A four-stage model for interdisciplinary learning

Studenten werken samen

Many teachers of interdisciplinary courses make use of one of Repko's books. Allen F. Repko wrote some comprehensive and systematic books on the theory and process of interdisciplinary research. Repko proposes a 10-step-process for interdisciplinary researchers and suggests a handful of strategies or guidelines that might usefully be applied for each step. This model is designed to do research, but not necessarily to teach students interdisciplinary skills. Therefore, based on Repko’s model, we designed a four-stage model for learning interdisciplinary skills, which offers a framework for the design of interdisciplinary courses. 

The didactical model on interdisciplinary learning that is introduced here is based on a combination of theories on students cognitive and moral development, predominantly that of William Perry, and theories on interdisciplinary research processes, mainly that of Allen F. Repko. Although these theories focus on different processes, the ability to view issues from different perspectives, evaluate them, and develop meta-perspectives, is central to both theories. 

According to William Perry, students develop through 9 stages with respect to their intellectual (and moral) development, which can be grouped in 4 categories, see figure 1. The first stage is ‘dualism’, characterized by a form of one-dimensional thinking in terms of wrong and right, true or false. In the subsequent stage of ‘multiplicity’, students tend to see that there can be multiple truths and that knowledge is subjective, therefore you must rely on your own opinion. In the next stage, ‘relativism’, the student learns to consider multiple perspectives, and to evaluate them in the context of different disciplinary reasoning methods. In the final stage, ‘commitment’, the distinguishing factor is the willingness to act upon a belief. Students tolerate ambiguity and integrate knowledge learned from others with personal experience and reflection.

Intellectual development stages of William Perry
Figure 1: Intellectual development stages of William Perry

Theories on interdisciplinary research processes form the second foundation for the model of interdisciplinary learning. Interdisciplinarity is essentially a process, and there is a vague agreement on the steps in the process. These steps, described Julie Klein, William Newell, and Allen F. Repko are converged to four stages each comprising several steps: 1. defining the problem, 2. studying the problem from the perspective of each discipline, 3. identifying conflicts and similarities, and creating common ground, and 4. integrating insights that captures the new (holistic) understanding.

Four-stage model

We combined these two theories on interdisciplinary research processes and developmental stages, resulting in a four-stage model for interdisciplinary learning, which we use as a basis for interdisciplinary learning lines for courses or curricula.

Learning activities

For each of these four learning stages (or objectives), we assembled learning activities which can be used for active practice of these objectives.


This article was written by the colleagues of Team Interdisciplinary and Community Engaged Learning (Educational Development & Training).


Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. Troy, MO: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. 

Klein, J. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, theory, and practice. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Newell, W. (2001). A theory of interdisciplinary studies, Issues in Integrative Studies, 19, 1–25.

Allen F. Repko (2008). Interdisciplinary Research; process and theory. Los Angeles: Sage