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Reflections on GradSTEP 2011: Creating Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Classrooms

Posted by on Wednesday, February 2, 2011 in Events.

Reflections from John Morrell, GradSTEP facilitator

Interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning are increasingly popular in the academy, from programs in Environmental Studies and Women’s Studies to initiatives like Writing Across the Curriculum.  In an afternoon workshop at GradSTEP 2011, a group of Vanderbilt graduate students from across the disciplines explored the benefits and challenges of incorporating interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching methods into their classrooms.

Interdisciplinary analysis involves integrating diverse modes of disciplinary inquiry in order to produce fresh insights.  This kind of work can be enriching for both students and instructors, offering opportunities to think “outside the box” and to examine the broader implications and applications of field-specific knowledge.

Teaching interdisciplinary topics also presents challenges.  There is the inevitable challenge of balancing breadth and depth of inquiry.  Often working beyond their expertise, instructors might also worry about misrepresenting concepts from other disciplines, or that they aren’t qualified to assess student work outside their own field.  By shifting the emphasis of interdisciplinary instruction from content to process, however, it is possible to see these challenges as learning opportunities.

Interdisciplinarity calls for a collaborative approach to teaching and learning.  Common strategies for creating interdisciplinary classrooms include team teaching, or inviting guest lecturers to contribute expertise on a topic.  Perhaps the most effective strategy for creating interdisciplinary classrooms is to encourage peer-to-peer learning.  Consider assigning multiple sets of reading and make students responsible for teaching these readings to one another.  Over the course of the semester, have students generate a glossary of interdisciplinary vocabulary words important to your topic.  Incorporate students presentions on relevant topics of their choice.

Collaborative learning techniques include think-pair-share exercises and structured controversy, such as formal debate, where students learn to develop multiple points of view.  Group work is an fundamental component of collaborative learning.  Tools for enhancing group work include jigsaw and fishbowl exercises.  Assessing group work and interdisciplinary work can be difficult.  Rubrics that emphasize integrative learning skills and teamwork skills can provide a helpful guide.

Here are some links to more resources on interdisciplinarity and collaborative learning:


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