Pedagogy in Action > Library > Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching > Using Interdisciplinary Teaching in Economics > Issues Teachers Should Consider

Issues Teachers Should Consider

Types of Economics Classes and Interdisciplinary Learning

There are six types of courses commonly led by economics instructors where interdisciplinary learning may be adopted and each of these situations calls for a different level and intensity of interdisciplinary exploration.

  1. Courses serving as the port-of-entry to the economics major (i.e., Principles of Economics)
  2. Advanced core courses in economics (i.e., Intermediate Microeconomics, Intermediate Macroeconomics)
  3. Advanced or specialized economics classes (i.e., Labor Economics, Environmental Economics, Women and the Economy, Economic Development)
  4. Interdisciplinary program port-of-entry courses led by economists (i.e., Poverty and Inequality [Poverty Studies], Women and the Economy [Women's Studies], Race-Ethnicity and Well-Being [African American Studies])
  5. Freshman Seminars (i.e., Economic Themes in Literature and Film, Society and Well-Being)
  6. Capstone course in economics (i.e., senior seminar to close the major)

Economics Classes Suited to Interdisciplinary Teaching

A variety of economics course that differ 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 the use of interdisciplinary learning methods.

Port-of-entry courses to the Economics major and advanced core economics courses

In advanced core economics courses (i.e., Intermediate microeconomics and Intermediate macroeconomics) and introductory economics courses 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 how to "think like an economist" and to help them develop the skill to bring that analytical approach to questions of interest to economist. 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. Thus, interdisciplinary instruction under such constraints is likely limited to a few selected topics.

Advanced non-core economics courses

There is more room to engage in interdisciplinary examination of issues in advanced field or specialty courses in economics, especially if the course is formally associated with an interdisciplinary program. Examples include courses like Environmental Economics which may be linked to Environmental Studies or Labor Economics which may be a components of programs such as Public Policy, Women's Studies, African American Studies, or Poverty Studies. Economics 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 in a course using economics as the baseline discipline.

Economics courses serving entry level course in interdisciplinary programs and as freshmen seminars

Economics classes that also serve as port-of-entry courses in interdisciplinary programs are ideally suited to learning that focuses on integrating insights from a host of disciplines including economics because of the goals of the course and the backgrounds of the students. 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 background of the students enrolled may be challenging.

Capstone course in Economics

The Capstone course in economics is 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 economics to both extend and critique economics based on insights from related disciplines. Moreover, most economic capstone courses require students to conduct a major research paper. Interdisciplinary instruction in the course may inspire students to formulate their research project in an interdisciplinary fashion which will lead to a richer more inclusive analysis.

Class Size, Class Structure and Interdisciplinary Economics Teaching

Economics classes often fulfill general university requirements and many departments required their majors to complete economics classes. To accommodate so many students courses such as the Principles of economics are often taught in large classes settings. In such situations it is difficult for students to ask questions, making the lecture hall and large class environment less than ideal for interdisciplinary instruction on the part of economics educators. Upper-level economics classes which have far fewer students are environments where economics students can ask questions and engage the instructor and their peers in a conversation about the topic from an interdisciplinary perspective, making these situations well suited to interdisciplinary learning.

  • Interdisciplinary instruction can be offered by a team of educators or by a single teacher.
    • The modeling skills and way of thinking that are common to the economics discipline make economists valuable members of interdisciplinary teaching teams.
    • Because economists are familiar with the methodological approaches used by other social scientists, they can handle the challenge of teaching an interdisciplinary course on their own.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching is hierarchical when one discipline is selected as the core or baseline discipline and insight from other disciplines are integrated into the baseline discipline.
    • Economists who teach in an interdisciplinary manner are likely to take a hierarchical approach, rather than a discipline-neutral approach. By doing so, they take advantage of the formal modeling structure that is a hallmark of economic analysis - the idea is to take the flexible framework and push it to accommodate ideas from other disciplines.

Use Assignments to Build Interdisciplinary Analysis Skills

Interdisciplinary assignments both inside and outside of the classroom can take many forms, but all of them should seek to help students advance their ability to synthesize insights from multiple disciplines to generate a more comprehensive perspective on issues being explored. One way to help students build confidence in their ability to analyze and think in an interdisciplinary manner is to ask them to work in teams where the different members of the team have alternative majors.

Teams and Interdisciplinary Learning

Working in teams in interdisciplinary learning situations often creates an environment where insights and methodologies from multiple disciplines are represented – but it is important to emphasize that students are not expected to defend the perspective of their disciplinary major to ensure that its way of approaching the issues in question are aired and integrated into the interdisciplinary analysis framework.

There are a number of ways that teams can work together to build each member's skills as an interdisciplinary thinker and to gain confidence in their capacity to engage in this type of analysis, including:

  • cooperative learning exercises
  • group analysis papers
  • term projects

For instance, the group might be asked to construct an interdisciplinary position paper on the causes and consequences of dropping out of high school. A wide range of alternative types of assignments can be found in the section on examples of how economics is taught in an interdisciplinary manner.