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What Is an Interdisciplinary Approach?

By Emily Daw
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An interdisciplinary approach is a style of education that incorporates knowledge and skills from multiple areas of learning. In childhood education, its primary purpose is to enhance critical thinking skills. Many undergraduate and graduate level programs also use interdisciplinary approaches to accommodate the research interests of their students.

Much interdisciplinary learning occurs in the natural course of education. For instance, a student might have a word problem in math that says a person bought celery, green beans, broccoli and apples. The question might require the student to add up the total amount of money spent on vegetables in that shopping trip. First, the student would need to use reading comprehension skills in order to understand what the question was asking. He or she would also need to draw on outside knowledge about vegetables in order to know not to include the apples in the calculation.

Teachers may also assign projects that are intentionally designed with an interdisciplinary approach. If students read a book that takes place in Antarctica, for instance, they might research polar ecosystems or the social habits of penguins in order to incorporate science. They might also learn about historical explorers who first came in contact with Antarctica. Commonly, they will be required to write, draw or create other forms of artwork to demonstrate their knowledge of all of these different areas of learning. This develops critical thinking skills by encouraging students to see connections between different areas of knowledge.

In higher learning, the interdisciplinary approach is often used in research. Traditionally, students are encouraged to pick a field of study fairly early in their university careers. Students may, however, find that their interests span a variety of different academic areas. International development, for example, might combine economics with international relations and even anthropology. A student with an interest in psychology might find that knowledge of sociology and statistics is also necessary for understanding his or her subject matter.

The interdisciplinary approach is often available to students and researchers in order to bridge these types of gaps in knowledge. Students may take classes from several different colleges in order to complete the requirements of an interdisciplinary degree. In graduate level studies, students may receive research grants that allow them to work with professors in a variety of academic disciplines.

Students wishing to complete an interdisciplinary degree must usually go through their academic advisers to complete a degree proposal. Since interdisciplinary degrees often do not follow standardized guidelines, the proposal may have to be approved by a dean or administrator. Graduate students may need to have advisers in each of their disciplines.

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