The notion of interdisciplinarity in teaching: What about multidisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity? – Tracy Zou

Readers from the University of Hong Kong might be aware that ‘interdisciplinarity’ is one of the 3+1 I’s stated as the University’s strategic goals, along with innovation, internationalisation and impact. Has anyone ever wondered whether the word was chosen for the first letter ‘I’ (so that all the four words start from an ‘I’) or whether there was an important message behind?

‘Interdisciplinarity’ is perhaps one of those popular words that are being used by people in all kinds of situations without a careful thought about the embedded meaning. Whenever more than one discipline is involved, interdisciplinarity seems to apply.

One way to understand a concept is to put it together with its related terms. Using the powerful Google search, I quickly identified a number of related words, for example, multidisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity. An examination of these four words has convinced me that ‘interdisciplinarity’ is indeed the one that can convey the meaning most precisely. Let me briefly discuss them here:


  • In the Cambridge English Dictionary (online) – ‘involving different subjects of study in one activity’
  • In some education literature, multidisciplinarity means the co-existence of a number of disciplines (Davies & Devlin, 2007; Meeth, 1978; Petrie, 1976).

For example, a student major in Education may also take some courses in Finance or Computing but this does not mean that he or she can apply the knowledge and skills from these disciplines in an integrated manner to tackle problems. An example in the classroom might be two groups of students from two disciplines taking one course together without any interactions.


  • In the Cambridge English Dictionary (online) – no results
  • In some education literature, cross-disciplinarity means to view or investigate a topic in one discipline using the perspective or approaches from another discipline (Davies & Devlin, 2007; Meeth, 1978)

There was a story depicting people working in a multistory office-building complaining about the long waiting time for lifts. While others focused on improving the service of the lifts (but found it not possible in that old building), one young man suggested installing mirrors in the lift boarding areas to reduce the boredom of the waiting people, which successfully stopped the complaints at a low cost. In this case, a seemingly ‘engineering’ problem was solved by a non-engineering approach.


  • In the Cambridge English Dictionary (online) – no results
  • In some education literature, transdisciplinarity means to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond the disciplinary boundaries to address a problem (Aboelela et al., 2007; Meeth, 1978)

To one extreme, transdisciplinary can mean the dissolving of existing disciplinary boundaries and the creation of new academic groups around new functions or perspectives (Davies & Devlin, 2007).


  • In the Cambridge English Dictionary (online) – ‘involving two or more different subjects or areas of knowledge’
  • In some education literature, interdisciplinarity means to consciously apply methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience (Jacobs, 1989; Davies & Devlin, 2007)

Though the meanings between ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ are not so different in the Cambridge dictionary, the discussion in the literature has distinguished ‘interdisciplinarity’ from its related terms. One important feature is that ‘interdisciplinarity’ involves some extent of integration of the disciplines while the inquiry to a problem is proceeding (Davies & Devlin, 2007; Golding, 2009; Petrie, 1976). The value and insights generated from the integration process are expected to exceed the summing of the possible contributions from each discipline (Pharo, Davison, McGregor, Warr & Brown, 2014).

For example, a course discussing about alcohol addiction might involve perspectives from biologists, medical doctors, and behaviorist scientists. Rather than asking students to adopt each of these disciplinary approaches separately, interdisciplinary teaching might require them to take consideration of the possible contributions from each disciplinary to the core problem and formulate coherent and coordinated arguments or solutions.

Golding (2009) provides a guideline for designing an interdisciplinary subject. Here is a summary of the key questions adapted based the template. The original article can be found here: (p.12)

  • What is the main issue that I want to engage my students and ask them to adopt an interdisciplinary approach? (e.g., climate change, waste management, sustainable energy, obesity)
  • Why is an interdisciplinary approach valuable for this topic?
  • What are students expected to generate using an interdisciplinary approach? (e.g., a integrated solution, a balanced judgment, a feasibility study)
  • What kind of approaches do students need to generate the above output? (e.g., synthesis, accommodation, bridging)
  • For EACH of the disciplines to be involved in the subject, what significant contribution does it make? What will be different if one of the disciplines is not represented?

If we review these four terms – multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary, we probably can see the reason why interdisciplinary fits better the context of the University as one of its aims is to develop graduates that are able to integrate different perspectives to tackle novel and ill-defined problems. The Common Core Curriculum is an exciting and pioneering example of interdisciplinarity at the curriculum level in the University. In addition, knowing the differences between these four similar terms might also help us clarify what we are hoping to achieve when we plan for interdisciplinary teaching and learning.


  • Aboelela, S. W., Larson, E., Bakken, S., Carrasquillo, O., Formicola, A., Glied, S. A., Haas, J., & Gebbie, K. M. (2007). Defining interdisciplinary research: Conclusions from a critical review of the literature. Health Services Research, 42, 329–346.
  • Davies, M., & Devlin, M. (2007). Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Implications for Teaching and Learning. Melbourne: University of Melbourne.
  • Golding, C. (2009). Integrating the Disciplines: Successful Interdisciplinary Subjects. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education.
  • Jacobs, H.H. (1989). The growing need for interdisciplinary curriculum content. In H.H.Jacobs (Ed.), Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation (pp. 1-12). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Meeth, L.R. (1978). Interdisciplinary studies: Integration of knowledge and experience. Change, 10, 6–9.
  • Petrie, H. G. (1976). Do you see what I see? The epistemology of interdisciplinary inquiry. Educational Researcher, February, 9-15.
  • Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K., & Brown, P. (2014). Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: Lessons from four Australian institutions. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 341-354.
Dr. Tracy Zou
Dr. Tracy Zou

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

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