Interdisciplinary Education

Welcome to the Word Interdisciplinary

The terms interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity can be roughly defined as “involving two or more academic disciplines.” It is commonly used in universities to describe certain programs, minors, and courses that work to integrate different branches of knowledge into students’ learning.

Both of us come from programs that were designed to provide broad-based, interdisciplinary education where students can explore their interests in both the arts and sciences. Stephanie comes from the Arts & Science Program at McMaster University and Matthew from the Knowledge Integration Program at Waterloo. These programs place emphasis on the development of an adaptive skill set including critical thinking, effective communication, and problem-solving. This can be contrasted to other undergraduate degrees that focus on understanding a certain subject area.  Our programs have similar appreciations of the importance of interdisciplinary learning, but sometimes approach how to get there a little differently. Nonetheless, we both share some similar experiences, learning philosophies, and the shared struggle of no one seeming to understand our programs except each other and our classmates.

Universities sure seem to love the word interdisciplinary, with universities developing interdisciplinary research institutes, putting interdisciplinarity in their Strategic Mandate Agreements, and trying to bill programs or courses as interdisciplinary. And the reasons they are make sense; the benefits of interdisciplinary learning are immense.

We have continued to see a shift in employers and professional programs focusing on applicants’ specific knowledge to looking for well-rounded individuals who are able to excel academically and have the ability to solve complex world problems. Many professions do not match perfectly with a common undergraduate degree. Rather, many professions require a basic understanding of diverse fields of knowledge. Working in government is a perfect example of this. While a political science degree lends itself well to this type of work, depending on the specific job, it may also require an understanding of science, statistics, or the humanities. Finally, in a changing workforce, it is important that graduates are more adaptive to different environments than to have a rigid understanding of one field or source of knowledge that may become obsolete over time.

Interdisciplinarity: Many Questions and Many Options

But beyond looking at why interdisciplinarity is important in universities, it is also important to look at the mechanics of how interdisciplinarity is implemented in universities, not only in research, but also in teaching. Once upon a time, interdisciplinarity was enforced in universities by having rigid curricula including many subjects. But for most students, the days of a comprehensive curriculum incorporating humanities, social sciences and natural sciences is gone, pushed out as knowledge develops and expands and takes more class time to relay.

So, universities have to find new ways to incorporate interdisciplinarity into learning, and how they do so raises some big questions. Do universities focus on dedicated interdisciplinary programs like ours, or do they try to integrate interdisciplinary learning into every degree? We both think every degree would benefit from more interdisciplinarity, but don’t want to claim that program specialization is to be demonized, and neither do we want to say that interdisciplinarity is a pedagogical secret to be kept to the few. Is part of learning how your field interacts with different fields an expectation we should have for undergraduate learners, or is that something to figure out by experience? And if universities are increasingly focused on preparing students for the workplace, shouldn’t universities prepare them for the interdisciplinary nature of the world?

Further, there is even more discussion to be had as to whether interdisciplinarity should be delivered through specially designed courses in your program, through working interdisciplinarity into every course, or simply through taking courses from many different disciplines. This is one of the places where our programs diverge significantly, and where interdisciplinarity can take on a different flavour depending how universities want to approach the concept.

Finally, interdisciplinarity can encompass a lot of different practices that can span many words, including multi- ,cross-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity, and universities tend to say they wish to adopt interdisciplinary learning without specifying whether that means multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work. The lack of specificity on the part of universities is difficult because it opens a door to anybody calling their work or their program interdisciplinary, which devalues interdisciplinary to simply a buzzword. It convolutes the meaning and prevents productive dialogue on the subject, hindering students’ ability to communicate the value of their degree and academics’ discussion on best pedagogical practices.

Recommendations for the Future of Interdisciplinarity in PSE

With so many options, it can be hard to say what interdisciplinarity should look like in institutions, and we both fully admit that we are not experts in epistemology (study of knowledge) or pedagogy (study of teaching/learning/knowledge-transfer), but we think we are able to give some recommendations about where our educational system can go.

    1. We believe that interdisciplinary learning should be a part of every undergraduate program, but to varying degrees ranging from knowing how your field interacts with other fields to having dedicated courses on interdisciplinary study and methods to having deliberately designed interdisciplinary programs.
    2. Interdisciplinarity may seem like it can be all things to all people, but we have to avoid that. Every effort should be made to strip away the buzzword-y nature of the word. To help achieve this, universities should commit to developing robust institutional conceptions and definitions surrounding interdisciplinary practices.
    3. Provided our second recommendation is established, the government should give latitude to universities as they begin to experiment, especially when mentioned through SMAs. Governments should ask and keep record of what definitions and strategies are being used with interdisciplinarity, but should allow experimentation until best practices emerge.
    4. There is more to learn about how to best deliver an interdisciplinary education. The government should work to find more ways to promote more experimentation, which will lead to more discovery and raise more questions. By demonstrating the value of interdisciplinary learning to universities through fruitful conversation, conferences, and campaigns, more institutions will begin to integrate interdisciplinary learning into their programs and institutional culture.
    5. As universities experiment, it is important that universities collaborate and share best practices. To this end, an inter-university working group, either initiated by universities themselves or sponsored by the MTCU could facilitate sharing interdisciplinary definitions, practices, and programs. The purpose of this working group could also be expansive, and eventually expand to include removing any stigma around interdisciplinary degrees, or making connections for interdisciplinary education programs or high-level research programs possible between institutions.


An interdisciplinary education served us incredibly well. Our ability to see problems from a diverse set of perspectives and have the tools to effectively solve them has not only aided us in our jobs both now and in the future, but has allowed us to see the world in a more holistic way. To continue to enhance post-secondary education, we believe that all students should have the opportunity to learn outside of their comfort zone through exploration of different disciplines. It is necessary that universities continue to find new ways to incorporate aspects of interdisciplinary learning into all programs in thoughtful and unique ways.    

By Stephanie Bertolo and Matthew Gerrits