What are the benefits of interdisciplinary study?

It seems to be a buzzword in education and one that gets thrown around quite a lot these days. But what does 'interdisciplinary' study really mean? And why is it so desirable?

By: Michelle Appleby (Guest)

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What is interdisciplinary study?

Silhouette with education icons and symbols in their head. Copyrighted image Copyright: Kotoffei | Dreamstime.com This type of study allows the student to learn by making connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplinary boundaries. Students learning in this way are able to apply the knowledge gained in one discipline to another different discipline as a way to deepen the learning experience. The most effective approach to interdisciplinary study enables students to build their own interdisciplinary pathway by choosing courses which make sense to them.  For example, it is not too difficult to find a theme which crosses over disciplinary boundaries in literature, art and history or science and mathematics. Studying topics thematically is one way to bring ideas together resulting in more meaningful learning. This can occur by allowing students to choose their own subjects and their learning is deepened when they reflect on the connections between what they are learning in different disciplines.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving true interdisciplinary study in education environments is the necessity for collaboration of educators.  This can be difficult to achieve, but not impossible. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning is maximised when professionals from different disciplines work together to serve a common purpose and to help students make the connections between different disciplines or subject areas. Such interaction is in support of the constructivist paradigm which allows for new knowledge construction and a deeper understanding of ideas than disciplinary study.

What is a constructivist paradigm?

Constructivism is a theory about how people learn. This theory suggests that people create their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiences and reflection on those experiences. It goes on to suggest that when students encounter something new, they have to integrate it with previous ideas and experiences by connecting the new knowledge to something already known.  It may mean the students are studying something completely new and different. Sometimes it will result in the student rejecting the ideas completely. Above all, the theory assumes that we are active creators of our own knowledge requiring students to ask questions, explore, and assess what is known or learned. Students engaging in interdisciplinary study are therefore creating their own understanding and knowledge of the world through their study choices.

What is so beneficial about this type of study?

Making connections between different concepts is essential in interdisciplinary study. Here are some other benefits of studying in this way:

  • Students are highly motivated as they have a vested interest in pursuing topics that are interesting to them. As a result, the content is often rooted in life experiences, giving an authentic purpose for the learning and connecting it to a real world context. Consequently, the learning becomes meaningful, purposeful and deeper resulting in learning experiences that stay with the student for a lifetime.
  • Students cover topics in more depth because they are considering the many and varied perspectives from which a topic can be explored.
  • Critical thinking skills are used and developed as students look across disciplinary boundaries to consider other viewpoints and also begin to compare and contrast concepts across subject areas.
  • Students begin to consolidate learning by synthesising ideas from many perspectives and consider an alternative way of acquiring knowledge.
  • Exploring topics across a range of subject boundaries motivates students to pursue new knowledge in different subject areas.
  • Transferable skills of critical thinking, synthesis and research are developed and are applicable to future learning experiences.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge and application of different disciplines can lead to greater creativity.
  • Worthwhile topics of research can fall in the ‘spaces’ between the traditional disciplines.

Final thoughts

Interdisciplinary study allows for synthesis of ideas and the synthesis of characteristics from many disciplines. At the same time it addresses students’ individual differences and helps to develop important, transferable skills. These skills, such as critical thinking, communication and analysis are important and continually developing at all stages of life.  Educational systems are serving students best if they enable and encourage students to build their own interdisciplinary pathway. This approach is sure to foster a love of learning, ignite a spark of enthusiasm and address learning differences for students.

Useful links

Interdisciplinary Society for International Development (2008).  Why Interdisciplinary?

Jones, C. (2009). Interdisciplinary Approach: Advantages, Disadvantages, and the Future Benefits of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Learning Teaching Scotland (2010). Interdisciplinary Learning.

Nissani, M. (1997). Ten Cheers for Interdisciplinarity: The Case for Interdisciplinary Knowledge and Research.