Promoting interdisciplinary learning in graduate teaching assistant programme – Peter Lau

In this summer, the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) organized a forum, Maximising the Impact of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) – Effective Training and Development Programmes1, on 29 June. This forum provided a platform to discuss how to provide effective training and development of teaching skills for GTAs. Forum speakers, including teachers, administration staff and postgraduate students, are from five local universities (including The University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology). They shared their experience, good practices and the challenges they have encountered. Other than a number of general suggestions about improving the existing GTA programmes in the local institutions, such as promoting class observation and reflectivity, emphasising specific needs in disciplines, and more training on marking and grading, we also identified an emerging need to promote interdisciplinary learning to the GTAs as their professional development.

Interdisciplinary learning provides learners with opportunity to develop better understanding throughout the learning process that integrates knowledge and modes of thinking in two or more academic disciplines rather than in a single disciplinary setting, in order to seek for explanation or enquiry, to produce products or to solve problems in the real world (Boix Mansilla, 2017). It includes learning processes that require the learners to synthesize or generate solutions by communicating different perspectives (Holbrook, 2013) and integrating theoretical frameworks, methods and approaches in the inquiry process (Bergmann et al., 2012). Teachers should consider designing activities to lead students to such integration, as a means to apply their knowledge and skills learned from different disciplines to a new interdisciplinary situation.

The Common Core Curriculum at HKU has effectively provided undergraduates with a good opportunity to experience interdisciplinary learning. Students from various disciplines could work together to solve interdisciplinary problems, such as global warming, financial crisis, overfishing and cybersecurity. They could also exchange perspectives, communicate difficulties and plan for actions. However, interdisciplinary learning should not be considered as a one-off experience in higher education. Its importance to and impact on student learning should be emphasised throughout and beyond the university life. As such, it becomes a challenge in higher education to maintain sustainability of interdisciplinary learning at undergraduate level, as well as to extend to postgraduate study. It is probably worth starting to promote it in an existing graduate teaching assistant (GTA) programme, the Certificate of Teaching Learning in Higher Education.

This GTA programme is a requirement for all new research postgraduate students who need to undertake teaching duties as GTAs for their departments. The course aims to provide the participants with an introduction to the principles of learning, teaching, assessment and feedback in a university context as well as to model ways how teaching can be improved.

For the new GTA, “teaching” is definitely a new topic. Ron, one of my students from computer science department told me that he found a new angle to see teaching as a “professional skill” in education discipline, which is very different from the presentation or communication skills that he perceived before. When he learned the new concepts, such as learning theories, pedagogies and assessment approaches, he felt that he was entering into and exploring a new territory. He found it challenging to integrate the new teaching concept with his own discipline. On the other hand, another student, Nadine, who studies English language found her own way to deal with the challenge in this course. She designed and successfully facilitated a learning activity to co-construct a definition with the diverse audience. She used this activity to engage them in defining “global citizenship in the 21st century” by sharing their views and interpretation of global citizenship in their specific disciplines. In this micro teaching, Nadine not only demonstrated a successful interdisciplinary learning experience of her own, but also created another interdisciplinary learning opportunity for her audience.

To develop as a university teacher, Åkerlind (2007) identified five different approaches that university teachers would choose to develop their teaching skills. These approaches range from a focus on building up one’s content area in order to be more familiar with what to teach (i.e., more teacher-centred approach), to understanding effective teaching strategies in order to know what works and does not work for students in facilitating student learning (i.e., more student-centred approach). It is argued GTAs who use the more teacher-centred approach would keep staying in their own disciplines, which only allows them to build expertise in their areas. There is no guarantee to develop effective teaching skills. On the other hand, the more student-centred approach allows the GTAs to explore different tactics and pedagogies, which would lead them to leave their comfort zone and explore other possibilities of integration from students’ perceptions. Åkerlind (2007) believed that the more student-centred approach would constitute fewer constraints on the potential for developing as a teacher.

Teaching is more or less interdisciplinary in nature. It is especially challenging to the GTAs who just transit from learners to teachers, and are specialists in their own disciplines but have very little experience in teaching. To maximise GTAs’ potentials for developing as effective teachers, we should promote interdisciplinary learning in their training to seed a mindset of interdisciplinarity as a means to integrate their specialty with teaching.

1For more information about the forum, please refer to


  • Åkerlind, G. S. (2007). Constraints on academics’ potential for developing as a teacher. Studies in Higher Education, 32(1), 21-37. doi: 10.1080/03075070601099416.
  • Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl, C., & Schramm, E. (2012). Methods for Transdisciplinary Research. New York: Campus Verlag.
  • Boix Mansilla, V. (2017). Interdisciplinary learning: A cognitive-epistemological foundation. In J. T. Klein & R. C. S. Pacheco (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (pp. 261-285). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Holbrook, J. B. (2013). What is interdisciplinary communication? Reflections on the very idea of disciplinary integration. Synthese, 190, 1865-1879.
Peter Lau
Peter Lau

Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
The University of Hong Kong

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