Assessing student work at disciplinary crossroads
Change,  Jan-Feb, 2005  by Veronica Boix Mansilla

The demand is clear. Whether we try to take a stance on the stem cell research controversy, to interpret a work of art in a new medium, or to assess the reconstruction of Iraq, a deep understanding of contemporary life requires knowledge and thinking skills that transcend the traditional disciplines. Such understanding demands that we draw on multiple sources of expertise to capture multi-dimensional phenomena, to produce complex explanations, or to solve intricate problems. The educational corollary of this condition is that preparing young adults to be full participants in contemporary society demands that we foster their capacity to draw on multiple sources of knowledge to build deep understanding.

Undergraduate programs across the nation are increasingly offering interdisciplinary study programs as markers of their commitment to educate individuals for the demands of contemporary life. Yet, as students engage in interdisciplinary learning projects, an unaddressed question looms large: how to adequately assess student interdisciplinary work. How can faculty, trained to be disciplinary experts, properly determine what constitutes quality work when familiar disciplinary standards do not suffice?

Adequately assessing student learning in higher education remains more a matter of collective hope than of convergent and well-tested practice. The issue is marred by controversies over the purposes, methods, and most importantly, the content of proposed assessments.

Lack of clarity about indicators of quality is particularly evident in the assessment of student interdisciplinary work--where both the underlying nature of interdisciplinary understanding and how it might be recognized remain insufficiently defined. What does it mean to deeply understand an issue in an interdisciplinary way? How is it different from deep disciplinary understanding or a superficial merging of viewpoints?

A clear articulation of what counts as quality interdisciplinary work, and how such quality might be measured, is needed if academic institutions are to foster in students deep understanding of complex problems and evaluate the impact of interdisciplinary education initiatives.

In this article, I propose a definition of interdisciplinary understanding and a framework to inform the assessment of student interdisciplinary work. The arguments presented stem from an empirical study my colleagues and I conducted at the Harvard Interdisciplinary Studies Project.

Our project examines interdisciplinary research and educational practices in well-recognized research centers and educational programs like the Media Lab at MIT, the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Human Biology Program at Stanford University. Assessment of student interdisciplinary understanding was a central focus of our analysis of 50 faculty interview transcripts and more than 50 pieces of student work.


Interdisciplinarity is an elusive concept. Stated definitions in the literature are varied, as are the enacted definitions that tacitly guide real teaching practices. The term is employed to describe a broad array of endeavors ranging from a biochemistry student learning about gene regulation, to a faculty member using the visual arts to introduce a mathematical concept, to a student's post-structuralist critique of the nature of disciplinary authority. This semantic elusiveness is exacerbated by the fact that current scholarly debates about interdisciplinarity involve social, political, cognitive, and epistemological dimensions.

In our research, we have defined "interdisciplinary understanding" as the capacity to integrate knowledge and modes of thinking drawn from two or more disciplines to produce a cognitive advancement--for example, explaining a phenomenon, solving a problem, creating a product, or raising a new question--in ways that would have been unlikely through single disciplinary means.

In this formulation, the integration of disciplinary perspectives is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Disciplinary standards are upheld and leverage to achieve the end in question is gained by combining disciplinary lenses.

Four core premises underlie my proposed definition. First, it builds on a performance view of understanding--one that privileges the capacity to use knowledge over that of simply having or accumulating it. From this perspective, individuals understand a concept when they are able to apply it--or think with it--accurately and flexibly in novel situations.

For example, we understand the psychological construct "theory of mind" (that is, an individual's recognition of others' mental states, beliefs, and intentions) when we can use the concept to explain why a given child might be unusually empathic, or how a political campaign manager makes strategic decisions. From this vantage point, understanding the concept of "theory of mind" is a high order cognitive endeavor that goes beyond simply having an accurate definition of the term.

A second premise underlying the proposed definition is that interdisciplinary understanding is highly "disciplined"--that is, deeply informed by disciplinary expertise. In our formulation, interdisciplinary understanding builds on knowledge and modes of thinking that are central to the work of experts in domains like biology, history, literature, or the visual arts.

An interdisciplinary explanation of a phenomenon like autism, for instance, differs from a naive or "commonsense" explanation in that it builds on insights that have survived the scrutiny of expert communities such as neurology or psychology using commonly agreed upon methods and validation standards. And while such disciplinary insights are clearly open to further revision, they embody the most reliable and up-to-date accounts of the natural and cultural world available.

When highlighting the foundational role of disciplines in interdisciplinary understanding, it is not the particular distinctions among chemistry, biology, and biochemistry that concern me. Such distinctions are part of a rapidly changing knowledge landscape. Instead, I emphasize the distinction between genuine disciplinary insights and common sense--our more intuitive and untested takes on the world. Indeed, interdisciplinary understanding differs from naive common sense precisely in its ability to draw on disciplinary insights.

Interdisciplinary understanding, as here defined, stands on a third premise: it involves the integration of disciplinary views. In interdisciplinary work, disciplinary perspectives are not merely juxtaposed. Rather, they actively inform one another, thereby leveraging understanding. For instance, in exploring the phenomenon of autism, the psychological concept of "theory of mind" (a missing construct among autistic individuals) enables us to characterize expected patterns of behavior in a child.

In turn, such patterns provide adequate categories with which to study the autistic brain and begin to explain behavior at a neurological level. It is in epistemic exchanges of this kind, in this instance between psychology and biology, that an interdisciplinary "whole" stands as more than the sum of its disciplinary "parts." Finally, interdisciplinary understanding is purposeful. Within it, the integration of disciplines is not an end in itself but a means to achieve a cognitive advancement--for example, a new insight, a solution, an account, or an explanation.

In interdisciplinary work, many possible integrations are viable. For example, autism can be explored at the crossroads of psychology and sociology by examining the unique forms of social discrimination associated with autistic children. Or it could be investigated at the crossroads of neurology and medical ethics--if one were to consider experimenting with novel medical procedures. The merit of an interdisciplinary integration should be assessed against the specific goal of each interdisciplinary enterprise.

This definition of interdisciplinary understanding is admittedly stringent. Its performance criterion distinguishes it from simply being able to master and recall information drawn from multiple disciplinary sources. Its emphasis on disciplinary grounding positions it in sharp contrast to intuitive common sense. Its call for integration and leverage proves more demanding than multidisciplinary juxtapositions. Its emphasis on purposefulness sets it apart from a view of integration as an end in itself--a view often prominent in interdisciplinary curricula.

A rigorous account of the nature of interdisciplinary understanding--the epistemological foundations on which it stands and the cognitive challenges it presents--provides a blueprint for examining student interdisciplinary work, to find evidence of accomplishment, and to identify ways to support improved understanding.