How to Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

How to Make Your Classroom Interdisciplinary

Effective design and implementation of interdisciplinary classroom explorations, regardless of the level or type of class, entails six key steps.

  1. Pre-Instructional Planning - Prior planning establishes the topics to be examined in an interdisciplinary manner, and allows the educator to acquire the requisite knowledge, and to develop an action plan--codified in a set of notes that may include open ended questions--to guide the classroom experience.
  2. Introduce the Methodology to Students - Explain to students the nature of interdisciplinary, rather than discipline based learning. Impress upon them the importance of integrating insights and approaches from multiple disciplines to form a framework of analysis that will lead to a rich understanding of complex questions. Make clear that you will be modeling how to approach an issue in an interdisciplinary manner, and that ultimately they will be asked to master this skill. Allay student fears by noting they will be given assignments that help them reach this objective by practicing approaching topics as interdisciplinary investigators.
  3. Take it to the Classroom - Model how to explore questions from an interdisciplinary perspective. Repko and Welch (2005), leading figures in the movement to promote interdisciplinary education, identify 9-steps to follow to engage students in an interdisciplinary exploration.

  4. Practice Interdisciplinary Thinking - Students practicing interdisciplinary thinking by reenacting what they observe in the classroom is an effective way to acquire this higher order cognitive skill. Students can be assigned the task of rethinking an issue discussed in a discipline based manner in class by bringing another discipline to bear and then attempting to synthesize and integrate their analysis. In a small class setting (i.e. freshmen seminars, upper level classes supporting interdisciplinary programs, capstone courses) students can be asked to prepare interdisciplinary position papers for each assigned reading that extends the analysis to reflect the interdisciplinary process; consider other disciplinary perspectives, synthesize, and integrate. Collaborative forms of learning can be used to promote development of interdisciplinary analysis skills--such as breaking into groups in class to work on ways to approach issues of concern in an interdisciplinary fashion. Student groups can bring their work back to the larger group for refinement.

  5. Provide Feedback - Extension and interdisciplinary position papers should be evaluated regularly using a rubric. The aim should be to provide the students with feedback on their ability to understand and delineate the underlying structure and analytical framework of other relevant disciplines (multidisciplinary thinking) and to produce an integrated analysis (interdisciplinary thinking). Grading might best take the form of check, check plus, and check minus, so as to simply identify the areas in need of additional skill development. Faculty student conferences may be necessary for those students struggling to master the integration element of interdisciplinary learning. The goal is for students to improve their capacity to think in an interdisciplinary manner over the course of the term.
  6. Assessment - Students should engage in self evaluation periodically by rating their ability to: set out the structure of multiple disciplines that are well suited to the problem of interests, synthesize insights from multiple disciplines, and integrate ideas across disciplines. This information will allow them to gauge their progress, identify challenging areas, to seek help, and set goals for improvement.

Applying the Six Steps: An Example - Explaining the Racial Wage Gap

The racial gap in wages is a longstanding feature of the U.S. economy. The source and consequences of this phenomenon is covered in most Principles of Economics classes in the section on poverty and inequality and is a central theme discussed in every labor economics class. Psychologists and Sociologists have also offered thoughts on the source of the racial wage gap, making this an ideal topic to present to students in an interdisciplinary fashion. How to go about this following the six-step procedure for teaching in an interdisciplinary manner is briefly set out below to highlight the ease with which interdisciplinary teaching can become part of a conventional economics course.

  1. Pre-Instructional Planning -read literature in sociology, social psychology, and industrial psychology on racial differences in wages. Acquire introductory books in sociology and psychology to familiarize yourself with terms used to describe behaviors and thoughts that might be unfamiliar (e.g., self efficacy, agency, perception). Set out the differences in approach between these disciplines and economics, identify common ground, and establish ways to extend the conventional economic model to account for relevant insights from the other disciplines--integration - do this in the form of questions to ask students and prototype answers.
  2. Introduce the Methodology to Students -engage students in a preliminary conversation about why racial differences in wages may arise. Encourage insights from a wide range of disciplines. Use this to make clear that an interdisciplinary investigation of racial wage differences is warranted to obtain a deep understanding of this phenomena. Note that you will partner with them in the process of integrating relevant insights from multiple disciplines.
  3. Take it to the Classroom - lay out the conventional economic explanation for racial wage differences; that black workers have accumulated less of the skills that foster productivity (i.e., education, workplace experience, on-the-job training) then white workers leading to lower pay. Present notions from sociology and psychology to explain racial wage differences including; customer discrimination, employer discrimination, coworker discrimination, and stereotyping (i.e., that blacks have acquired poorer quality schooling and workplace knowledge, and are less cognitively skilled). Then, model how to extend the standard economic of wage determination to account for such factors.
  4. Practice Interdisciplinary Thinking -give students a related assignment to help them develop their interdisciplinary analysis skills. For instance, ask them to conduct an interdisciplinary analysis of why there is a gender pay gap in the U.S.
  5. Provide Feedback - review students' gender pay gap essay. Note if they are able to set out hypotheses from multiple disciplines and then are able to integrate these into an interdisciplinary analysis.
  6. Assessment- ask students to evaluate their ability to examine examine the gender pay gap and other topics in an interdisciplinary manner. If they are uneasy about their ability to do so, arrange a meeting with them to set out a procedure for them to improve this key skill.