Designing interdisciplinary education

Interdisciplinary education is about learning and teaching across disciplines. It goes beyond just studying different perspectives. The knowledge and mindsets of different disciplines is integrated in order to delve into complex issues.

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The necessity of interdisciplinary learning

The world is changing. Topics such as sustainability require us to work together across disciplines in order to find answers to complex, topical issues. Disciplines differ in their research topics, epistemology, language, and often also in their conviction of what makes knowledge good and trustworthy. They also differ in what is seen as interesting and meaningful and in what they think should and can be researched and taught. Thus, disciplines represent different scientific cultures. This variety of insights, knowledge and beliefs allows you to look at issues with a fresh pair of eyes.

Multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity

When defining interdisciplinarity, we often compare it to other forms of discipline-transcending work. What are the similarities and differences between multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity?


When it comes to multidisciplinary learning, an issue is often studied from different perspectives. The issue is divided into several sub-questions that are researched by different disciplines. The disciplines often work on their sub-questions separately, which results in relatively independent products, answers or approaches.


Interdisciplinary learning can be used for issues that require a more overarching approach. In that case, there is interaction between the disciplines and an integration of the knowledge and perspectives of the different disciplines. Theories, concepts, insights and/or work methods of different disciplines are then combined to examine or interpret an issue in a way that would not have been possible from any of the individual disciplines. The variety of perspectives and knowledge that is combined gives a more complete and multifaceted understanding of the issue that does justice to its complexity.


Transdisciplinary learning happens when not only academics, but also other actors are involved in studying an issue. Think of, for example, businesses, governments, or social organisations. Science is then combined with practical insights to find a solution to the issue. This means bringing together academic and non-academic knowledge to jointly arrive at insights.

Forms of interdisciplinarity in our education

There are several ways to design interdisciplinary education. It can focus on social issues, but you can also work together purely scientifically in an interdisciplinary manner. An example of scientific interdisciplinarity is the subject of biochemistry, where biology and chemistry come together to study living organisms in a scientific manner.

You can design interdisciplinary education at a curriculum or course level. This page focuses on interdisciplinary education within a course. You can implement interdisciplinarity at this level in different ways:

  1. You can expose students to different interdisciplinary perspectives by incorporating knowledge and/or methods from other disciplines into the learning materials and activities. For example, consider reading articles from another discipline or co-teaching with lecturers from another field.
  2. You can bring students from different disciplines together and have them use their different backgrounds in group work. An example of this is how the honour programmes are designed.
  3. You can actively train students to integrate knowledge and perspectives from other disciplines. In that case, interdisciplinarity and knowledge integration are an explicit learning objective of your course, and you design learning activities in which you supervise students and provide feedback on competences such as working together.

The benefits of interdisciplinary education

  • Interdisciplinarity can be used when studying issues from everyday life. This often has a motivating effect and prepares students for their future career.
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration emphasises the strengths of all those involved in the collaborative process.
  • It promotes critical thinking and the use of broad competences to work on complex issues.
  • It supports the development of cognitive and affective skills.

How do I design interdisciplinary education?

  • Use a scientific or social issue as your starting point and think about which other disciplines could be useful in dealing with your chosen topic.
  • You can start by using learning materials from other disciplines.
  • Do you want to go one step further? You could, for example, get in touch with colleagues from other disciplines to design a group assignment or to think about co-teaching. In doing so, you can differentiate between disciplines-specific and discipline-transcending learning objectives.
  • Reflect on your own beliefs and methods when doing research and teaching.
  • Take a moment to think about the target audience of your education, their prior knowledge, and (disciplinary) diversity. Think about how far the disciplinary backgrounds are apart from each other, how many disciplinary backgrounds are represented, and how the disciplinary perspectives are divided. Adjust the learning objectives accordingly by utilising diversity and discussing its challenges.

Practical challenges

If you want to design an interdisciplinary course at our university, you might run into some practical problems. You have to consider different methods of assessment for all the different disciplines, for example. In this video, Jessica Oudenampsen explains what interdisciplinary learning is, why it adds value, and how it works in practice.

Boundary crossing

Boundary crossing is an important part of interdisciplinary learning. It means you try to understand what the beliefs and work methods of other disciplines are based on. This video explains how boundary crossing brings education and practice together. The video goes into the mechanisms, levels, and processes of boundary crossing. You can also apply this when combining different disciplines.

Radboud honours labs

Great examples of interdisciplinary education that is already taught at our university are the honours labs. Students from different backgrounds participate in these courses and, in doing so, bring along their knowledge and experiences from different disciplines. This is an accessible way to try out new forms of (interdisciplinary) education. Think, for example, of studying sadness and hope at a time when the environment is not doing well, and many animal species are at risk of extinction. Or think about working on a theatre performance on cultural diversity and social inequality at university.

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If you have any questions or want help with designing interdisciplinary education, you can contact your faculty's educational advisor.

Want to get start with the design of your course? Take a look at the course about course design by the department of Education Support.