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Promoting Interdisciplinary Learning In The University Classroom

Presented by:

Christopher Addison, The University of British Columbia

Students benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to science education. But making interdisciplinary connections is difficult for students! Best practices and student perceptions will be discussed.

Promoting Interdisciplinary Learning In The University Classroom


The pressing need to solve large-scale and complex societal problems has driven the demand for an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary science education.  These approaches generally present content in an interdisciplinary format, with the goal of breaking down pre-existing silos of disciplinary knowledge.
Our lived experience and recent scholarly work demonstrates that interdisciplinary instruction must be intentionally designed, clear and explicit to students, and be continuously supported at the program and classroom level.  This presentation will highlight student barriers to engaging in interdisciplinary thinking, and initial steps that all educators can undertake to promote this higher-order thinking in their classrooms.


Interdisciplinary Learning, Science Education, Curriculum


1. Identify key challenges for students to make interdisciplinary content connections.

2. Describe best practices for engaging students in interdisciplinary learning in the classroom.

3. Summarize available methods for assessing student interdisciplinary thinking.

Hear it from the author:

Promoting Interdisciplinary Learning In The University ClassroomChristopher Addison, The University of British Columbia
00:00 / 01:28

Audio Transcript:

My name is Chris Addison, and I’d like to tell you about the Science One Program at the University of
British Columbia. Science One is an interdisciplinary first-year science program which teaches first-year
biology, chemistry, math and physics. In the program, we focus on teaching the core curriculum of each
of our disciplines, while also emphasizing areas of overlap BETWEEN our disciplines.
We think there are three key factors that promote interdisciplinary thinking in our program:
(1) Faculty proximity
(2) Classroom and content coordination
(3) Translating from one discipline to another (where faculty aUend other classes and they
To better understand how our students benefit from our interdisciplinary approach to teaching, we had students complete weekly reflection activities. We asked students to document any content linkages
they are making, and responses were coded into levels of interdisciplinary connection making.
There are four coded levels, with level 1 being superficial in nature and level 4 being rich connections
that span more than two disciplines. Of the total reflections received and coded, the majority were
superficial (level 1) content connections, with very few deeper (level 3 and level 4) connections.
The results show that it is very difficult for students to make deep interdisciplinary connections, even
with deliberate program elements designed to promote this.
Thanks for visiting my poster. I look forward to telling you more about the Science One Program, and
the impact we have on our students, at the conference. See you there!


Abdella, B. R. J., Walczak, M., Kandl, K. A., & Schwinefus, J. J. (2011). Integrated chemistry and biology for first-year college students. Journal of Chemical Education, 88, 1257–1263.

Bett, N. N., Piccolo, C., Roberson, N. D., Charbonneau, A. J., & Addison, C. J. (2023). Students’ views on the nature of science in an interdisciplinary first-year science program: Content analysis of a weekly reflection activity. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 11.

Gouvea, J., S., Sawtelle, V., Geller, B. D., & Turpen, C. (2013). A framework for analyzing interdisciplinary tasks: Implications for student learning and curricular design. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12(2), 187–205.

Shen, J., Liu, O. L., & Sung, S. (2014). Designing interdisciplinary assessments in sciences for college students: An example on osmosis. International Journal of Science Education, 36(11), 1773–1793.

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