Assessing Interdisciplinary Work

Assessment of student learning entails four key steps:

  1. Identifying student learning outcomes, and creating outcome statements;
  2. Deciding upon a method for assessing outcomes ;
  3. Gathering and analyzing data related to those outcomes
  4. Improving teaching and learning based upon the data analysis.

Assessing interdisciplinary learning is tricky because there is little agreement among interdisciplinary educators about what the interdisciplinary learning outcomes are or what the criteria are for high quality interdisciplinary work.

Below are some of the outcomes scholars have identified for interdisciplinary learning:

Interdisciplinary Learning Outcomes

Borrego, M. and L.K. Newswander, (2010, Fall). “Definitions of Interdisciplinary Research: Toward Graduate-Level Interdisciplinary Learning Outcomes.” The Review of Higher Education, Volume 34 (1): 61-84

  • disciplinary grounding
  • integration
  • teamwork
  • communication, and
  • critical awareness.

Mansilla, V.B. and Gardner, H. “Assessing Interdisciplinary Work at the Frontier: An empirical explanation of symptoms of quality.” http://www.interdisciplines.org/interdisciplinary/papers/6/2/printable/paper

Mansilla and Gardner suggest that measures of acceptability directly addressing the substance of interdisciplinary work be considered together:

(a)    The degree to which new interdisciplinary work relates to antecedent disciplinary knowledge—that is,  the credibility of new findings on the basis of consistency with the “disciplinary canon”—often in more than one field. High-quality understanding requires more than a sum of disciplinary rules—it requires a “unique coordination of disciplinary insights.”

(b)   The sensible balance reached in weaving perspectives together.  Put another way, strong interdisciplinary work thoughtfully balances perspectives of the disciplines represented, even though disciplinary standards could conflict with regard to worthwhile topics of inquiry or measures of proof.

(c)    The effectiveness with which a particular piece of work advances understanding and inquiry. Contributions oriented toward pragmatic problem solving and product development placed a premium on standards of viability. Algorithmic models of complex phenomena were associated with measures of simplicity and predictive power. Multidimensional phenomena were evaluated on the basis of comprehensiveness and empirical grounding.

Repko, A.F. (2008b, Fall). Assessing interdisciplinary learning outcomes. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 171-178.

These four cognitive abilities may be expressed as learning outcomes at the program level as follows: The student will:

  • demonstrate the ability to engage in perspective-taking
  • develop structural knowledge pertaining to the course problem or theme
  • integrate knowledge and modes of thinking drawn from two or more disciplines
  • produce an interdisciplinary understanding of a complex problem or intellectual question.

These same four cognitive abilities, slightly modified, may be expressed as learning outcomes at the course level. For example, in an introductory course, students would be challenged to:

  •  view the course theme, issue, problem, or question from the perspective of two disciplines (i.e., use disciplinary-based [and conflicting] perspectives to better understand a problem)
  • perceive connections between the two knowledge (i.e., disciplinary) domains that pertain to the course problem or theme
  • integrate conflicting disciplinary insights and viewpoints
  • produce a more comprehensive understanding of a complex problem or question.

Assessment Instruments

Below are some instruments that have been developed for assessing interdisciplinary learning: