A process model for teaching interdisciplinary research

By Machiel Keestra

Machiel Keestra (biography)

How can we effectively teach interdisciplinary research to undergraduate and masters students? What is needed to encompass research ranging from cultural analysis of an Etruscan religious symbol to the search for a sustainable solution for tomato farming in drying areas? Given that there is no predetermined set of theories, methods and insights, as is the case with disciplinary research, what would an interdisciplinary textbook cover? How can such a textbook accommodate the fact that interdisciplinary research usually requires students to collaborate with each other, for which they also need to be able to articulate their own cognitive processes? Understandably, a textbook for interdisciplinary research must focus in a rather general sense on the process implied in such research.

In teaching more than 15 cohorts of undergraduate and masters students at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) at the University of Amsterdam, who are conducting research projects in interdisciplinary teams and with a strong emphasis on empirical research, we have developed an IIS model. This model is arranged in four research phases: orientation, preparation, data (collection and analysis) and finalization. The key tasks in each phase are summarised in the following figure.


The IIS model for interdisciplinary research also has several key cross-cutting elements.

First, the orientation phase deals with the difficulty experienced by many students in accepting that developing a proper interdisciplinary research question is a complex and time consuming process, which often feels like going round in circles. The orientation phase invites them to formulate a preliminary research question with the understanding that it requires further specification in the subsequent preparation phase. This first formulation usually requires them to integrate or synthesize some preliminary disciplinary insights, presenting them with a relatively difficult cognitive and collaborative task at this early stage.

Second, we require students to develop an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that includes contributions from different disciplines. Students become aware that one discipline might offer insights into the conceptual analysis of key terms, another discipline might be able to historically or culturally contextualize the phenomenon under scrutiny, while a third discipline might suggest the empirical investigation of a particular explanatory factor. Even though the integration of insights from different disciplines is limited at this stage, students start to understand how different disciplines can influence the finalized research question.

Third, as our students receive relatively extensive disciplinary research training during their undergraduate education – as is common in European university training, even in interdisciplinary programs – we require them to employ this expertise through subquestions and methods for answering them. Our students therefore combine literature research (which is the mainstay of many other interdisciplinary programs) with relatively advanced empirical research.

Examples of such research include:

  • building an installation for growing tomato plants with ‘fogponics’ while measuring and calculating the costs and benefits compared with other methods
  • investigating whether a particular cognitive neuro-feedback instrument can help investors make more rational decisions
  • applying and testing advanced mathematical tools for developing a new heart-rhythm variability index.

The resultant mixed methods research requires an early awareness of differences in the kinds of sub-questions that can be investigated and in the kinds of results that will be achieved.

Fourth, this process contributes to our encouraging students to be critically and creatively aware of the multiple ways in which their research may require interdisciplinary integration. We also emphasize that integration in interdisciplinary research is not always a unitary phenomenon, but may occur in several ways in parallel.

Importantly, integration is not only required after harvesting insights from different disciplines. We also pay attention to the fact that integration may occur at different levels in the research, such as theories, methods, and/or results. For example, conceptual lack of clarity that impedes progress in a particular discipline can be mitigated by aligning its concepts with those of a neighbouring discipline, as has occurred in consciousness studies which have benefitted both from comparative studies in ethology and from neurological studies into comatose patients. Alternatively, an interdisciplinary theoretical framework may improve the particular method used in a discipline for answering a sub-question by drawing on expertise from another discipline. Finally, integration at the level of results need not always lead to new theoretical insights, but can also help develop a more robust medical treatment, for example.

Fifth, navigating through this process model requires students to engage in meta-cognitive reflection, communication and collaboration, for which they need extra conceptual tools. Here we draw on philosophy of science to explain why interdisciplinary research requires theoretical and methodological pluralism and why the articulation of implicit assumptions is needed to allow the team to productively cope with this pluralism.

Sixth and finally, to underline the iterative or recursive character of interdisciplinary research, the IIS model has bi-directional arrows between the different steps and phases. These aim to alert students to the sometimes tiresome character of interdisciplinary research processes, compared to more straightforward disciplinary research. They should also indicate that interdisciplinary research invites more continuous reflection and communication – both across the different steps as well as across the different disciplines involved. This helps to make interdisciplinary research much more instructive and rewarding.

We are interested to hear from others involved in interdisciplinary education. How do you teach the necessary meta-cognitive skills to take the theories, methods, results and accompanying assumptions from several disciplines into account and to uncover potential conflicts and overlaps? How do you build collaboration and communication skills? Which references and textbooks have you found to be most useful?

Further information

For an introduction to, and guide through, the IIS model see:
Menken, S. and Keestra, M. (Eds.). (2016). An introduction to interdisciplinary research. Theory and practice. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

For a different approach to teaching interdisciplinary research, see the seminal textbook:
Repko, A. F. and Szostak, R. (2016). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory. 3rd edition. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, United States of America.

Biography: Machiel Keestra, PhD, is tenured assistant professor of philosophy at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He teaches philosophy of science and interdisciplinary research in the Natural and Social Sciences bachelor and in the Brain and Cognitive Science master programs. His research focuses on the philosophy of cognitive neuroscience. He is President of the international Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.

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