How do you teach students interdisciplinary thinking?

Student geeft les aan mede-studenten

Teachers who are working on developing an interdisciplinary course often ask us, how do I teach my students interdisciplinary skills? What models provide insight into this, and which are best to use as a basis for my course design? A tour along several programmes that have experience with interdisciplinary education reveals that there is no single learning theory model. In this article we describe three.

Repko's Model

A commonly used model is Repko and Szostak's roadmap for conducting interdisciplinary research. Repko argues that students should start from their own discipline, and from there explore what perspectives other disciplines offer. Then, by integrating the different perspectives, students can reach new insights.

Repko's steps are:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Explain why solving this problem requires an interdisciplinary approach.
  3. Identify the possible contributions of the various disciplines.
  4. Conduct a literature review.
  5. Identify the differences and similarities between the various disciplinary understandings.
  6. Create common ground.
  7. Integrate the different understandings and draw conclusions.

Read more on these steps, learning activities and assessment in our article: A four-stage model for interdisciplinary learning.


An interdisciplinary Bachelor's programme at Utrecht University that uses the Repko model extensively is the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) programme.

Boundary crossing model

'Boundary crossing' or 'brokering' (e.g. Akkerman & Bakker, 2011) is about student learning at the boundary of different worlds: between disciplines, between university and social practice or more generally between different practices (e.g. between study and internship). In her inauguration, Manon Kluijtmans also called this "educating bridge builders" (Kluijtmans, 2019). The student learns to act as a 'broker' between these different worlds (dealing with so-called experienced discontinuity between worlds). For example, a different (professional) language is spoken in the practice of a school than at the University. 

Sanne Akkerman and Arthur Bakker (2011) showed that such boundary experiences can lead to four learning mechanisms:

  1. Identification: by experiencing a different environment, the student gains a renewed understanding of how different practices are (complementarily) distinct from each other.
  2. Coordination: as the student becomes more familiar with the environments, he or she deploys new or alternative resources and procedures to enable effective coordination among practices.
  3. Reflection: experiencing the differences leads the student to redefine their own practice. An exchange of perspectives from different practices takes place
  4. Transformation: the student acquires new ideas and puts these into practice in their original practice, creating a new practice or new 'identity'.

You can use these learning mechanisms as tools for developing boundary-crossing education and formulating learning goals (Bakker, Zitter, Beausaert, & De Bruijn, 2016).


  • To assess the boundary crossing learning mechanisms, a rubric was developed by Oonk and Gulikers.
  • Examples of education in which Boundary Crossing learning mechanisms are (or can be) deployed are projects in which there is collaboration with other faculties, or in which stakeholders from outside the university are involved (Community Engaged Learning). 
  • Within the Faculty of Medicine (UMCU) there is a minor (Bio-Tech-Med) in which boundary crossing competencies are taught and tested.
Figuur 1 is een visualisatie van de vier leermechanismen van boundary crossing
Figure 1. Visualisation of the four learning mechanisms of boundary crossing (inaugural Manon Kluijtmans, 2019), Multimedia UMC Utrecht.

Systems thinking model

Systems thinking is 'understanding how (complex) systems are connected: changes in one system have consequences for another system.

To make the relationships between different systems transparent, systems thinking uses visualisation techniques such as cause-and-effect diagrams, concept mapping or system mapping. 

Matthews (2008) calls systems thinking a useful method for integrating different perspectives when working on interdisciplinary problems. Matthews (2008) describes six steps for solving a complex problem:

  1. Define the problem: what is happening that we are worried about?
  2. Make a list of factors that affect that problem.
    What factors are "drivers" of the problem, describe those as variables. Indicate whether there are any causal relationships at this point.
  3. Make a graph of the behaviour of the problem over time. Do you see any familiar patterns?
  4. Create a "system map. Start with a central variable and add causes and effects, close feedback loops.
  5. Identify point of leverage.
    What are the entry points/tools for change? What changes could lead to more desirable behaviour? What strategy is needed to do this?
  6. Test and adapt your theory: ask for feedback from others, seek more data, use simulations and models. Reflect.  

Systems thinking is a 'holistic approach' that shows that everything is connected and is used in courses on sustainability or change in organisations. Often these courses involve stakeholders from outside the university.


Which model is best to use depends on the content, learning objectives, and context of the course. For example, it is important which disciplines and/or stakeholders will be collaborated with to address problems or issues. The steps we have described for the three models can help you design your course and formulate the learning objectives.

Underlying all three models is the assumption that trans- and interdisciplinary research and education is a creative, iterative, and complex process, with the goal of arriving at new insights: "it is more than the sum of its parts". In this complex creative process, student learning also takes place. Whatever model you choose, students need to become familiar with the terminology and methods of the chosen model. This means that explicit attention must be paid to it in the teaching (the learning activities) and in the assessment. 


Learning activities / tools



This article has been written by team Interdisciplinary and Community Engaged Learning (Educational Development & Training).