Why teach interdisciplinarity?

There are many reasons for you to incorporate interdisciplinarity into your teaching which will positively benefit your students, such as:

  • Enhancing student employability
  • Developing sustainable futures
  • Embedding graduate attributes
  • Enhancing student satisfaction
  • Meeting subject benchmarks

Enhancing student employability

Interdisciplinarity – the ability to work effectively in knowledge and skill-diverse teams – is an increasingly valued and expected graduate quality by employers (Klein 2010; Blake et al. 2013; Lyall et al. 2015).

Employers are increasingly valuing and seeking graduates who have specialist expertise and can also work in teams with disparate experts in other fields to achieve much bigger aims. “…the evolving global employment landscape demands that employees can work in multi-professional teams and adopt holistic approaches to problem-solving. With employability remaining a strong focus for governments, institutions and students, interdisciplinary learning and teaching is becoming increasingly relevant for institutions preparing students for this changing world.” (Higher Education Academy 2015).

These employer needs are becoming widely recognised institutional levels “…graduating students armed with the critical thinking skills, collaborative mindsets, and adaptability so required by today’s rapidly changing economies and labour markets. Students and employers alike are sending strong signals to educators that the marketplace highly values more varied and multi-dimensional skill sets for graduates.” (ICEF Monitor 2016).

Governments are also becoming aware of the desirability of interdisciplinary capacity. The European Union’s Modernising Universities Initiative calls for universities to, “redefine their education and research priorities by focusing more on research fields than scientific disciplines and to ensure that graduates’ qualifications align with the labour market.” (ICEF Monitor 2016).

Developing sustainable futures

Our students and graduates live in a world of multiple challenges to wellbeing. Issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, gender inequality and food scarcity are global in scale and interconnected in nature. In such a context it is vital that we provide an education that enables people to be compassionate critical creatives; able to lead change and make a contribution to more sustainable futures.

Interdisciplinary learning spaces are an essential part of this, where students can develop the collaborative competency required for engaging with the complexity of these sustainability challenges. Through developing this integrated team work approach our students are able to create responses that in their joined up approach can make a positive contribution for the common good.

When asked how working in an interdisciplinary way would benefit them, one student explained that,

“I am doing this degree with a hope to be able to influence people’s opinion in future who are unlikely to have the same background as myself when it comes to climate change and sustainability.”  

Another student said,

“In the future it will be crucial to be able to work with other disciplines to be able to educate everyone and make a difference.”

Embedding graduate attributes

Interdisciplinarity is included, directly or indirectly, in nearly all sets of graduate attributes – core competencies that all graduates are expected to develop, regardless of subject.

Sometimes called employability skills, transferable skills, or critical skills, graduate attributes are a wide-ranging aspect of higher education. Most UK universities have a set of such skills which all subjects are required to embed in their teaching (Barrie and Prosser 2004; Barrie 2005; Sumsion and Goodfellow, 2004).

Interdisciplinarity is implicated, directly or indirectly, in nearly all sets of graduate attributes. Some include interdisciplinarity by name. More often it appears as part of others skills which are building blocks of interdisciplinarity. The ubiquitous graduate attributes ‘teamwork’ and ‘communication’ are both essential elements of interdisciplinarity. Wider skills such as working on global challenges often require interdisciplinarity to be achieved.

Explicitly developing the skills for interdisciplinarity in students helps ensure that a variety of graduate attributes are being met in your programme. Moreover, our toolkit includes ways to evaluate and assess whether students have gained these skills, which is often a difficult part of meeting graduate attribute requirements institutionally.

Enhancing student satisfaction

Actively learning interdisciplinarity has the potential to increase student satisfaction.

Research has shown that most students enjoy learning to work with others from very different backgrounds in a structured but also practical setting. Further, students are keenly aware of the value that interdisciplinarity has on their future employment.

For example, in our study one student stated that,

“...it will help with working in a professional environment and will be a useful skill to demonstrate to a potential employer.” 

It is important to note that these benefits require having clear and explicit aims and objectives, a solid structure to the module, and explicit instruction about the value of what is being taught and how to use it in the future. The Learning for the Future Toolkit is designed specifically to help you do this.

Meeting subject benchmarks

Students developing interdisciplinary skills within the context of their subject is a feature of most, if not all, professional accreditation requirements and subject benchmarks.

Interdisciplinarity is sometimes criticised in the curriculum for allegedly drawing students away from essential learning within their subjects. However, accreditation requirements and benchmarks in most subjects include a range of generic employability skills, such as teamwork, communication and adaptability, which interdisciplinary learning encompasses.

For example, ‘written and oral communication, data handling, numerical and mathematics skills, time management and an ability to interact with other people.’ (Royal Society of Chemists, 2014).

It can, in fact, be difficult to demonstrate that students are acquiring these skills where there is little contact with other subjects. An interdisciplinary module structured around the Learning for the Future Toolkit makes developing and assessing these skills explicit. An effective interdisciplinary module will indeed focus less on new subject-specific knowledge, but it allows other subject requirements (which are frequently aligned with institutional graduate attributes as well) to be more effectively met.