Gaining support and approval from each school or faculty involved in the proposed interdisciplinary module is crucial if the project is to succeed. What barriers are likely to be encountered? Are there specific concerns that you can anticipate from your faculties, and can you see ways to ameliorate these before you present your requests? The concerns most often raised include whether the interdisciplinary module will meet core requirements of the subject and the impact on student satisfaction and the National Student Survey.
Reasons to teach interdisciplinarity
Understanding student needs
Students may be unfamiliar with the teaching methods and assessments of different subjects and disciplines and it is important to consider whether this format requires support. Some students may be used to step-by-step instructions for a task (a laboratory practical, for example) while others are more used to an open-ended brief. What support will students need to respond appropriately to the task?
Another factor is students’ workload. Students may already have several high-stakes deadlines concurrent with your interdisciplinary module, whilst others do not. This can substantially impact on students’ ability to trust and rely on each other.
Communicating with other module tutors
Staff need to share a common understanding of the interdisciplinary skills and the importance of the sequential process of developing them in students.
Staff in our modules highlighted the importance of having clear leadership and roles when developing an interdisciplinary module. Ideally, this would be one person from each subject who can coordinate as co-leads. It is also important to have clear discussions early on about who has what capacities (in terms of skills, networks, and time) to best handle which roles. This is particularly true for delegating logistic tasks such as timetabling. In our modules, we found that having a clearly defined point of contact for logistic issues helped resolve many potential problems early on.
Time and space
Building an open dialogue with timetabling staff early is one the best things you can do to get your interdisciplinary module going smoothly from the start. Individual workshops will need enough time to discuss the skills explicitly and to allow students to practice them, get feedback, and reflect on it. We found that a minimum recommended time per workshop is 2 hours and a maximum number of students in each was approximately 60.
Many interdisciplinary modules deliver workshops so that groups of students can gather around tables. In these cases, consideration is needed about the space required to lay out examples of their work and provide adequate room between tables.
Aims and outcomes
The core learning objective is developing the interdisciplinary skills themselves. In an ideal world there would be one learning outcome for each skill, and each would align clearly with assessment throughout the module.
If it is not possible to change the aims, outcomes, or assessments for your existing modules, more creative effort may be needed to align them with the interdisciplinary skills, but it is by no means impossible. In our modules it was possible to adjust the focus and description of existing assessments in each module to accommodate interdisciplinary skills.
When merging existing modules, there may be lectures or other course content in each subject that is not expressly part of students working on their interdisciplinary outcomes. Recall that students are not expected or encouraged to engage with the subject-specific content of the other subject, but to focus on trusting their teammates to bring this expertise. As such, it is not necessary to coordinate timetables to allow students in one subject to attend lectures in the other.
It is more difficult, in this arrangement, to ensure a clear balance and unity in the nature, timing, and relative weights of assessments between the modules. In one of our cases, students in one subject received 100% of their marks from the interdisciplinary work, the others only 40%. This had a noticeable impact on student engagement in some groups. Where relative weights cannot be reconciled directly, it may be possible to break the higher weighted internally into separate elements, with assessment of the interdisciplinary skills only accounting for the same amount as students from the other subject are being marked.
An interdisciplinary outcome itself cannot be assessed on the quality of the content. By definition, the expertise necessary to say what a ‘good’ combination of any two subjects rests outside of the expertise of staff from either subject. It is very important when considering justifying marks and assessment criteria for external examiners, accrediting bodies, or programme evaluations. Moreover, it may seem unfair to students, if they believe some of their mark is coming from staff who do not understand their contribution.
Assessing interdisciplinary skill development is easiest and most effectively done throughout the module, as students engage with activities to demonstrate and develop each skill. This can be done by setting small individual assessments, targeted specifically to the aims of each workshop or class. Designing lessons and activities around this assessment/feedback model will help ensure each interdisciplinary skill is engaged with and reflected on before moving to the next, which builds on it. This approach allows you to notice student issues earlier and provide feedback which they can use to improve before the end of the module.
Does this mean more work for staff?
Research has shown that spreading assessments out in small units across a module tends to decrease overall workload stress for students and markers. This comes from providing quicker, smaller, and more targeted units of feedback, specific to the skill or task at hand.
