Together through the swampy lowlands; this is how you keep your students motivated during interdisciplinary education and CEL

Vrouwelijke student leunt met hoofd op handen

Interdisciplinary education and community engaged learning (CEL) offer students a significant challenge. Consequently, these forms of education often show a dip in motivation. Students enthusiastically set to work on a course that is different from what they are used to, but gradually run into questions such as: what am I actually learning, can I bring this project to a successful conclusion, and what am I working towards? Judith Loopers describes this process using the self-determination theory and gives tips on how to guide your students through the swampy lowlands.

The basic needs of the self-determination theory

The self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) posits that people experience a higher intrinsic motivation when three basic psychological needs are met: a sense of autonomy, competence, and connectedness. These include experiencing freedom of choice, feeling supported to use your abilities, and feeling connected to those around you.

Phase 1: Starting confidently

The preconditions for motivating students are already in place in interdisciplinary education and CEL. For example, we know that the self-efficacy and creativity of students in an interdisciplinary course (Kuo et al., 2019), and that through CEL, students again see why they chose a particular study (Berard & Ravelli, 2021).  

Students generally have a lot of freedom and personal responsibility within a course (autonomy). Working on socially relevant and complex projects ensures that students are activated and challenged and see the added value of their work, which is beneficial for their sense of competence and autonomy (Koch et al., 2017).

In CEL, students engage in work outside the university. This ensures that learning is relevant to students in a way that cannot be achieved by staying within the walls of the classroom (Bradford, 2005). Collaboration with fellow students, lecturers, and in the case of CEL, societal partners contributes to a sense of belonging and connection to the environment.

Messier, more confusing, and more demanding than they thought it would be

Phase 2: Together through the swampy lowlands

Over the course of the course, students experience that interdisciplinary education or CEL is quite challenging. For instance, students described their experience with CEL as ‘messier, more confusing, and more demanding than they thought it would be’ (Berard & Ravelli, 2021, p.202). And when collaborating with students from a different disciplinary background, you must step out of your comfort zone (Redshaw & Frampton, 2014). Looking at an issue from different perspectives can raise questions about the students own perspective. Where do I stand as a student? Can I really contribute something to society?

Students need time and space to get accustomed to the responsibility they are given

Offer structure (but don’t steer too much)

When students are significantly challenged, frustrations can arise that can sway their motivation. But at the same time, that is precisely when students show their extra effort, and when the learning experience is high (Scager et al., 2012). To achieve this, a balance is needed between ‘jumping in at the deep end’ experiential learning and placing responsibility with the students (autonomy), and the lecturer providing structure (competence). In this way, the lecturer can clearly define the parameters within which the students can shape their project, without steering too much. Students need time and space to get accustomed to the responsibility they are given, and this requires lecturers not to intervene immediately. What students initially experience as a lack of structure is, further on in the course, a positive experience of personal responsibility for and ownership of the project (Scager et al., 2012).

Connectedness is an important element in this process: involvement of fellow students (Scager et al., 2012), and support and understanding from you as a lecturer for the challenges that students face are important to keep motivation high (Darby, 2013; Koch, 2017).

Help students reflect

The trick as lecturer is to help the student give meaning to the experience. A dip in motivation is allowed, reflecting on it* is an important chance to learn from the moment. Reflection is a way to show students the added value of their own perspective and its combination with other perspectives, which skills they develop and what they can achieve in solving their interdisciplinary or CEL issue. As a lecturer, you can stimulate students by asking reflection questions or by making a product in which reflection has a central part.

A first step for deep reflection is to describe the situation. Subsequently, it is important to analyse the situation in relation to theories or personal assumptions. The last step is describing how this experience will help the student in the future (Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges, n.d.).

* Reflection in Community Engaged Learning (log in with Solis ID)

Communication and integration

Finally, it is important that the communication between the societal partner and the student is good (especially in CEL), and that as a lecturer you ensure integration between education and the CEL experience (Darby, 2013). This helps the student feel of added value in the collaboration with the societal partner and maintain a clear picture of the learning process.

Fase 3: A pleasant learning experience

To conclude the course well, it is important for students to see what the added value of their project has been (Darby, 2013; Koch, 2017) when it comes to solving societal issues and their own learning process. This strengthens the feeling of autonomy, competence, and connectedness. Lecturers and societal partners can help students see this added value.

About interdisciplinary education and CEL

Interdisciplinarity is a means of solving complex societal issues by approaching it from different perspectives. In interdisciplinary education, an open attitude to knowledge and insights from outside of your own discipline is required of students and lecturers alike. In this way, students are trained to become critical global citizens who can integrate insights from different disciplines.

Societal issues are also central to CEL. CEL involves students, lecturers, and societal partners learning from each other in the context of a societal issue. The underlying idea is that connecting the university with society is needed for education, research, and learning.



Berard, A., & Ravelli, B. (2021). In their words: What undergraduate sociology students say about Community-Engaged Learning. Journal of Applied Social Science,15(2), 197-210.

Bradford, M. (2005). Motivating students through project-based service learning. THE Journal, 32(6), 29-30. 

Darby, A., Longmire-Avital, B., Chenault, J., & Haglund, M. (2013). Students’ motivation in academic service learning over the course of the semester. College Student Journal, 47(1), 185-191.

Koch, F.D., Dirsch-Weigand, A., Awohin, M., Pinkelman, R.J., & Hampe, M.J. (2017). Motivating first-year university students by interdisciplinary study projects. European Journal of Engineering Education, 42(1), 17-31.

Kuo, H.C., Tseng, Y.C., & Yang, Y.T.C. (2019). Promoting college student’s learning motivation and creativity through a STEM interdisciplinary PBL human-computer interaction system design and development course. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 31, 1-10.

Redshaw, C.H., & Frampton, I. (2014) Optimising inter-disciplinary problem-based learning in postgraduate environmental and science education: Recommendations from a case study. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 9, 97-110.

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Scager, K., Akkerman, S.F., Pilot, A., & Wubbels, T. (2012). Challenging high-ability students. Studies in Higher Education, 39(4), 659-679.

Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges (n.d.). Reflection in Community Engaged Learning: An introduction to reflection, reflection activities, and reflection assessment