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Breaking Out of the Silos: Improving Learner Effectiveness Through Collaborative Interdisciplinary Course Development

Wendy Trevor (Excelsior College, USA)
Mary Berkery (Excelsior College, USA)
Session Information
October 16, 2015 - 9:30am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere A1
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 9

What are the benefits of interdisciplinary course design? How can we think outside disciplinary "silos" to stimulate learner effectiveness? A practical approach and results.

Extended Abstract

Session Title: Breaking out of the Silos: Improving Learner Effectiveness through Collaborative Interdisciplinary Course Development

Authors: Dr. Wendy Trevor and Dr. Mary Berkery, Excelsior College

Session Outcomes and Extended Abstract:

Audience members will:
1) Define "interdisciplinary" and consider the scholarly definitions of the term as it differs from
multidisciplinary and intradisciplinary approaches to course design
2) Evaluate an innovative approach to interdisciplinary course design through a case study at Excelsior College
3) Examine quantitative and qualitative results showing the relationship between interdisciplinary course design
and learner effectiveness and persistence
4) Consider ways to break down the common disciplinary silos in course development to better align coursework with
learner and employer needs
5) Consider future possibilities for interdisciplinary course development among subject matter experts at their
own institutions

In today's world, the skills that learners seek and employers want from new graduates--writing, critical thinking, cultural awareness, source evaluation--do not fit neatly into one traditional discipline. So it's time that we "break down the silos" for a new model of interdisciplinary course development. Joinus as we discuss the results of one innovative approach to interdisciplinary course development in Excelsior College's Masters in Liberal Studies program, where three subject matter experts (SMES) bridged the fields of art, music, literature, political science, sociology, and history in one online capstone course. One topic, the Harlem Renaissance, served as a focal point through which learners could engage in the interdisciplinary thinking and skill building valuable to future employers. In the course, for example, learners use poetry to discuss economics, novels to discuss racism, artwork and music to discuss the history of the Great Migration, and explore Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to discuss poverty.

This presentation will first engage the audience by sparking interactive discussion on the term "interdisciplinary" in the modern era--what does it really mean, and how does it differ from multidisciplinary, or intradisciplinary frameworks? Why is it necessary in online education? What can learners gain from truly interdisciplinary thinking in the liberal arts? We will discuss some highlights of the current research on the topic and will then provide quantitative and qualitative evidence from the course to show the positive effect interdisciplinary thinking has had on learner effectiveness and persistence in the program. Through student course surveys and program outcome assessment rubrics, we will demonstrate the ways in which this capstone course has provided a culminating experience that truly engages critical thinking and deeper learning not possible through the narrow confines of any one discipline alone. Finally, we will provide takeaway tips and advice for the audience on how to collaboratively design an interdisciplinary course at any institution.

Media needed:

Standard audiovisual equipment for PowerPoint only.


Dr. Wendy Trevor is the Executive Director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Academic Assessment at Excelsior College and has experience teaching and designing interdisciplinary online and face-to-face humanities courses for universities and colleges in the US and UK including Excelsior College, Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leeds and Oxford University in England. For the last sixteen years she has been involved in developing resources and strategies for faculty and students that further student engagement, persistence and success.

Dr. Mary Berkery is the Faculty Program Director for History at Excelsior College. She is an interdisciplinary-trained historian, particularly on the
intersections of women's history with sociology and political science. She has developed and taught online and face-to-face courses at Binghamton University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Excelsior College. She is currently developing an interdisciplinary online course on literary, cultural, and political history of witchcraft.