemological perspectives into course development and delivery. Teachable moments occur when students encounter difficult or challenging epistemological obstacles while observing teachers negotiating boundaries between different disciplines. Davis58 concluded that students benefit when reminded of the course’s intellectual structure and rationale. He added, “These efforts . . . are not likely to yield much unless students see faculty collaborating in the classroom.” As one example, an intellectual debate among faculty colleagues offers students insight into professional disagreement that is expert and collegial.59


Interdisciplinary pedagogical approaches usually align with the idea of integrative learning. Klein defined integrative learning as “an umbrella term for structures, strategies, and activities that bridge numerous divides.”60 DeZure61 noted that integrative learning comes in different varieties, including the connection of knowledge and skills from different sources; the application of theory to practice in a range of settings; the ability to reconcile diverse and competing viewpoints; and the ability to understand issues in context. These different varieties impact interdisciplinary pedagogical approaches and their influence in the classroom.

One obstacle associated with interdisciplinary pedagogy is fostering the integration between different bodies of knowledge necessary for interdisciplinary outcomes. Nikitina62 developed different approaches to interdisciplinary teaching. The first approach, contextualizing, allows for disciplinary material to be embedded in the study of time, culture, and personal experience. The second approach, conceptualizing, requires identification of core concepts from multiple disciplines. Students then focus on connections between these concepts. Often a connection can be established through empirical or theoretical evidence. Problem-centering, the final approach, occurs when a problem or topic is the primary focus of the course; students learn how to apply disciplinary knowledge toward further understanding the problem.

A rapidly changing environment for higher education shapes the way instructors approach interdisciplinary courses. For example, DeZure63 suggested e-portfolios and online programs that facilitate collaboration as pedagogical tools well suited for interdisciplinary engagement. Increased attention to learning and assessment has led to strong evidence of the effectiveness of high-impact practices, such as service learning and learning communities. When combined with activities that emphasize writing and critical reflection, these practices encourage intentional learning.

Faculty development related to interdisciplinary pedagogy is supported through both internal and external mechanisms. One example is Boston University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning, which provides faculty development opportunities related to interdisciplinary or general education courses, including training in the use of e-portfolios as well as alternative assessment techniques. Duquesne University sponsors faculty learning groups, drawing participants from across the disciplines that focus on the challenges of constructing effective interdisciplinary learning environments. Doctoral students can also gain knowledge related to interdisciplinary pedagogy through graduate teaching certificate programs or future faculty fellows programs. Federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health increasingly prioritize interdisciplinary topics that engage faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students in research activities that provide experience in interdisciplinary settings.

Long-term Challenges to the Organization and Administration of Interdisciplinary Curricula

The organization of interdisciplinary curricula is strongly influenced by institutional context, culture, and history. For instance, Duke University is considered among the first major American research universities to establish interdisciplinarity as a cornerstone of its institutional mission. The university directed considerable financial resources toward establishing interdisciplinary initiatives among its teaching, research, and service functions. In comparison, Bard College draws from its liberal arts mission to prioritize interdisciplinary learning among its undergraduate students; Bard created the first human rights major in the United States and developed Citizen Science, a required course in the first-year curriculum to enhance scientific literacy regardless of academic major. Another important factor is the availability of human and financial resources. Not all interdisciplinary courses share the same goals or learning outcomes. Common goals include the ability for students to understand and integrate different bodies of knowledge as well as understand how questions or topics might cross disciplinary boundaries. Some curricula are strongly grounded in social justice missions, such as programs in gender or race/ethnic studies. Others might seek opportunities to experiment with innovative or novel approaches to learning, including an undergraduate honors or general education capstone course. The mission and purpose of the curriculum should be taken into account when considering issues of staffing, structure, and student outcomes.

