Paper: Academic Disciplines and Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Education…

William H. Newell “Academic Disciplines and Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Education: Lessons from the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University, Ohio.” European Journal of Education, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1992), pp. 211-221

  • Key questions: How much disciplinary background is necessary before beginning interdisciplinary work? What role should disciplines play in interdisciplinary courses? Can interdisciplinary classes adequately prepare students for advanced disciplinary work?
  • Miami University’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies the premier undergraduate interdisciplinary program with 300 students 14 full time faculty/staff
  • The School of Interdisciplinary Studies consists of a core curriculum of interdisciplinary courses in humanities, arts, sciences, and technology culminating in a year-long interdisciplinary group project
  • Almost without exception, interdisciplinary curricula across the nation have no disciplinary prerequisites
  • Different operational definitions have arisen out of pragmatic discussions over what to cover in each topic, rather than through intentional philosophical discussions
  • As a result, courses may draw concepts (e.g. discourse communities from lit, marginal utility from econ, etc), theories (e.g. plate tectonics from geo), facts (e.g. Avagadro’s number), or methods (e.g. laboratory experiments in science)
  • An interdisciplinary course can provide illustrative readings written from the perspectives of different disciplines which can enable interdisciplinary thought without prerequisites
  • Faculty teaching interdisciplinary courses are typically expected to have traditional postgraduate training (focused primarily on one discipline) and wide-ranging interests
  • Two issues in interdisciplinary courses: conceptualizing and design an interdisciplinary course, and set up sufficient opportunities for staff to learn about other disciplines from colleagues
  • The most common structural device for promoting staff insight into other disciplines is the weekly staff seminar, where staff members discuss common readings from different discipline perspectives
  • Assessment of interdisciplinary course in this article by Field and Lee
  • The Miami University English Dept. accepts the interdisciplinary writing-across-the-curriculum as the only alternative to freshman English, and faculty members have said that they would prefer all freshman learn composition
  • A study of Miami SIS students found that approximately half of the Interdisciplinary Studies seniors had higher GPAs out of the program and half had lower GPAs outside
  • Additionally, a higher proportion of SIS graduates went on to study for a PhD, and graduates achieved an average percentile score of 85.7% on the LSAT, 79.3% on the GRE verbal section, and 69.2% on the GRE quantitative
  • Self-reported outcomes, percentage of students agreeing with the statements in the ISI program (vs. Miami U.-wide sample, and other highly selective liberal arts colleges sample norms):
      -Often/very often worked with staff on a research project: 20% (4%, 10%)
      -Very often thought about practical applications: 63% (32%, 35%)
      -Very often revised a paper twice or more: 24% (18%, 19%)
      -Very often engaged in outside discussion which referred to class material: 88% (50%, 70%)
      -Often/very often changed an opinion after discussion: 40% (25%, 23%)
      -Read more than 20 assigned books in the last year: 49% (12%, 40%)
      -Read more than 10 non-assigned books in the last year: 24% (33%, 29%)
  • The student responses do not measure the quality of the patterns, but they do tend to lead to the development of intellectual skills and habits prized by traditional education
  • In a 1983 survey of ISI graduates: 83% rated career preparation and 91% rated academic satisfiction in the highest two categories
  • In a 1986/’87 survey of ISI alumni: 84% compared the school favorably to other colleges (vs 36% nationwide norm), 76% said it helped them define and solve problems (vs. a norm of 44%), 85% rated writing skills acquisition very highly (vs. 40%), 51% speaking (vs. 35%), and 78% working independently (vs. 54%)
  • Interdisciplinary learning seems more likely to promote what is termed “strong sense critical thinking,” or becoming critically self-reflective, and “multi-logically,” or the ability to think fairly and reconstruct the strongest arguments from opposing points of view

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