Teaching an Interdisciplinary Subject

As researchers, you are aware that many of the world’s challenges and their possible solutions live at the intersection of multiple fields. The interdisciplinary courses you teach are key to the academic preparation of the next generation of innovators and pioneers. Many students, however, primarily have experience in a single discipline.

How can you support these students in learning an interdisciplinary subject? How will you teach session topics not entirely within your expertise?

Below are guidelines for preparing your interdisciplinary course, targeting the professional skills tied to student success, and helping students see the connections between what may appear to be disparate topics. 

Review your prep

To be able to more smoothly navigate challenging questions from outside your own expertise when teaching an interdisciplinary course, consider taking time during your class preparation for the following.

Existing class

Talk to previous professors and teaching assistants (TAs) of the class to find out the common questions asked, typical pitfalls of explaining material a certain way, and the general time it takes to cover different units (e.g., do some topics always take longer because students ask many questions?). You might also consider taking advantage of the wealth of expertise on campus, such as in 9.123/20.203 Neurotechnology in Action. When it aligns with your learning objectives, consider inviting guest lecturers to present a deep dive into their field. Take your students on tours to the workspaces on, or near, campus to bring subject content to life (Jasanoff, Boyden, & Jonas, 2014, paras. 2-3). You can have recordings of a tour made in advance or draw from existing videos of other facilities.

New class

Talk to professors and TAs of classes that either are the prerequisites of your class or are classes covering disciplines you will touch upon in your class. The same general questions apply here as above.

Then, consider the opportunity it poses for your own knowledge as you cross disciplinary boundaries in the classroom. As you teach an interdisciplinary course, you receive the benefit of becoming a student of the material.

I am a graduate student, and this was my first time being the lead instructor of a course. My dissertation research is on trafficking, so it’s a topic I know very well, but I wasn’t used to teaching it or explaining it to others in such detail. Teaching the class allowed me to explore many elements of the topic that I don’t study myself. (para. 1)

Mitali Thakor

21A.445J/WGS.272J Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

Leverage your skills & expertise

Being an “expert” in any field comes with the bonus of “superpowers” that transcend disciplines. You have much to offer in the way of experience from study strategies, to work-life balance tips, to questions to ask of references for filtering trustworthy information, and general detriments to avoid in writing and conducting research, to name a few. Taking the time to explain how you came to possess these superpowers will be pertinent, especially to students coming from a discipline that is not your own. Did you learn from a mentor in the field? Was it trial and error? Did you simply ask around in-person or on the internet?

Knowing that these options, and growing pains, are part of the path to becoming an expert in an interdisciplinary field will help your students adapt faster as they encounter unfamiliar material outside of their prior knowledge. Your class acts a stepping stone for students to venture into research requiring knowledge as well as collaborations across fields, so incorporating lessons from your journey in navigating multidisciplinary teams is also vital. Part of the navigation of multidisciplinary teams is being aware of the standards or baseline expectations in the other disciplines present. Since not all students entering an interdisciplinary course will know those expectations, explaining ways to establish norms during and throughout an interdisciplinary project will better position your students for success in and outside of your class.

Help your students to connect the dots

The following is a partial list of differences between an “expert” and a “novice” from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School:

  1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
  2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.
  3. Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances. (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999, pp. 31)

With interdisciplinary subjects, the distance between clustered knowledge is longer, and the variety of knowledge is larger. This makes the issue harder to navigate effectively and efficiently. It is essential to repeatedly point out the connection between topics taught that day and between classes throughout the semester. Explain the importance of the pattern of the connections. To improve your students’ retention of the information, encourage them to practice making the connections themselves with activities, like concept maps or matching the types of theorems to the kinds of problems they solve.

Another way to assist in making a mental map of a large expanse of knowledge is, when possible, to display the growing connections in a semi-permanent location in the room. Options include large sticky notes or a designated section of the blackboard/whiteboard. This way, a map is built in real-time, and students keep the highlighted information in their awareness to establish links with their prior knowledge and new facts. If teaching remotely, you can use a Google doc shared with your class as the map’s location.

It can also help to provide reading materials in various forms to open unique discussions, such as poetry, news articles, blog posts, play manuscripts, and transcripts of speeches. This introduces new voices on the topics covered in your class. One approach is to alternate between questions specific to a selected article’s data and questions that apply to every paper, as exemplified by Professors Bathe and Gore (2014) in 20.416J/7.74J/8.590J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology (para. 8). The professors even worked with the MIT BE Communications Lab to create a guide to reading scientific papers.


Bathe, M. & Gore, J. (2014). Teaching the “how-to” of scholarship outside of the lab. 20.416J/7.74J/8.590J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology. Fall 2014. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare. https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/biological-engineering/20-416j-topics-in-biophysics-and-physical-biology-fall-2014/instructor-insights/teaching-the-201chow-to201d-of-scholarship-outside-of-the-lab/.. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How experts differ from novices. In, How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school(pp. 31-50). National Academy Press.

Jasanoff, A., Boyden, E., & Jonas, M. (2014). Instructor Insights. 9.123/20.203 Neurotechnology in Action. Fall 2014. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare. https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/brain-and-cognitive-sciences/9-123-neurotechnology-in-action-fall-2014/instructor-insights/. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Thakor, M. (2015). Navigating teaching as a new instructor. 21A.445J/WGS.272J Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century. Spring 2015. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare. https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/anthropology/21a-445j-slavery-and-human-trafficking-in-the-21st-century-spring-2015/instructor-insights/navigating-teaching-as-a-new-instructor/. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.