Classes Suited

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

A variety of course types, defined by the goals of the course, academic level, connection to a major or interdisciplinary program, and nature of the enrolled students, are well suited for use of interdisciplinary learning methods.

Major or discipline centered courses

In major or discipline centered courses, whether advanced or introductory, the expectation is that fundamental concepts of the discipline are covered. The aim of such courses is to equip students with a solid understanding of the discipline's techniques and conceptual orientation, and to apply the discipline's way-of-thinking to questions central to the field. Thus, room to introduce additional perspectives from other disciplines on the topic, and then to integrate these insights with the newly introduced material, is limited. Moreover, because the bulk of the students will not be specialists in other disciplines, even if they are related, class time would need to be allotted to ensure students understand the analytical framework and methodology of the additional disciplines whose insights are to be included in the investigation if interdisciplinary forms of learning are adopted. Interdisciplinary instruction under such constraints is likely limited to a few selected topics as a mechanism to both identify the complexity of certain issues and to alert students that, at times, disciplinary boundaries are porous or artificial.

Advanced course within a discipline

There is more room to engage in interdisciplinary examination of issues in advanced courses in a discipline that lies outside of the core, especially if the course is formally associated with an interdisciplinary program. Examples include courses such as The Economics of Social Issues, which may be linked to Public Policy, Women's Studies, African American Studies, or Poverty Studies. Courses cross-listed with interdisciplinary programs tend to attract students from a wide range of majors in pursuit of a deeper understanding of topics, yet each of these students brings a strong understanding of their primary discipline to the learning process. This is a fertile environment in which to press for interdisciplinary examination of a substantial share of the topics covered.

Capstone courses

Capstone courses are ideally suited for interdisciplinary investigations because students at this stage of study in their major possess a deep enough understanding of the underlying principles, assumptions, and methodologies of their discipline. Therefore, they are well positioned to both extend and critique their field of study based on insights from related disciplines. Indeed, some educators believe that students cannot fully benefit from interdisciplinary studies until they acquire a solid grounding in their home discipline (Jacobs and Borland 1986). A common element of capstone courses is to critique the state-of-the-discipline and to look for areas where conventional disciplinary thinking can be advanced through the incorporation of other disciplinary frameworks. Examining how other disciplines approach the same set of questions or issues and attempting to integrate insights from multiple disciplines to form a coherent interdisciplinary perspective is a natural component of courses that close out a major.

Entry level course in interdisciplinary programs

Port-of-entry courses in interdisciplinary programs are ideally suited to learning that focuses on integrating insights from a host of disciplines because of the goals of the course and the backgrounds of the students. Students enrolled in these courses bring a wealth of knowledge from a wide range of disciplines to the learning process. Thus, efforts to use an interdisciplinary lens in exploring issues, to identify common ground and areas of friction, are simply part of the landscape. Freshman seminars are typically theme based and bring students with a myriad of interests to learn together. Such courses are ideally suited to multidisciplinary investigation--examination of issues from the perspective of multiple disciplines--but integration given the limited disciplinary backgrounds of the students may be challenging. However, an advantageous feature of these students is that they are not yet entrenched in the language, approaches, and techniques of a specific discipline and thus may be receptive to both alternative disciplinary viewpoints and to cohesive integration, rather than seeing other disciplinary perspectives as falling short in some fashion.