Interdisciplinary programs may struggle with revenue generation, depending on their organizational structure and their place within the institutional hierarchy.64 The funding mechanisms vary. Some programs result from an initial investment by the central administration and are expected to procure future funding independently. Other programs rely on student tuition or faculty grants. Programs may also be supported in perpetuity by the administration, especially when interdisciplinary efforts align with cultural initiatives of the institution or with the institutional mission statement. At some colleges with strong liberal arts missions, interdisciplinarity is a foundation of the core curriculum. The curriculum at Wellesley College highlights creative thinking that crosses disciplinary boundaries, and its emphasis on new fields and interdisciplinary approaches is considered an institutional hallmark. In comparison, cultivating new interdisciplinary efforts is part of the strategic plan at Case Western Reserve University. The institution has prioritized funding to these efforts. Assessing institutional productivity by degree production is an increasingly popular approach to allocating scarce public funds for higher education. Interdisciplinary programs that do not offer a degree are disadvantaged by this form of measurement, and must offer other forms of evidence that indicate their value to the institution, the student, and society. External grant funding to support interdisciplinary programs is available, especially in STEM-related fields of study. While securing a grant is a competitive process, this funding stream frees interdisciplinary programs from institutional obligations and allows them to pursue different priorities, depending on faculty and student interests. However, interdisciplinary programs can be vulnerable to the elimination of external funding.

Interdisciplinary learning is closely associated with interdisciplinary spaces. The spaces best suited to this sort of interaction are commonly defined as flexible, innovative, and adaptable to alternative forms of knowledge production. Some buildings are newly constructed, evidence of an institution’s commitment to interdisciplinary work, while others are re-purposed for new knowledge opportunities.65 Space is not simply a physical construct. One example of cultural space supportive of interdisciplinary work is found in learning communities, where individuals who share similar interests (not necessarily disciplinary backgrounds) collaborate. Other examples include experiential education or university-industry partnerships.

The question of how to sustain interdisciplinary work is also crucial. If faculty are appointed in a home department, they may experience pressure to devote their energies in other directions. Even faculty with a dual/joint appointment can experience conflict about which academic unit they should prioritize. These appointments lack long-term viability, as faculty efforts may change due to individual or institutional priorities. Faculty remain a crucial element in successful interdisciplinary efforts, so cultivating a faculty able to engage in interdisciplinary work is an important consideration. Cluster faculty hiring initiatives are a recent method for achieving this goal, where faculty with complementary areas of expertise or those aligned with institutional goals are hired to work across disciplinary boundaries. Hiring initiatives are associated with emergent areas of education and research. Typically, areas of emphasis are determined by an internal competition, where administrators select proposals that align with the institution’s strategic plan and priorities.66 Early cluster faculty hiring initiatives prioritized STEM-related topics. More recent efforts included topics drawn from the social sciences and humanities, such as postcolonial studies. The lack of empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of this approach has not stopped many major American research universities from adopting it.


This summary of interdisciplinary curriculum and learning has stressed the complexity involved in such work. The complexity exists on multiple levels: between different disciplines, between different fields of study, between institutional cultures, and between the work and structure perceived to be normative for higher education. While the term “interdisciplinarity” is used broadly, consensus definitions exist for work shaped by disciplinary interaction, disciplinary integration, and the presence of an overarching problem, topic, or theme. The Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, for example, has developed support materials for the consensus definition of “interdisciplinary” education, along with bibliography of the literature. It is not enough to simply bring different disciplinary elements together. Interdisciplinarity is an active process of engagement with social and cultural influences that shape the perception of knowledge production.

Over the course of the 20th century, a number of arguments for interdisciplinarity emerged, including a holistic view of knowledge and integrative strategies of learning. Contemporary proponents of interdisciplinary curriculum join their counterparts in inter- and transdisciplinary research to argue that problems do not come in disciplinary-shaped boxes, and the university must demonstrate the flexibility needed to allow for knowledge complexity. Given advances in knowledge production and dissemination, knowledge itself can be considered increasingly interdisciplinary, which changes the construct and culture of the academic discipline. In an era when higher education institutions grapple with decreased funding, increased demands for access, and a push toward productivity and accountability, this flexibility may be difficult to come by and even harder to preserve. Just as the specialization and diversification of knowledge in the last century resulted in the modern departmental structure, knowledge continues to evolve, requiring institutions, faculty, and students to evolve as well.


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