Challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary teaching in Higher Education (2014)

Sian Davies-Vollum, Stephen Dobson, Kaushik Pandya & Alexandra Savage

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning occurs when practitioners from traditional disciplines join together to work on a common question. Such interaction has been shown to promote constructivist learning, problem solving and innovative thinking. An interdisciplinary approach embodies a constructivist approach in that it creates new understanding and insights that are greater than the sum of disciplinary knowledge (Pharo et al. 2012), enabling the crossing of disciplinary boundaries whilst ‘filling in’ space between them. The practice of interdisciplinarity has also gained increasing attention for its ability to address complex, real world issues, such as climate change, which may not be effectively tackled using traditional disciplinary approaches (Devlin and Davies, 2007; Spelt, 2009). Despite these clear advantages, interdisciplinary teaching and learning has not been embraced in Higher Education and interdisciplinary courses are not common. The established university model of traditional disciplinary specialization favours a disciplinary ‘silo’ approach and does not readily support interdisciplinary. To analyze how an interdisciplinary approach impacts teaching and learning we took a twofold approach. Firstly we conducted a SWOT analysis for our own inherently interdisciplinary subjects of Geography and Business, considering the impact of interdisciplinarity on teachers, learners and institutions. Secondly, we looked at the perceived challenges and benefits of adopting an interdisciplinary approach for a variety of disciplines taught at SHU. Major benefits of interdisciplinarity highlighted by the study included creation of diverse teaching and learning communities, the opportunity to develop flexible and reflexive courses and the development of complex and innovative thinking skills. Major challenges highlighted included the lack of infrastructure and support within universities, a perception that our interdisciplinary courses are valued less than traditional ones and that teachers and learners may lack the broad background required. Future studies might concentrate on student perceptions of the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity within the disciplines of Geography and Business.


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