Interdisciplinarity in academic contexts, and more specifically interdisciplinary education at Utrecht University, has gained increasing attention in the last decades. University Colleges were founded, broad bachelor programs arose across faculties and interdisciplinary minors and courses are becoming more and more popular among students.

Interdisciplinarity is complex as well as diverse; it is a buzzword but also part of everyday teaching and learning practice. For the sake of clarity, Utrecht University has adopted the term ‘disciplined interdisciplinarity’ as an overarching perspective on interdisciplinary education. Disciplined interdisciplinarians are trained to keep disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives in balance. After all, interdisciplinarity finds its ground in the knowledge and insights from disciplines and disciplines gain a new context for their research outcomes from interdisciplinary work in turn. This definition is based on the work of Rick Szostak:

“Interdisciplinarity involves a set of practices: asking research questions that do not unnecessarily constrain theories, methods, or phenomena; drawing upon diverse theories and methods; drawing connections among diverse phenomena; evaluating the insights of scholars from different disciplines in the context of disciplinary perspective; and integrating the insights of those disciplinary scholars in order to achieve a more holistic understanding.” (p. 109)

What is interdisciplinary education?

When a teaching team decides to design and implement cross-departmental or cross-faculty education, it is first of all interesting for them to know that there are different ways in which this can take shape in educational practice:

Multidisciplinarity: by placing insights from multiple disciplines side by side, a course takes the first step towards interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity: integration of disciplinary insights is reached by establishing a ‘common ground’ and by reaching a more comprehensive understanding of a complex theme.

Transdisciplinarity: this form of multi- or interdisciplinarity juxtaposes academics with non-academic partners and may also reach a more comprehensive understanding.

For all these practices, it is important to take into account two basic principles for designing interdisciplinary education that apply in every context:

  1. Students should start their research with a complex question, problem, or topic that is too complex to be addressed adequately by a single discipline
  2. Teaching teams should decide upon an approach of or model for interdisciplinary research (in the context of a given set of disciplines) that informs the constructive alignment process (Biggs and Tang, 2011) of their program or course and that helps for making choices on the didactics that are needed to guide students in their learning.

Different (research-based) models have been used before in the context of interdisciplinary education, of which Allen F. Repko’s model is the most well-known example. Many educators, also at Utrecht University, have been relying on his 10-step process of interdisciplinary research for their curricular designs. In this blog you can find information on how to use these steps as a model for learning. Systems thinking and boundary crossing are two other models that help to structure development of interdisciplinary teaching and learning. They are described here. Finally, travelling concepts (i.e. concepts that ‘travel’ across disciplines) are also often used as the focal point in interdisciplinary education. More information can be found here.

UU Support on interdisciplinary education

If you have any questions about how to organize, design or implement interdisciplinary education in the curriculum, please contact Centre for Academic Teaching and Learning (