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What are the benefits of interdisciplinary study?

Updated Thursday, 14 October 2021
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?

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What are the benefits of interdisciplinary study?

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The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “Interdisciplinary” as:

“Involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines”.

So perhaps the best place to start in thinking about the benefits of interdisciplinary study is to first consider the nature of disciplines. It is worth remembering that many academic disciplines are ‘constructions’ themselves, that they have been developed by people working in a particular field and that they offer a particular focus of knowledge. When we consider interdisciplinary learning (and teaching), we are working across boundaries of knowledge and creating new knowledge from various sources.

C.P. Snow famously talked of “two cultures” in the sciences and arts with a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ (Snow, 1965) between the two. Each ‘sect’ saw their own disciplines as being superior in their contribution to humanity and believed that disciples of the other were only able to engage with ideas from their own field of expertise. It is, perhaps, in this debate that we can see how distinctions between ‘disciplines’ emerge – disciples or followers fight for their belief in the ‘truths’ associated with their way of seeing and experiencing the world.

The term discipline implies both this idea of a subject which has disciples or followers and a discipline which forces a particular way of seeing the world and behaving in it. Writing about the discipline of education itself, for example, Bridges suggests that: ‘Discipline meant that enquiry was conducted in accordance with some established rules and procedures which provided the basis for among other things distinguishing truth from falsity, warranted from unwarranted belief.  The requirement for disciplined enquiry became translated into the ‘disciplines’ which embodied such enquiry.’  (Bridges, 2004)

Holley identifies ‘three variations of knowledge production that extend across disciplinary boundaries …cross-disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity’. (Holley, 2009)

  • Cross–disciplinarity is where related disciplines come together to address a problem which evades study from a single epistemological standpoint.  For example, sociologists ‘borrowed’ the tools of ethnography from anthropologists in order to develop knowledge and understanding about the behaviour of ‘tribes’ within mainstream societies.
  • Multidisciplinarity is where two or more disciplines collaborate for a specific purpose, for instance when computer scientists, psychologists and sociologists cooperate in the design of human/computer interfaces.
  • Holley (ibid) links the concept of transdisciplinarity to Gibbons’ (1994) ideas of Mode 2 knowledge which ‘encourages cooperative interaction between scholars and practitioners’. (Holley, op cit)

These can all be seen as versions of interdisciplinarity, but for simplicity we can think of interdisciplinary study being when students are encouraged to integrate and compare the approaches, insights and methods between two or more disciplines as part of the curriculum. Multidisciplinary study in contrast is when a student studies across different disciplines but no formal connections are made between the subjects a student chooses to study.

What is 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?

This type of study allows the student to learn by making connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplines. 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

Students studying more than one subject (or discipline) have a unique opportunity to readdress those subjects and their approaches. I believe that multi-subject students are able to take ‘knowledge’ from one subject area and apply or compare it to another. Multi-subject students should always question how the knowledge has been created and how this can vary between different subjects. It teaches you to think critically about the subjects you are exploring and finding areas where there is convergence as well as areas which might seem to contradict. By fully understanding one topic, you can build on that knowledge in relation to what you already understand. Multi-subject study makes this easier, because instead of building up a ladder, you are building around a topic and able to explore it from different angles, a bit more like a hill, perhaps. The thing about the hill is that it allows more flexibility in moving ‘up’ in knowledge and is also conducive to spreading that knowledge in different areas, which are connected. If you extend this approach to interdisciplinary learning, you can see the benefits of how you might be able to really generate new knowledge across different subjects.

By learning in one context, you should be able to extend that knowledge in both the original context and in a new subject by thinking about how they might relate to each other. Do they work together? Do they seem to work apart? This approach leads to a deeper learning and understanding and ultimately interdisciplinary thought and understanding, which can be beneficial in the workplace. It is that relationship building of knowledge that can allow for deeper understanding and highlight the patterns that are common between different subjects.

This is not easy. Not only is it difficult to think in new ways, it is also the case that there may not be any hard and fast rules as to how to express your interdisciplinary work. It can help to identify patterns or intersections between subjects, and ultimately achieve the profound knowledge that can be represented within a range of different subjects. And, using a ‘building’ approach to knowledge, learning by relating one thing to another, may offer a key to being able to think in a truly interdisciplinary way.

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.

References and further reading

  • Appleby, M. (2019) What are the benefits of interdisciplinary study, OpenLearn
  • Bridges, D. (2004) The disciplines and discipline of educational research, Paper presented to British Educational Research Association Annual Conference Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Epstein, D. (2019) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-5098-4349-7.
  • Holley, K. (2009) Understanding Interdisciplinary Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education, San Francisco, Wiley Subscription Services.
  • Jones, C. (2009) Interdisciplinary Approach: Advantages, Disadvantages, and the Future Benefits of Interdisciplinary Studies.
  • Snow, C.P. (1965) The Two cultures and a Second Look, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.



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