You will need to decide whether to assess students in each subject separately, or together as interdisciplinary groups. Research has shown that students appreciate consistency in assessment formats, which may make assessing students separately in ways familiar to each subject seem appealing. However, in each of our case studies a majority of students said they preferred to be assessed together, specifically meaning at the same time. They said this made more sense to them in terms of interdisciplinarity, and made the project feel more of a cohesive group effort.
It is possible, in fact, to meet both objectives. Students can be assessed together, meaning at the same time and on the same skills or objectives, but separately in terms of how they are assessed. For example, students in one subject might be asked to write a short reflective essay while the others are asked to assemble a graphical reflection on the same topic. You will need to discuss among the module team what assessments may be unfamiliar to students in different subjects, and how equivalent assessment value can be balanced.
It can be very beneficial to enlist and employ the aid of senior undergraduate or postgraduate student mentors to help with delivery of the interdisciplinary module. There are several advantages:
- Mentors provide a bridge between the students’ experiences and your own in terms of engaging with interdisciplinarity.
- Mentors may relate more to problems students encounter.
- Mentors can help evaluate student progress throughout the module, and flag up any problem areas or groups to get extra support. They are an extra set of eyes and ear close to the ground.
- Mentors can help with evaluating the overall impact or success of the module.
We found that one mentor from each subject per 30 students (overall) in the module was a good ratio. It is most important that mentors come from the same subject as the students they will be assisting.
Making each skill explicit
The Learning for the Future model was designed to ensure students are able to articulate the interdisciplinary skills they learn and apply them in new settings later. Achieving this depends on the skills, the process, and especially the value of both being explicitly discussed with students throughout (Morrison 2014; Chi and van Lehn 2012, others).
In our study, students were mostly aware of the value of interdisciplinarity in the workplace before we began – it is not the value of learning interdisciplinarity that most needs to be made explicit. Rather, it is what they are learning (the interdisciplinary skills and process), and how this will help them do interdisciplinary work in different settings in the future. There is also no shortage of evidence showing that this pays off well in terms of student performance and satisfaction.
Developing the shared goal
Interdisciplinarity must have a goal which requires integration of all subjects. The specifics of a suitable goal will depend on what subjects are involved, but there are some general pointers:
- Something both subjects might reasonably work on independently (both have something to contribute)
- Something that is not the primary focus of either subject (both will need something they don’t have)
- Something that is likely to be of interest to students in each subject
- Something that does not require substantial technical knowledge from one subject, but very little from the other
The shared goal you assign may be detailed and complete, for example including specific focus, format of the outcomes or target audience. However, leaving these elements more generically defined will help students build their interdisciplinary skills though negotiating the specifics in their teams.
What does ‘requires’ mean?
In a real-world interdisciplinary setting this could mean that a problem cannot be solved effectively without input from experts in multiple subjects, or that collaboration has been required as part of a directive. In the latter case, interdisciplinary collaboration and outcomes will be weak at best, due to the lack of a clear reason for the extra time and effort they take (Klein 2012). In a pedagogic setting the same is true. It is simple enough for us to tell students that working together is required for the module – that they won’t get good marks unless they do. This is how many ‘interdisciplinary’ modules have been structured in the past. What this should mean is that the goal set out for students cannot be effectively demonstrated without bringing expert knowledge from each subject into an integrated outcome.
Unity, balance, and (subject) inclusivity
When students come together for an interdisciplinary module, it is essential that they encounter a clear, unified, and balanced teaching environment. Many will be unfamiliar with the pedagogies, academic language, and assessments of different subjects, especially if the gap is a wide one such as arts and science. We found that even a little confusion between staff members was noticed quickly by students, which could impact on satisfaction with the module. The key points to discuss within the module team are:
- Using subject-neutral language as much as possible
- Ensuring that the pedagogies used are inclusive of each subject and are explained well
- Ensuring that the module presents each subject as equally important throughout
- Ensuring the physical space is suitable for students from each subject
- Understanding and explaining the interdisciplinary skills uniformly to students
- Understanding and explaining assessments uniformly to students
- Understanding and explaining the shared goal uniformly to students
- Ensuring student workloads outside of the module are balanced as much as possible
Support from academic development can be invaluable during the design of your interdisciplinary module. The specific role of academic developers will vary across institutions, but often they can assist staff with logistics and negotiation across Faculties. Academic developers may also be able to offer advice on coordinating different subject-specific pedagogies, which students from other subjects may not understand or engage with well.