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Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary education

Last updated on 17 January 2024
Interdisciplinary education has received increasing attention in recent decades. Faculties are keen to offer interdisciplinary education through interdisciplinary minors and courses. They are also popular among students. But what exactly is it?

Why choose for interdisciplinary education?

Interdisciplinary courses are designed to provide a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of a subject. This approach allows students to connect the dots between different fields, fostering creativity and critical thinking skills, and providing a broader perspective. Interdisciplinary courses also help prepare students for real-world challenges that often involve multiple disciplines.

What is interdisciplinary education?

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

By juxtaposing insights from multiple disciplines, a course takes the first step towards interdisciplinarity. During a course, period or minor, a student takes subjects from different disciplines around a central theme, for example.

  • Team-taught: This format involves having two or more instructors from different disciplines teach the course together. Each instructor brings their own expertise and perspective, and they collaborate to design the course and lead class discussions and activities.
  • Integrated curriculum: This format involves integrating content from multiple disciplines into a single course. For example, a course on environmental sustainability might include elements of biology, economics, and political science.
  • Case study approach: This format involves using a specific case or problem as a starting point for exploring multiple disciplines. For example, a course on the impact of climate change on coastal communities might include elements of oceanography, sociology, and urban planning.
  • Cross-listed courses: This format involves listing a course under multiple departments, making it available to students from different disciplines. For example, a course on Ethics and AI could be cross-listed under Philosophy and Computer Science departments.

Integration of disciplinary insights is achieved by creating a "common ground" and arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of a complex topic. It is not about the separate study or acquisition of skills in each of the disciplines, but about integration of knowledge and knowledge production through its application to analyse, describe, solve or evaluate a central problem. The VU programme Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) is a good example of this.

  • Project-based learning: This format involves having students work on a project or problem that draws on multiple disciplines. For example, students might work in teams to design a sustainable housing development, which would require knowledge from architecture, engineering, and environmental science.

A transdisciplinary approach places academics alongside non-academic actors. A reflexive, multi-stakeholder learning process can lead to a better understanding of complex societal problems, such as climate change, poverty or health inequalities. The Community Service Learning programme (CSL) incorporates trandisciplinarity in VU education programmes. CSL courses address problems presented by organisations, citizens initiatives and non-profits. 

Do you want to know more about trandisciplinarity? Visit the website of the Athena Institute: VU’s centre of excellence for shaping science-society interactions. 

What are basic principles for implementing interdisciplinary education?

For all of these practices, it is important to keep in mind two basic principles for designing interdisciplinary education that apply in any context where the overriding principle is that students will do a lot of research to learn:

  • Students must start with a complex question, problem or topic that is too complex to be adequately addressed by a single discipline. In so-called Challenge Based Education, Project Based Learning this is strongly reflected.
  • Teacher teams need to decide on an approach or model for this interdisciplinary enquiry (in the context of a given set of disciplines) that secures the constructive aligment process (Biggs and Tang, 2011) of their programme or course and helps make choices about the didactics needed to guide students in their learning.

Several (research-based) models have previously been used in the context of interdisciplinary education. Allen F. Repko's model is the best-known example which works with a 10-step process of interdisciplinary learning and research. See this information from  Utrecht. Systems thinking and boundary crossing are two other models that help structure the development of interdisciplinary teaching and learning. They are not described further here.

Utrecht University's Interdisciplinary Education programme has developed a animation , intended to give monodisciplinary students and teachers an introduction to interdisciplinarity.

Assessing interdisciplinary education

Assessing interdisciplinary teaching requires working with good rubrics. For interdisciplinary education, Utrecht University has examples available from this page.


  • Biggs, J.B., and C.S. Tang (2011). 'Constructively aligned teaching and assessment' in: Teaching for Quality Learning at University : What the Student Does. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education. Pp. 95-110.
  • Repko, A.F. and R. Szostak (2021). Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Szostak, R. (2015). "Extensional Definition of Interdisciplinarity." Issues In Interdisciplinary Studies.