Home » Interdisciplinary Education Affects Student Learning: A Focus Group Study | BMC Medical Education

Interdisciplinary Education Affects Student Learning: A Focus Group Study | BMC Medical Education

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Interdisciplinary Education Affects Student Learning: A Focus Group Study | BMC Medical Education

Given how rapidly society is changing in almost all areas of life, we will increasingly need to develop new skills, tools and techniques to solve complex challenges in our work and social environments. These complex challenges are often influenced by multiple factors that are studied separately by different disciplines. A monodisciplinary approach solves some separate aspects of complex problems, but in order to reach comprehensive solutions, it is necessary to integrate knowledge and skills from different disciplines and fields of knowledge [1], which requires an interdisciplinary environment. In such environments, such as universities, an interdisciplinary approach is rapidly gaining popularity [2].

However, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary learning in higher education curricula requires specific conditions that can be challenging to implement, such as teachers with experience in team development and interdisciplinarity and students who can think creatively outside their own field. [1]. Therefore, the current study aims to identify the challenges and possible opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. We assessed the educational outcomes as well as the attitudes and beliefs of students participating in a newly developed interdisciplinary minor in Healthcare Communication, Management, and Organization. Insights derived from our data increase understanding of the practical impact of challenges and barriers in the specific disciplines of health and communication sciences.

Interdisciplinary learning generates outcomes that differ from the outcomes of monodisciplinary learning. Because interdisciplinary learning takes place in an overlap between disciplines, students are expected to synthesize and integrate not only abstract knowledge and theories used in different disciplines, but also how knowledge and theories are obtained, taught, and used in those disciplines [3].

The most comprehensive outcome of interdisciplinary learning is defined as “interdisciplinary thinking”, i.e.

“the capacity to integrate knowledge and ways of thinking in two or more disciplines or established areas of expertise to achieve cognitive progress, such as explaining a phenomenon, solving a problem, or creating a product, in ways that would otherwise be impossible or few likely through single disciplinary means” [4].

As evidenced by the growing number of established practices in interdisciplinary learning [2] and the wide variety of disciplines involved in the courses, e.g. courses including humanities, social sciences and natural sciences [5]business, law and health [6] and media and student teaching [7], there is a general consensus that interdisciplinary teaching can help students gradually develop these interdisciplinary thinking skills. According to this definition, interdisciplinary thinking can be considered a complex cognitive skill that consists of a range of thinking and learning outcomes [8]. Besides generating advances in cognitive abilities [9]interdisciplinary learning can increase the ability to recognize bias, think critically, and tolerate ambiguity [10,11,12].

Another outcome of interdisciplinary learning relates to understanding the differences between disciplines, ie. the assumptions, ideologies and beliefs on which learning in a discipline is based [13]. In addition, boundary-crossing skills can be achieved, such as the ability to shift perspectives, synthesize knowledge from different disciplines, and deal with complexity. However, interdisciplinary education also presents a challenge, insofar as it does not arise spontaneously during the attendance of interdisciplinary training; successful interdisciplinary learning depends on the (characteristics of) the disciplines, on the skills of the teacher and on the characteristics of the students, as described below.

Currently, research on interdisciplinary education is scarce [14]. The importance of interdisciplinary learning is often theorized, but these claims are rarely based on empirical evidence [6, 15] and a robust review of established research and practice in interdisciplinary learning is lacking [14]. There is a slowly growing body of – mostly theoretical – literature that identifies facilitators and barriers to interdisciplinary learning, but empirical findings are few and far between. [1].

As established by mostly descriptive research over the past four decades, one factor likely to influence interdisciplinary learning is epistemes [3, 16,17,18]. Epistemics, disciplinary ideas about what knowledge is and how to use and produce knowledge, are part of the culture of a discipline [3, 19]. Although the epistemics of a discipline are largely implicit, the specifics of a discipline and how it deals with knowledge can be made explicit in interdisciplinary learning [20]. When explicitly stated, the principles and assumptions derived from these epistemies are different from those of the home discipline and are often difficult to understand [19]. Therefore, they are likely to hinder the effectiveness of cooperation [21, 22]or it may even provoke a strong rejection with a serious emotional setting, although the latter claim is not supported by (empirical) evidence [23]. Moreover, differences in epistemologies are thought to present even more serious obstacles in combining two completely different sciences such as health sciences and linguistic sciences [24]. For example, evaluation research has shown a reduced initial readiness for intellectual collaboration and a slower pace of collaborative activities when researchers represent a wide range of disciplinary perspectives among team members [21].

Another factor affecting interdisciplinary learning is the ritualized way of communicating in different disciplines [18, 23]. The lack of a common language leads to difficulties in adequate communication between practitioners in different disciplines, as shown by a review of the team’s performance [17]and by evaluating an interdisciplinary course [25].

Perceptual barriers are a third factor important to interdisciplinary learning [16, 17, 25]. An important aspect of these perceptual barriers are the perceptions of competence that many scientists have about their own and other disciplines. For example, survey measures show that social scientists are believed to have lower intelligence than natural scientists, an assumption also reflected in discussions of the hierarchy of the sciences [25]. Similarly, empirical research in the health sciences shows that more than half of research participants coming from the social sciences have changed their research to achieve some level of legitimacy in the eyes of their medical colleagues. [16, 26]. The value of science to society can also influence the perception of the discipline. For example, a profession is found to have value if it is deemed worth engaging in and funding [27]. If there is such perceived tension and arrogance about being from a ‘higher’ discipline or lack of respect, it will affect the level and manner of acceptance and integration into interdisciplinary education [28]. Unfortunately, research on the prevalence of perceptual barriers in interdisciplinary education and across disciplines is scarce and existing evidence remains unclear.

Another factor affecting interdisciplinary learning concerns the importance of teaching teams and their professional interdisciplinary skills. Teachers must be able to facilitate the necessary understanding of others’ disciplines as well as the integration of different disciplines. Furthermore, they must be able to demonstrate a safe environment in which students feel free to find their own path to interdisciplinarity [15].

In addition to the above structural barriers, personal characteristics appear to influence learning outcomes. As found in previous research [1, 17, 29], the necessary personal characteristics to enable interdisciplinary thinking are curiosity, respect and openness. In addition, patience, diligence and self-regulation have been described as essential characteristics for creating cognitive progress in interdisciplinary learning. Furthermore, gender was found to be a predictor, with females being significantly more receptive to interdisciplinary collaboration [25]. More generally, perceptions of warmth are also thought to influence collaboration across disciplines (as a measure of friendliness, trustworthiness, empathy and kindness) [25].

Overall, empirical evidence on facilitators and barriers to interdisciplinary learning remains scarce and limited to interdisciplinarity in research and teams rather than education at the academic level. The current research will provide a deeper insight into students’ perceptions of interdisciplinary learning, their own and other disciplines. This will establish a deeper understanding of the methodological and perceptual factors influencing interdisciplinary learning, as it is crucial to turn existing barriers into opportunities and increase the potential of interdisciplinary learning.

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