Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

Effective Strategies for Interdisciplinary Teaching

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at multiple InTeGrate workshops.

There are several designs for interdisciplinary teaching. Some of these involve integrating interdisciplinary teaching in a single course, while others tie together a combination of different courses in a series. Regardless of the format used, integration by design is an important starting point. How to Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach, a page from the Pedagogy in Action project provides some step by step instructions for integrating interdisciplinary teaching in the classroom. The examples below provide some ideas for different methods for interdisciplinary teaching.

Promote Buy-In

Student, department, and institutional buy-in for interdisciplinary teaching is an important first step in developing activities and courses that cross disciplinary divides. At the institutional level, redesigning courses and curricula to include interdisciplinary teaching presents an opportunity to increase enrollment was noted as a way to appeal to administrators. Further, interdisciplinary teaching can broaden the enrollment in courses offered in individual disciplines, integrating geoscience, engineering, humanities, policy, education, and other majors. At the student level, interdisciplinary teaching appeals to students interested in multiple disciplines and who realize the necessity of tackling real-world problems through an interdisciplinary lens.

Start Off Small

Small-scale implementations and practices can be a great way to start to incorporate interdisciplinary teaching into your classroom. While challenges and barriers may exist in incorporating disciplines outside your area of expertise, these small scale changes can build bridges between disciplinary divides and equip you to better overcome these challenges. Small scale changes include:

  • Make connections with faculty from other departments, industry, and the community! Informally talk with them, learn what they do, and draw connections to your teaching.
  • Invite guest speakers to give a presentation. Guest speakers can provide a way for you and your students learn about topics outside your expertise and speakers from the community or industry can serve as a model for how what students are learning in class is applicable to their life and the importance of building a culture of collaboration to solve problems.
  • Partner with faculty from other departments to develop projects that incorporate aspects from different disciplines. For example, see Ethanol and Sustainability Thinking (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3MB Jul25 12), a presentation by Rick Oches, Bentley University.
  • Make use of pedagogies that lend themselves to interdisciplinary teaching such as service learning, teaching with the local environment/campus, teaching systems thinking and teaching with real world examples.

Team Teaching

While potentially expensive, there is substantial added value in true team-teaching of courses. In addition to bringing more expertise to instruction, team teaching allows students to sort through and then integrate multiple perspectives, hypotheses, and opinions. Team teachers can also serve as role models to demonstrate effective interdisciplinary cooperation in tackling a problem or a solution.

Traditional team teaching involves two or more instructors actively involved in teaching a cohort of students in a single course. This a popular method for teaching in an interdisciplinary fashion and may involve instructors from the same department with different specialties or from different departments. The coursework is generally integrated into a single syllabus for a single class. Course work can be either assessed by both instructors to ensure the course outcomes are being addressed or done by each faculty independently based on the assignment topic.

Linked Courses and 'Federated' Curriculum Approaches (Core Theme or Topic)

The linked course/curriculum approach involves cohorts of students taking multiple coordinated courses being taught during the same semester or in sequence by different instructors who may be from different departments. This is a topical or thematic approach, where one key topic or theme is integrated into different courses and disciplines, or an individual faculty member draws information from across disciplines to address a key theme. Syllabi between the courses may be fully integrated or separate, but linked courses tend to incorporate at least once major integrative assignment between the courses.

A variation on this approach is the 'federated curriculum' model in which students are intended to transfer and utilize information and themes learned a the core course to the related courses. Instructors may collaboratively design assignments to ensure that the core course theme can be applied and/or further explored from a new angle. Further, with co-development of the course assignments, instructors are better able to design their course and assignments to address the course theme through interdisciplinary perspectives. Like the traditional team teaching approach, course work can be either assessed by both instructors to ensure the course outcomes are being addressed or done by each faculty independently based on the assignment topic.

An example of this method from Bentley University uses a module on ethanol to teach about sustainability issues. This unit ties together courses in Chemistry, Ecology, Economics, Engineering, Environmental Science, Geology, Political Science, and more (see figure). Students learn about what is involved in making ethanol by being tasked with making it as part of an environmental chemistry course; they perform cost-benefit analysis for ethanol production and consumption in a microeconomics course; learn about the legislative process involved in energy production and use in a public policy course, and tie together commodities prices and their impact on food, fuel, and other products.

Materials and Resources for Strategies for Interdisciplinary Teaching

  • Teaching What You Don't Know , by Therese Huston, addresses teaching out of your comfort zone and interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • In addition to the above interdisciplinary teaching strategies, consider the benefits of institutional support to create interdisciplinary programs.