Talking shop: blurring the lines

December 8, 2000

Jennifer Moon explores how to engender a multi-disciplinary outlook

A flood of Quality Assurance Agency papers has poured into higher education this past year, yet most are directed towards the type of degree programme that only about a third of students applies for - the single honours.

The rest follow programmes that represent more than one discipline. This presents curriculum developers with a challenge: how to make multidisciplinary programmes coherent. Setting up the mechanisms to develop coherence is not the problem. The students are together, time can be devoted to the issues, project and assessment tasks can be developed to ensure that students cover work in broad areas of their curriculum.

But, given that most institutions run modular degree programmes, multidisciplinary students may often learn from a range of teaching staff who never meet. This poses a problem. The QAA's benchmarking activities have demonstrated that disciplines have their own understanding of knowledge and their own culture. Few teaching staff have had the experience of multidisciplinary learning. If lecturers cross disciplines, they tend to be following their own interests or research, and they will make the transition at their own pace.

Yet we expect students to cross disciplinary borders with little or no guidance. Fortunately, many multidisciplinary students study only a small number of subjects by choice. But what of those who follow many subjects - programmes we label "pick and mix"? Are not these students the prototype of lifelong learners, being able to cross boundaries and understand different sets of knowledge differently?

There are several ways in which we can help students to gain this understanding within the constraints of a modular framework.

First, coherence needs to be written large in all documentation and understood clearly to be the anticipated outcome by one or more key individuals in contact with the students.

Second, mechanisms must be set up so that coherence comes through in the learning, rather than the teaching, process. These can take the form of special modules in which students are given guidance to understand how "bits of learning" interrelate.

It is not unusual to ask multidisciplinary students to do a project that covers more than one of their subjects. However, the subject matter tends rapidly to become too specialised, limiting the advantages of crossing disciplines. A remedy might be to set up a cross-disciplinary independent study module in which a student studies an area of personal choice, guided by learning outcomes agreed with a tutor.

Another way of crossing disciplines is to provide modules in which the subject matter is skills or work experience. Students could be asked to study not only their learning in the workplace, but how that learning relates to their experience of their discipline.

Third, students need to learn early that knowledge is viewed through different frames of reference, according to different disciplines. A student can become multidisciplinary in outlook through study of one or more "theory of knowledge" modules. This would better prepare students to learn from the different approaches to knowledge that they encounter in a multidisciplinary programme.

Jennifer Moon is staff development officer at Exeter University.

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